Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the council on Foreign Relations Elliott Abrams testifies before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, February 9, 2011 on the recent developments in Egypt and Lebanon.

Story highlights

A former Iraq War advocate was in the running for a top foreign policy job

He was also a major Trump critic

Washington CNN  — 

Elliott Abrams said Monday he guesses a certain top White House adviser’s opposition to him is the reason President Donald Trump rejected him for a top State Department position.

“The only person on the White House staff that I know was opposed to my being hired was Steve Bannon so that’s my guess. It’s a guess,” Abrams said, referring to White House chief strategist Steve Bannon.

Abrams described his meeting with Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and his failure to gain the approval of a President who he had publicly criticized in the leadup to the election in an interview with CNN’s Erin Burnett on “OutFront.”

“The meeting was fine,” Abrams said. “(Trump) didn’t say, ‘Why did you say those mean things about me.’ We talked foreign policy.”

He said Trump told him Tillerson wanted him for the post, and when the meeting was over, he assumed everything was fine. But then he found out Trump had rejected him.

“Somebody, I think, put in front of the President, some of the things I’d said last year and perhaps riled him up,” Abrams said.

Trump nixes Elliott Abrams for State Department job

Abrams was a former official under President Ronald Reagan. He pleaded guilty to misdemeanors stemming from the Iran-Contra affair and was pardoned by President George H.W. Bush. He went on to serve as deputy national security adviser for President George W. Bush, where he advocated for the Iraq War.

Given Abrams’ past experiences and positions, he may have found himself strongly at odds with the Trump White House. The President made opposition to major foreign interventions a mainstay of his campaign and Bannon has a documented opposition to neoconservatives like Abrams.

Despite the potential ideological gap, Tillerson apparently wanted the seasoned Republican foreign policy hand to serve as his No. 2 in the State Department. Like Trump, Tillerson has no prior experience in government.

Sources told CNN that Abrams’ failure to secure a prominent spot in the administration was due to his past criticisms of the man who now occupies the Oval Office.

In May, Abrams wrote in the neoconservative Weekly Standard that Trump was “someone who cannot win and should not be president of the United States.”

What he says it means

Abrams said the hour-long meeting was not the job interview or potential “inquisition” he thought he might have had in store. Instead he said it was a discussion on the foreign policy issues of the day, like the visit from Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and an upcoming call with Chinese President Xi Jinping, with Tillerson doing most of the talking.

“It was as if I had been invited to a Tillerson-Trump meeting,” Abrams said.

The former Reagan and Bush official said he walked into the meeting prepared to discuss his past criticism of Trump, but that he guessed Trump was not aware of it at the time.

Abrams said Trump’s decision not to allow a critic into his administration was a “huge mistake.”

“You have literally hundreds of qualified, experienced Republicans ready, willing and able to serve. And he’s saying, ‘stay out.’ So it’s going to be really hard to govern,” Abrams said.

The one-time critic said he wanted to serve, saying both he and Tillerson thought he could have helped and that he wants the President to succeed. He also said Trump could succeed even in the face of past comments that Trump should never have the presidency.

“I just think it’s really destructive for the President to go back to the primary season, and say, ‘People who said tough things about me can’t come into the administration,’” Abrams said. “He’s hurting himself.”

CNN’s Jamie Gangel and Elise Labott contributed to this report.