Donald Trump

President Donald Trump lashed out at Rex Tillerson, calling him "totally ill prepared and ill equipped to be Secretary of State." | Evan Vucci/AP Photo

White House

Trump trashes Tillerson for saying Putin outfoxed him

President Donald Trump on Thursday bashed former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson as “dumb as a rock," saying he was “totally ill prepared and ill equipped” to be America’s top diplomat, after Tillerson shared unflattering information about Trump with top House members.

The president’s outburst on social media comes after Tillerson met with the top Democrat and Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and some of their staffers on Tuesday. He said during the meeting that Russian leader Vladimir Putin had out-prepared the U.S. president when the pair met for the first time in July 2017 in Hamburg, Germany.

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Tillerson, whom Trump fired in March 2018, left the impression that the Russians had outmaneuvered the Republican president on at least two occasions, three people familiar with Tillerson’s meeting with the lawmakers told POLITICO.

Trump denied he was under-prepared for the meeting with Putin, who he has long sought to charm.

“Rex Tillerson, a man who is 'dumb as a rock' and totally ill prepared and ill equipped to be Secretary of State, made up a story (he got fired) that I was out-prepared by Vladimir Putin at a meeting in Hamburg, Germany,” the president tweeted. “I don’t think Putin would agree. Look how the U.S. is doing!”

It was not the first time the president has lashed out at his former secretary of state, who was ousted last year after frequently being at odds with Trump on policy issues. Trump also called Tillerson "dumb as a rock" in December.

According to the people familiar with Tillerson’s Tuesday session, which lasted roughly seven hours, he said that while in Germany, the Russians indicated to U.S. officials that the meeting between Trump and Putin would be quick, essentially a meet-and-greet.

The Russians also proposed not having anyone present to take notes, according to Tillerson’s statements, and Tillerson and others agreed to that condition, the people said. “Tillerson said, ‘It’s the way the Russians preferred it,’" one of the people told POLITICO.

But instead of lasting just a few minutes, the session turned into a wide-ranging meeting that stretched more than two hours.

It is still not clear what the two leaders discussed; Tillerson has said cyber issues and allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 election came up. He indicated Tuesday that there were other topics discussed, though he declined to go into specifics, the people familiar with the meeting said.

Tillerson told those attending Tuesday’s session that he does not recall crafting a written record of the meeting after it ended and that he doesn’t know if anyone did.

The Washington Post, which first revealed some details of Tillerson’s talks with lawmakers this week, has in the past reported that Trump took away the notes of his interpreter in that meeting. Tillerson, who could not be reached for comment for this story, told lawmakers that he did not witness the interpreter’s notes being taken away.

The Hamburg meeting may not have been the first time the Russians out-played the Trump administration, the people familiar with Tillerson’s remarks told POLITICO.

In May 2017, Trump met in the Oval Office with two top Russian officials, foreign minister Sergey Lavrov and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.

The people familiar with the Tillerson meeting Tuesday said he indicated that the U.S. side understood the session to be a mere courtesy call with no real agenda. Tillerson also said he did not recall a designated note-taker being in the room.

“The president twice went into a meeting with sophisticated diplomatic players from an adversary with no agenda and presumably no designated note-taker. That’s concerning, because it leaves the U.S. side open to being out-maneuvered,” one of the people familiar with Tuesday’s session said.

It was later reported that Trump divulged classified information to his Russian guests. Tillerson did not address those reports, however.

Tillerson was careful not to disparage Trump during his discussions Tuesday, the people familiar with the meeting said.

He did make it clear, however, that the president was not inclined to read in-depth briefings and that his attention span was limited, leading him to frequently wander off topic in conversations. He said that forced him to be succinct when presenting information to the president.

The former secretary of state was deeply unpopular at the State Department, where U.S. diplomats complained that he isolated himself and ignored — or didn’t seek — their advice. In particular, Tillerson’s chief of staff, Margaret Peterlin, was said to act as a bottleneck, fiercely guarding access to the secretary.

Tillerson — a former CEO of ExxonMobil — said he wanted Peterlin to act as a gatekeeper to him and that he believed it was the appropriate management approach.

Trump lashed out at Tillerson on Twitter in December 2018, after the former oilman described him as “pretty undisciplined” to CBS News and told attendees of a Houston fundraiser that the president would sometimes order directives that violated the law.

“Mike Pompeo is doing a great job, I am very proud of him,” Trump wrote at the time of Tillerson’s successor at the State Department.

“His predecessor, Rex Tillerson, didn’t have the mental capacity needed. He was dumb as a rock and I couldn’t get rid of him fast enough. He was lazy as hell. Now it is a whole new ballgame, great spirit at State!”

The meeting Tuesday came about after House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) wrote to Tillerson to ask him to talk to the committee, and Tillerson called the committee to set up the meeting, a committee aide said.

During the seven-hour session, he met at points with Engel and the ranking Republican, Rep. Mike McCaul of Texas, and separately with committee staffers.

Engel described Tillerson’s appearance before his panel as “heartening” in a statement Wednesday. He alluded to Trump’s efforts to prevent other aides and former aides from talking to lawmakers trying to investigate the president.

“Current and former Executive Branch employees have a statutory right to speak to Congress without fear of retribution” from the administration, Engel said, adding that the Foreign Affairs Committee “stands ready to help public servants do the right thing.”

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Thursday defended the president’s account of the Hamburg meeting, saying that the talks “went extremely well” and that “no one has been tougher” on Russia than Trump.

“The president has been very well-prepared, not just for that meeting, but the dozens and dozens of meetings that he has had with other foreign leaders,” Sanders said.

Pressed on the White House’s reluctance to release transcripts of various conversations between Trump and Putin, Sanders said: “That’s insane.”

“The idea that there was no transparency is just ridiculous and it's just simply false,” she added.

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