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Tillerson: I Sometimes Had To Tell Trump "You've Been Played"

The former secretary of state also called Israel's embattled prime minister "a bit Machiavellian" during a wide-ranging discussion at Harvard University on Tuesday.

Posted on September 19, 2019, at 3:11 p.m. ET

Alex Wong / Getty Images

Tillerson giving his departure speech in 2018.

Former secretary of state Rex Tillerson said there were times when dealing with Israel that he had to tell President Donald Trump: "You’ve been played."

Tillerson spoke at length about that and other policy issues during his tenure in the Trump administration on Tuesday as part of a series of talks at Harvard University on the future of diplomacy. The former Exxon executive's remarks were first reported by the Harvard Gazette.

When speaking about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he called him “an extraordinarily skilled” politician and diplomat, according to the Gazette, but also noted that Bibi, as he's commonly known, can be “a bit Machiavellian” in his cultivation of relationships for later use.

“In dealing with Bibi, it’s always useful to carry a healthy amount of skepticism in your discussions with him," Tillerson said. He also noted that there were times when Israel would use "misinformation" in an attempt to sway the US toward accepting Israeli proposals.

“They did that with the president on a couple of occasions, to persuade him that ‘We’re the good guys, they’re the bad guys.’ We later exposed it to the president so he understood, ‘You’ve been played,’” Tillerson said, according to the Gazette. “It bothers me that an ally that’s that close and important to us would do that to us.”

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment regarding Tillerson's account.

Tillerson also said that despite his title and experience dealing with Middle Eastern leaders from his time in the oil industry, he was kept out of the loop in negotiations about the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. Instead, as has been widely reported, he wound up taking a backseat to other officials like Jared Kushner, President Trump's son-in-law and point person for drafting a proposed peace plan.

“I did believe that we were at a moment in time where perhaps we could chart a way where the Arab world could support an outcome that the Palestinians might not think was perfect — and in the past, if it wasn’t perfect, it didn’t happen — but with enough encouragement, pressure from the Arab world, that we could get it close enough that the Palestinians would finally agree,” Tillerson said about his stance when coming into office in 2017. “And in my view, it was a two-state solution.”

At present, the situation in Israel is more up in the air than it has been in years. Netanyahu is currently struggling to retain power after a bruising campaign ahead of this year's second election has left him without clear allies that can garner him a majority. Bibi has worked hard over his 10 years in office to strengthen his personal ties with US officials, especially those in the Republican Party and Trump himself, though the latter recently said when asked about Netanyahu's fate that "our relations are with Israel."

The Kushner-drafted peace plan has yet to be revealed and likely won't be for weeks now. Jason Greenblatt, the outgoing lead US envoy in drafting the proposal, reportedly traveled to Israel to meet with both Netanyahu and Benny Gantz, the head of the rival coalition that basically tied with Bibi for seats in the Israeli legislature.

Tillerson also touched on his attempts to restructure the State Department, acknowledging that he won few friends with his hiring freeze and extensive overhaul plans. He's kept a relatively low profile since Trump removed him from his position via Twitter back in 2018 after one of the shortest tenures at Foggy Bottom in history.

Mike Pompeo, Director of the CIA, will become our new Secretary of State. He will do a fantastic job! Thank you to Rex Tillerson for his service! Gina Haspel will become the new Director of the CIA, and the first woman so chosen. Congratulations to all!

He later told reporters that Trump's tweet was how he'd first learned about his own firing.

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.