(FILES) In this file photo taken on October 16, 2017 US President Donald Trump speaks alongside Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (L) during a Cabinet Meeting...
SAUL LOEB

An administration cannot expect to have two parallel foreign policies

Updated

It’s no secret that former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, throughout his troubled tenure in Donald Trump’s cabinet, found himself marginalized and ignored. What we didn’t know is the extent to which Jared Kushner, the president’s young son-in-law, circumvented the nation’s chief diplomat to pursue his own foreign policy.

President Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner held frequent talks with Saudi Arabia’s crown prince and other foreign government officials without briefing or informing senior U.S. diplomats about his discussions, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told lawmakers in testimony released Thursday.

Tillerson recounted his experience in the top diplomatic job at a closed-door hearing with the House Foreign Affairs Committee last month and the transcript was released to NBC News and other media Thursday.

Tillerson, fired last year by Trump, said he was sometimes caught off guard by Kushner’s talks with foreign officials. In one case, Tillerson said he was dining at a restaurant in Washington when the owner of the restaurant told him Mexico’s foreign minister was seated at another table.

Apparently, the Mexican foreign minister “was operating on the assumption that everything he was talking to Mr. Kushner about had been run through the State Department and that I was fully on board with it.” The Mexican official was “rather shocked” to learn that the things Kushner had said were totally new to the sitting U.S. secretary of State.

Worse, this wasn’t an isolated example. Tillerson also addressed Kushner’s efforts with Saudi Arabia, which operated largely outside the proper channels. As the former cabinet secretary put it, the presidential son-in-law “was in charge of his own agenda,” and there was “typically not a lot of coordination” between Kushner and the U.S. embassy.

As some accounts emphasized, Kushner also routinely left then-Defense Secretary James Mattis in the dark, too. As the New York Times noted, “In some cases, as in the blockade of Qatar, where the United States has its main Middle East military air base, Mr. Kushner’s moves forced Mr. Tillerson and Mr. Mattis to scramble to contain the damage to American diplomacy, according to the accounts.”

Part of the problem with this is that it’s a governing dynamic that cannot work. An administration cannot expect to have two parallel foreign-policy operations. Indeed, it’s practically farcical: Kushner wasn’t coordinating with the actual foreign-policy team for reasons unknown, while Tillerson and Mattis weren’t coordinating with Kushner because they didn’t think they had to.

But complicating matters is the man who was doing so much foreign-policy freelancing. As Chris Lu, a veteran of the Obama White House, noted yesterday, the Senate-confirmed secretaries of State and Defense were “cut out of foreign policy decisions by a guy who was denied a security clearance and needed 40 tries to fill out his financial disclosure form.”

Well, sure, when you put it that way, it doesn’t sound great.