Tillerson quietly meets with House lawmakers to discuss Trump

Congressional aide confirms meeting

By Zachary Cohen, CNN
Keith Lane/Getty Images

Rex Tillerson

(CNN) - Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson quietly met with the top Democrat and Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee Tuesday for an interview that focused primarily on his time in the Trump administration, a congressional aide with direct knowledge of the discussion confirmed to CNN.

Tillerson traveled to Capitol Hill where he sat down with the committee's Democratic chairman Rep. Eliot Engel and ranking Republican Rep. Michael McCaul, the aide said, adding that major topics of interest included the administration's dealings with Russia and uncertainty surrounding the role of Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, in deciding foreign policy.

The interview lasted roughly seven hours, including breaks, the same source said.

On Wednesday, a House Foreign Affairs Committee Republican aide called on the Democratic majority to release the transcript from Tillerson's meeting, claiming the "tone and facts" of the discussion were skewed by some media reports.

"We believe Tillerson's testimony best speaks for itself, and are hopeful that our Democrat chairman will release the full transcript of the meeting to the public soon," the aide said.

"Contrary to media reports, Secretary Tillerson made clear that 2016 Russian election interference was raised clearly at the highest levels with Vladimir Putin and the Russian government. Regarding Kushner, every single administration is entitled to choose and seek counsel from their own advisers. Tillerson emphasized that all presidents ultimately and appropriately determine which advice to follow in their decisions," they added.

A Democrat committee aide told CNN that Tillerson will have the chance to review the transcript before any of it is made public.

"Per an agreement with Secretary Tillerson, he will have the chance to review the transcript before any of it is made public. Our Republican colleagues were aware of this arrangement prior to yesterday's interview," they said.

In his prepared opening statement submitted to the committee leaders, Tillerson explained why he returned to Washington to speak with lawmakers.

"As you know, I am here today voluntarily in response to your request for my testimony. I chose to come back to Washington to speak with you today on a bipartisan basis because I understand and appreciate the critical role that Congressional oversight of the Executive Branch plays in our constitutional system," he wrote, according to a copy of the remarks released Wednesday.

"That role is especially important with respect to foreign affairs, where our position is strengthened when the world knows that we speak with one voice in protecting America's interests abroad," Tillerson added.

In a statement also released Wednesday, Engel applauded Tillerson for his willingness to appear before the committee.

"It's become clear that across the government, President Trump is trying to shut down any inquiry into what his Administration is doing. That's why Rex Tillerson's appearance before the Committee was so heartening. It's how the government is supposed to work: Congress and the executive branch seeking answers together," he said.

While specific details related to the meeting remain murky, it is clear that Tillerson's visit to Capitol Hill came as a surprise to many in Washington, including to some members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Several members of the House panel did not know about the interview until after it was first reported by The Daily Beast, according to a Republican lawmaker and an aide to a Democrat on the committee.

Tillerson was unceremoniously fired in March 2018 and replaced by Trump's current Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Tension between Tillerson and Kushner, who effectively ran a shadow State Department on Middle East issues, was well documented before Engel and McCaul probed the former top diplomat on the issue Tuesday.

As was the frayed relationship between Tillerson and the President, himself.

In a December 2018 interview with CBS News, Tillerson called President Trump "undisciplined."

"When the President would say, 'Here's what I want to do and here's how I want to do it.' And I'd have to say to him, 'Well Mr. President, I understand what you want to do, but you can't do it that way. It violates the law. It violates treaty,'" he said at the time.

Tuesday's meeting comes as House Democrats seek to use their power as the majority party to conduct various oversight investigations into Trump's financial dealings and foreign policy decisions.

Specifically, Democratic lawmakers have expressed interest in learning more about Trump's meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin -- and signaled they would like to know more about specific interactions between the two leaders that occurred during Tillerson's tenure at the State Department.

In January, CNN confirmed that after a 2017 meeting with Putin in Hamburg, Germany, Trump took the interpreter's notes and told him not to share anything about the discussion with anyone else, according to a former State Department official who was in Hamburg when the meeting took place.

Senior White House and State officials who work on Russian issues asked for notes on the meeting and did not get them, the source said.

Another former State Department official said that Tillerson did not provide a readout of the meeting to US ambassadors in the region at the time. The source said that "Tillerson played stuff pretty close to his chest" with all meetings and this one was no different.

Engel, a New York Democrat, previously told CNN that his panel would work with the House Intelligence Committee to get the interpreter's notes and lawmakers have discussed the possibility of issuing a subpoena for those records.

CNN's Alex Marquardt and Kaitlan Collins contributed reporting

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