Trump, Tillerson offer conflicting statements on Qatar crisis within 90 minutes

Following a week of tension in the Middle East, it’s still highly unclear where the administration stands.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin
CREDIT: AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

President Donald Trump accused Qatar of funding terrorism on Friday, countering efforts made just 90 minutes earlier by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to ease tensions in the Middle East.

“The nation of Qatar, unfortunately, has historically been a funder of terrorism at a very high level,” Trump said during a press conference in the Rose Garden. The president went on to say the small, oil-rich country needed to be pressured by outside forces. “We have to stop the funding of terrorism.”

Trump’s comments came at the end of a week of simmering diplomatic tensions in the Middle East. On Monday, regional giant Saudi Arabia abruptly decided to sever all diplomatic and economic ties with Qatar over its relations with another regional giant, Iran, and its alleged funding of extremist groups. Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and the U.N.-backed government of Yemen all quickly followed suit.


The swift sequence of efforts to isolate Qatar leaves the country in an extremely precarious position — forty percent of the country’s food is supplied by Saudi Arabia, for instance, and the nation relies on other countries for things ranging from sustenance to labor.

In a time not long past, Qatar’s situation might have alarmed the United States. Trump met with Qatar’s emir only two weeks ago and called the country a “crucial strategic partner” in the fight against extremism. (Qatar notably plays host to CENTCOM, the U.S. Central Command.) But that friendliness quickly evaporated following Saudi Arabia’s move to isolate Qatar. Throwing caution to the wind, the president logged on to Twitter on Tuesday to condemn the country, blasting its “funding of [r]adical ideology.”

Trump’s tweets marked a dramatic turn — one his Secretary of State seemingly sought to reverse on Friday. In a rare public statement, Tillerson appealed to the Middle Eastern and North African governments behind the blockade of Qatar.


“We call on the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt to ease the blockade on Qatar,” Tillerson said, going on to note that the blockade was “hindering U.S. military actions in the region and the campaign against ISIS.”

While Tillerson did call attention to Qatar’s “history of supporting groups that span the spectrum of political expression, from activism to violence,” he also highlighted the timing of the blockade. “We’re seeing shortages of food [in Qatar], families are being forcibly separated, and children pulled out of school,” he said. “We believe these are unintended consequences, especially during this holy month of Ramadan, but they can be addressed immediately.”

Less than two hours later, however, Trump struck a decidedly different tone, seeming to walk back Tillerson’s efforts while reigniting the issue.

“I decided, along with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson… that the time had come to call on Qatar to end its funding, they have to end that funding,” Trump said. “And its extremist ideology, in terms of funding.”

Notably, Saudi Arabia, like many governments, also has a very long history of funding extremism. In signaling Qatar out as a “funder of terrorism,” Trump is adopting Saudi talking points, pivoting away from the country’s own questionable financing projects. Trump has quickly developed a close relationship with the Saudi government, steering U.S. policy in the region — a shift underscored by his recent criticism of Qatar. That Trump is at odds with his own State Department over the issue, meanwhile, only further entrenches the perception that the administration has no coherent foreign policy.


UPDATE: Late on Friday, the Qatari Ambassador to the United States asked the Trump administration to rely on U.S. intelligence instead of other countries “with political agendas” — a likely reference to Saudi Arabia.

This piece was updated by Adrienne Mahsa Varkiani.