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Rex Tillerson takes stand in Trump ally trial

Tom Barrack’s attorneys compared his international business dealings to Rex Tillerson’s work as an ExxonMobil executive, while prosecutors highlighted key differences in their interactions with foreign officials.

BROOKLYN (CN) — Prosecutors called former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson as a witness Monday in the federal trial against Donald Trump’s former inaugural committee chair Tom Barrack, who stands accused of acting as an unregistered foreign agent during Trump’s candidacy and time as president-elect.

Barrack, a longtime Trump ally, is charged with working on behalf of the United Arab Emirates as well as obstruction of justice and lying to the FBI while under investigation. The 75-year-old became the “eyes, ears and voice” of the UAE, all in the “corrupt pursuit of money and power,” prosecutors say.

Before accepting Trump’s nomination, Tillerson — now 70 and sporting a white mustache — was a few months shy of retirement from his role as chairman and CEO of ExxonMobil, rounding out more than four decades at the energy giant. 

Barrack’s attorneys attempted to draw a parallel between their client’s work and Tillerson’s. The former oil executive said he had briefed former presidents and vice presidents before being called to the Trump Tower in New York City to do the same for Trump, and he described meetings of his own with foreign officials and traveling to, by his estimate, 40 or 50 countries, including at least a dozen trips to the UAE. 

Yet he hadn’t registered as a foreign agent, noted attorney Randall Jackson of the New York City-based firm Willkie Farr & Gallagher LLP, seeking confirmation from Tillerson that the thought had “never even crossed your mind.” 

Not so, Tillerson responded. 

“I had my attorneys, my lawyers, look at the law,” Tillerson clarified. “I wanted to be sure that if I needed to register I registered. But there was nothing I was doing that required that.” 

Prosecutors accuse Barrack of trying to influence Trump’s view on the 2017 Qatar diplomatic crisis, during which Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt blockaded Qatar, accusing the country of supporting terrorism and pushing the Muslim Brotherhood to be classified as a terrorist organization.

Tillerson said he had urged Trump not to get involved in the matter, calling it premature to take a stance. 

“These were important allies in the war to defeat ISIS,” Tillerson said. “This was not really good for anyone.” 

While Trump publicly criticized Qatar “for supporting terrorism,” Tillerson testified, “I don’t know that he ever actually supported the blockade.” 

Tillerson was confirmed as secretary of state on Feb. 1, 2017, and held the position for a little over a year. 

“It was an opportunity to serve my country,” Tillerson said. “I never had to put a uniform on — I’m a Vietnam-era guy — and I was in a lottery system. My number was 89, my draft board got to 86, so I never had to go.” 

Tillerson met Barrack while Trump was president-elect, he said, and relayed Barrack’s interest in an ambassadorship to Trump. “He didn’t direct me one way or the other what to do, so it was kind of the end of it,” Tillerson said. 

Standing trial alongside Barrack is Matthew Grimes, a former investment analyst and vice president of Barrack’s investment firm. Grimes’ attorneys say he was little more than Barrack’s assistant, tasked with jobs like bringing Barrack smoothies and handling his luggage on business trips. A third co-defendant, Emirati national Rashid Al-Malik, remains at large. 

Taken out of order due to scheduling issues, Tillerson’s testimony broke up that of FBI Special Agent Liz Sidaros, who has been on the stand since last week reviewing emails and text messages showing Barrack, Grimes, and Al-Malik corresponding with officials from the United Arab Emirates and the Trump administration. 

In one October 2016 message, Al-Malik sent a document to UAE official Abdullah Khalifa Al Ghafli titled “A Proposal to Strengthen UAE Influence in the USA,” apparently prepared by Al-Malik. 

The same month, Grimes sent Al-Malik an article Barrack drafted for Fortune, “What the Middle East Needs Now from America,” in which he referred to certain Middle Eastern countries as “dictatorships.” Al-Malik asked that the word be taken out; the published version used “regimes” instead.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Hiral Mehta alluded to those communications while distinguishing between Tillerson’s and Barrack’s interactions as international businessmen. While Tillerson authored articles as an Exxon executive, he hadn’t passed along drafts to foreign officials for feedback, for instance. 

“As a private citizen,” Mehta asked, “did you ever provide a foreign government with inside, confidential information about U.S. foreign policy?” 

“No,” Tillerson replied. Nor had he handed a foreign entity information about a political party’s platform, disclosed nominees for positions like national security adviser or secretary of state or drafted a plan for a foreign government to influence the U.S. government.

Testimony from Sidaros will continue on Tuesday.

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