Stories of White House in-fighting among Trump administration officials regularly trickled out as staff come and go. Often these narratives shed some light on why U.S. President Donald Trump cannot maintain a cohesive staff. Personality conflicts and policy disagreements are usually the reasons the revolving door keeps spinning at the West Wing. Former U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was no different.
According to his testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee last month, Tillerson often locked horns with Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who serves as a senior advisor. Kushner often took it upon himself to create foreign policy on Trump’s behest, occupying the role traditionally reserved for the secretary of state. Kushner’s ‘alpha male’ attitude forced Tillerson into more than one unexpected situation.
The first came when he caught Kushner and the Mexican Secretary of Foreign Affairs Luis Videgaray dining at a D.C. restaurant. As Tillerson was head of the U.S. Department of State, he was effectively Videgaray’s counterpart in Washington, charged with the foreign policy aspect of governance. By Tillerson’s account, he approached the officials and greeted them.
“And I said: ‘I don’t want to interrupt what y’all are doing’,” he told the committee. “I said ‘Give me a call next time you’re coming to town.’ And I left it at that.”
Tillerson’s recounting of the event confirms other tales surrounding Kushner’s proclivity to operate outside of his authority. When Trump began staffing the West Wing after his election, he tasked his son-in-law with: forming a Middle East peace plan, renegotiating Chinese trade agreements, building better ties with Mexico, solving the opioid crisis, revamping military healthcare, leading criminal justice system reform, and reworking the entire U.S. government to make it work like a business.
That might sound like a lot, because it is, especially for a real estate developer with zero experience in governing prior to 2017. This wish list would strain even seasoned diplomats, but for Trump, his new advisor would be the administration’s Swiss army knife.
In order to tackle this range of geopolitical issues, Kushner would naturally have to coordinate with other offices, such as the departments of State and Defense, offices that serve solely to address the very kinds of problems Trump wanted Kushner to solve. The problem is that instead of trying to work Secretary of Defense James Mattis or Tillerson, or really anyone else in government, Kushner has operated as lone wolf.
Another instance Tillerson recalled in his House testimony had far greater implications. Kushner and former advisor Steve Bannon had been made aware of the Qatar blockade. Two weeks before it happened, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates informed Kushner of their plans. Neither party opted to bring Tillerson or Mattis into the fold with the secret agenda.
Qatar is host to the region’s largest U.S. military base, al-Udeid. Consequently, it would be prudent for the state and defense departments to be kept abreast of any issues that could destabilize it. Further adding insult to injury, both Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. are supplied by the U.S. in the Yemen Civil War, so it is not as if their relationship with Washington is not stable. In truth, they’ve never had a more willing ally than Trump which gives them, and Kushner, no excuse for withholding their plans from Tillerson and Mattis.
Kushner’s behavior is that of a rich kid whose dad just bought the toy store: he may not hold the fancy title, and other people may run the store on paper, but the kid is the true power behind it all. He doesn’t have to abide by rules or get approval because he can simply run back to dad who has got his back. American foreign policy is the toy store, Kushner’s playground. He’s the perfect match for someone like Trump, who by all accounts refuses to read lengthy policy briefs and is too busy to be bothered by pesky details.
Together, the two run the White House like another one of Trump’s businesses. Trump golfs and tweets while Kushner gallivants across the globe, writing foreign policy however he feels best. Unsurprisingly, the son-in-law-turned-advisor has the final word on decisions, not senior officials with more knowledge and experience.
Tillerson’s career in Washington was like most others’ who’ve worked for the Trump – Kushner White House: brief. He lasted 13 months before Trump fired him via tweet after Tillerson called the president a “moron.”
The comment from Tillerson’s testimony that should be most-alarming is not that Kushner is running roughshod over Washington’s top diplomats, but that there seems to be no one with foreign policy experience at the helm. Trump is “not the most proficient on foreign policy,” he said. Without a president who has the knowledge to restrain Kushner’s ambitions, the situation quickly becomes Kushner’s world. Suddenly the other departments lose their relevance.
Furthermore, whereas Tillerson (succeeded by Mike Pompeo) and Mattis (no successor confirmed yet) both were approved by the Senate, Kushner’s position never required such approval. So, the diplomats who were vetted, confirmed, and charged with foreign policy and military responsibilities can ultimately be overruled by an advisor who only gained power through nepotism. That is the current state of foreign policy in the West Wing. Tillerson’s recounting of his time under Trump is only one of a handful of first-hand accounts, all of them only slight variations of the same tale.