Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson took the witness stand Monday at the foreign lobbying trial of Tom Barrack and testified the longtime friend of former President Donald Trump had unsuccessfully sought an ambassadorship.
Tillerson, who served as Trump’s secretary of state for just over a year before he was fired by tweet in March 2018, said he first met Barrack when he was heading Trump’s inaugural committee in early 2017.
Prosecutors contend that Barrack, 74, acted “to advance the interests of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in the United States at the direction of senior UAE officials by influencing the foreign policy positions” of the U.S. government as an unregistered foreign agent during the Trump administration.
Asked if he ever asked Barrack to conduct any diplomacy on behalf of the U.S., or asked him to pass any information to a foreign government, Tillerson said, “No.”
Tillerson described a phone conversation with Barrack that he said took place in 2017 where Barrack asked him about an ambassadorship. Tillerson said he couldn’t recall to what country or what area. “It was a fairly short conversation, as I recall,” Tillerson said, but “I took note of it.”
He mentioned Barrack’s interest in the next meeting he had with the then-president.
“Is this something you want me to follow up on?” Tillerson said he asked Trump, who “didn’t respond one way or another.” “He did not proactively say yes,” Tillerson said, so “I didn’t do anything.”
Prosecutors have said Barrack used his proximity to Trump to help the UAE by giving inside information on the U.S.’s response to the UAE and other countries’ blockade of Qatar in 2017, while also urging the Muslim Brotherhood to be declared a terrorist organization.
Tillerson told prosecutors that the information was sensitive. “You really don’t want outside parties to have that information and try to use it to their advantage,” Tillerson said.
Asked what the U.S. position was on the Muslim Brotherhood, Tillerson said, “We did not support naming the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization.” He said the group has 4 million members including numerous democratically elected politicians and those involved in terrorist acts were a small subsection.
“It would make things very complicated” if the group were named a terror organization, he said. Tillerson also said it was important that people lobbying on behalf of foreign governments register with the federal government. “If someone is representing a foreign country, they’re there to deliver a message,” Tillerson said.
On cross-examination, Tillerson was asked by Barrack defense lawyer Randall Jackson if he ever met with foreign officials while he was the head of ExxonMobil. Tillerson said yes, and estimated that he’d met with government officials in the UAE over a dozen times while he was heading the gas and oil giant.
Barrack is the founder of a multi-billion dollar global investment firm DigitalBridge, which was formerly known as Colony Capital.
Asked if he’d ever registered as a foreign agent at Exxon, Tillerson said that after discussing the matter with his lawyers, he did not. “There was nothing I was doing that required it,” he said.
Barrack’s lawyer Michael Schachter has called his client “an innocent man” and said in his opening statement last month that the notion his client was acting as a foreign agent was “nothing short of ridiculous.”
“He did things because he wanted to” and because he considered them the right thing to do, and not because he was being urged to do so by a foreign government, Schachter said.
Dareh Gregorian is a politics reporter for NBC News.