By Luc Cohen
NEW YORK (Reuters) -Former U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson testified on Monday in the criminal trial of a onetime fundraiser for Donald Trump that he was unaware of any role played by the Trump ally in U.S. policy toward the Middle East.
Thomas Barrack, 75, has pleaded not guilty to charges he used his influence with the Trump campaign and administration to push the United Arab Emirates' interests without notifying the U.S. attorney general, as required by law.
During nearly three hours of testimony as a witness for the prosecution, Tillerson did not share any direct knowledge about Barrack's interactions with Emirati officials.
Tillerson, who served as Trump's secretary of state for slightly more than a year in 2017 and 2018 after being working as chief executive of Exxon Mobil Corp, said he met Barrack during the presidential transition in early 2017, and that Barrack later expressed interest in an ambassadorship.
Tillerson's assertion that he was unaware of Barrack's role in foreign policy could challenge the argument by Barrack's defense that the State Department, and the former president himself, were aware of Barrack's contacts with Middle Eastern officials.
For example, during the 2017 blockade of Qatar by the UAE and other countries, Barrack told Rashid Al Malik - an associate also accused of being an Emirati agent - that the United States was considering hosting a summit to resolve the conflict, prosecutors said in their 2021 indictment of Barrack and Al Malik.
Al Malik, who is at large, then told UAE officials about the possible meeting, prosecutors said.
Tillerson said he was not aware of Barrack's involvement in internal U.S. government discussions about the blockade of Qatar, and that the contents of those talks would be considered sensitive.
"You really don't want outside parties to have that information and try to use it to their advantage," Tillerson testified in federal court in Brooklyn.
During cross-examination, Barrack lawyer Randall Jackson sought to draw parallels between Tillerson's career and Barrack's to show it is common for business leaders to have contact with foreign officials.
Lawyers for Barrack, who chaired Trump's inauguration committee, have also argued that his contacts with Middle Eastern officials were part of his role running Colony Capital, a private equity firm now known as DigitalBridge Group Inc.
Jackson asked Tillerson about whether his many interactions with foreign officials from countries like Russia while running Exxon meant he was operating under their control.
"We at all times represent our own views, nobody else's," Tillerson said, adding that he once asked his lawyers whether he needed to register as a foreign agent, and came to the conclusion that he did not.
(Reporting by Luc Cohen in New York; editing by Jonathan Oatis)