Infuriating Congress, Trump Administration Keeps Pushing for Saudi Arms Sales
Lawmakers accused the State Department of concocting a “phony emergency.”
Only eight months after the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi threw U.S.-Saudi relations into turmoil, the Trump administration appears increasingly bent on selling arms to Riyadh in its campaign to isolate Iran, angering members of Congress.
That was evident Wednesday when a senior State Department official faced down indignant Democratic House members over the Trump administration’s plan to push through new arms sales to its Gulf allies waging war in Yemen.
Lawmakers were fuming about Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s move last month to use an obscure emergency provision to advance the sales despite congressional opposition. During the Wednesday hearing, Democratic Rep. Eliot Engel, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, pledged to use “every possible avenue” to block 22 arms sales worth $8.1 billion to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates and, in one instance, Jordan.
The fiery hearing marked the latest front in the battle between Capitol Hill and the White House over the administration’s repeated attempts to use the powers of the executive branch to circumvent lawmakers on issues including the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election and Trump’s long-promised border wall with Mexico.
Engel and other Democrats on the committee accused the administration of concocting a “phony emergency” to push through the arms sales during a hearing on Wednesday with R. Clarke Cooper, the assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs. “There is no emergency. It’s phony. It’s made up. And it’s an abuse of the law,” Engel told Cooper.
Democratic and Republican lawmakers have criticized Saudi Arabia’s handling of the war against Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, where thousands of civilians have died in part due to the Saudi-led coalition airstrikes. They also cast doubt on Riyadh’s reliability as an ally after Saudi officials’ alleged role in the murder of Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist, in the country’s consulate in Istanbul last year.
Cooper defended Pompeo’s decision to push through emergency arms sales as a “one-time event” aimed at helping Gulf countries deter Iran. In addition to backing Houthi rebels, Tehran has supported terrorist groups across the Middle East. Last month, senior U.S. officials accused Tehran of making “credible” threats against U.S. troops in Iraq. Cooper said it was important for the administration to be “sending a message of deterrence to Tehran … sending a message to our partners, that we are with them shoulder to shoulder.”
The top Republican on the committee, Texas Rep. Michael McCaul, said “the recent use of this emergency authority, in my judgment, was unfortunate.” Other Republicans urged the committee to hold a classified briefing with administration officials to update lawmakers on the threat from Iran.
The war in Yemen, considered the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, has become the center of a protracted battle between Capitol Hill and President Donald Trump over the administration’s close relationship with Saudi Arabia and the U.S. role in prolonging the conflict in Yemen. Trump in April vetoed a bipartisan resolution that would have forced an end to U.S. involvement in the war, which is now limited to training support and arms sales.
The administration’s latest move to circumvent Congress’s traditional role in approving arms sales has become a flash point even for lawmakers from Trump’s own Republican Party. It comes just months after the president declared a national emergency to divert military funding for his long-promised wall on the border with Mexico without consent from Capitol Hill.
A bipartisan group of senators is advancing 22 disapproval resolutions to block each arms sale in votes that could come as soon as next week, but it’s unclear if they will pass with a veto-proof majority. The resolutions were introduced by Democratic Sens. Bob Menendez, Chris Murphy, Patrick Leahy, and Jack Reed, and Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham, Rand Paul, and Todd Young.
“While I understand that Saudi Arabia is a strategic ally, the behavior of Mohammed bin Salman cannot be ignored. Now is not the time to do business as usual with Saudi Arabia,” said Graham, a sometime Trump ally, in a statement announcing the joint resolutions. “I am also very concerned about the precedent these arms sales would set by having the administration go around legitimate concerns of the Congress.”
The Pentagon insists that its support role in Yemen is intended to help the Saudi-led coalition reduce civilian casualties in its fight against Houthi rebels in Yemen and prevent Middle Eastern allies from turning to Russia or China for weapons.
Some experts argued the April resolution vetoed by Trump was an unnecessary symbolic measure that would not have made a significant difference on the ground in Yemen.
“The resolution would have had a very limited practical effect on the course of the fighting,” John Hannah, a former senior George W. Bush administration national security aide now at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based think tank, told Foreign Policy in April.
Cooper argued there could be more civilian casualties in Yemen if Washington didn’t provide advice and precision-guided munitions to the Saudi-led coalition. “Holding a partner accountable—any partner—doesn’t preclude us from working with a partner. If anything, detaching ourselves from a partner, removing ourselves from our partner, puts at risk ensuring that accountability,” he said at the hearing.
He also cited the ongoing threat from Iran and Houthi rebels. The latest example he cited came on Wednesday, when 26 people were injured after a cruise missile fired by Houthi rebels hit an airport in southern Saudi Arabia.
While Democrats agreed Iran was a threat, some didn’t buy Cooper’s argument of an immediate emergency to warrant the apparent end-run around Congress. “I was not pleased with the assistant secretary’s testimony,” Rep. Abigail Spanberger, a freshman Democrat from Virginia on the committee and a former CIA officer, told Foreign Policy after the hearing. She and other Democrats pointed to the fact that some of the weapons in question have not even been built yet, casting doubt on the urgency of the sales.
Cooper “left a lot of questions unanswered,” Spanberger said. “I don’t think he made a good argument for this emergency scenario.”
Scott Paul, an expert on Yemen with the humanitarian group Oxfam America, said the “real emergency we should be addressing is the situation in Yemen, where a record-setting cholera outbreak and widespread hunger threaten the lives of millions.”
Spanberger and other Democrats have offered measures on the House side to halt the sale of precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia. “Just because Congress continually tries to stand up for the constitutional authority that we should have, and the president overrules us and sidesteps us, doesn’t mean we should stop doing this,” she said.
Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer