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Trump Mulls Ending Heads-Up to Congress on U.S. Weapons Sales

Administration officials say they are tired of regular efforts by Capitol Hill to review arms exports to Saudi Arabia and other nations.

U.S. President Donald Trump and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman meet in the White House on March 20, 2018
U.S. President Donald Trump and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman meet in the White House on March 20, 2018 Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images

The Trump administration is in discussions to end a decades-old practice of informally notifying Congress of major arms sales to foreign countries, in a move that reflects mounting tensions between the administration and Capitol Hill, officials and congressional aides tell Foreign Policy

The proposal comes amid mounting frustration from senior administration officials over informal holds from lawmakers on arms sales to countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, two close U.S. partners in the Middle East. Lawmakers have tried to block weapons sales to these countries over concerns about human rights issues and the prospect of civilian casualties, particularly with the Saudi-led coalition’s war against Iran-backed rebels in Yemen.

The proposal sets the stage for another potential showdown between the Trump administration and lawmakers. It comes amid broader debates on Capitol Hill over the president’s ability to wage war without prior congressional approval—centered on U.S. military support for the Saudi coalition in Yemen—and an ongoing congressional investigation into Trump’s firing of the State Department inspector general, who was probing the administration’s emergency arms sale to Saudi Arabia last year. 

If the administration moves forward with the plan, officials and congressional aides said, it would still send formal notifications to Congress for review, giving lawmakers a legal avenue to block sales in a 30-day window of time by passing a joint resolution to oppose the arms sales. (For close U.S. allies such as NATO members, Israel, Japan, or Australia, that window is 15 days.) But it would eliminate a practice dating back to the 1970s of informally notifying Congress of planned arms sales well in advance, so that lawmakers and congressional staffers, the State Department, and Pentagon officials can hash out concerns and disagreements about such sales behind closed doors. 

“Putting politics aside for a moment, both sides have a bone to pick,” said Bilal Saab, a scholar at the Middle East Institute and former Pentagon official. “Congress doesn’t want to be boxed in with pre-cooked arms sales cases and the executive branch is sick and tired of holds that sometimes are made by [congressional] staffers … and have adverse effects on foreign policy and relationships with partners.”

The United States views foreign military sales as an important diplomatic tool beyond their military value, providing an avenue to deepen ties with foreign governments around the world. President Donald Trump has also cast his efforts to boost U.S. arms sales abroad as a domestic economic boon, claiming at different points that arms sales to Saudi Arabia created anywhere from 450,000 to over “a million” jobs. (An independent study from the Center for International Policy, a think tank, released in May estimated the actual total to be 20,000 to 40,000 jobs.) 

While congressional aides were not surprised by the proposed move, which they said the Trump administration has been considering as far back as two years, a decision to end the informal consultation would be seen as a major slight to Capitol Hill’s oversight authority.

“That would be viewed as going nuclear,” said Juan Pachón, the communications director for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s top Democrat, Sen. Bob Menendez.

Current and former officials familiar with the matter say Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has grown frustrated over lengthy informal congressional holds on arms sales he sees as important for U.S. national security and would support this plan. Lower-ranking officials in the State Department and Office of the Secretary of Defense oppose the plan, these officials say, believing that it will worsen relations between the administration and Congress, and it could prompt lawmakers to enact new laws that would give them greater powers in approving arms sales. 

When approached for comment, the Pentagon referred Foreign Policy to the State Department. The State Department declined to comment. 

Some former U.S. officials are concerned doing away with the informal review would allow more American weapons to flood into the Gulf without proper checks and balances.

“I’m concerned that this could facilitate the sale of weapons under less than ideal circumstances and could lead to an almost lackadaisical approach to selling weapons with destructive power around the world,” said Andrew Miller, a former National Security Council director during the Obama administration and now deputy director for policy at the Project on Middle East Democracy. “They’re determined to continue flooding the Gulf with weapons.”

Other current and former officials point out that there are additional avenues for Congress to get advance notice about arms sales, including in classified briefings with administration officials and the so-called Javits Report, a State Department report issued to Congress annually that lists expected sales for the year.

Saab, of the Middle East Institute, said there are other opportunities for the administration and Congress to find compromise in their growing disagreements about foreign arms sales. One compromise is to keep the 30-day peer review process but both sides commit to resolving mutual issues and grievances within that period with no holds afterwards,” he said. 

“What it comes down to is this: this is a power play that is not inevitable. It could have been rectified with better communication and transparency on both ends.”

The move comes as the administration has put pressure on Congress to deliver another round of precision-guided munitions to the Saudi Arabia, one congressional aide said, despite a lack of consensus on Capitol Hill that Riyadh actually needs the weapons. “They haven’t finished delivering the ones from last year,” the aide said. “They’re not urgent operationally for the Saudis.” 

But over the course of the past three years, the White House has become more intent on pushing through arms sales to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries, seen by the administration as an important check on its top rival in the region, Iran.

Just months into the Trump administration, then-Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker, a Republican, placed a hold on further clearances of U.S. weapons sales to the Gulf during the informal review period after a Saudi-led coalition of countries imposed a blockade of nearby Qatar. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has pursued foreign-policy objectives that have anger both Democratic and Republican lawmakers. This includes a destructive aerial campaign in Yemen that once relied upon American refueling support and the squelching of political dissent against Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, after the CIA concluded the Saudi royal ordered the 2018 assassination of Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi.

That administration’s frustrations over perceived foot-dragging on Capitol Hill came to a head last summer when the Trump administration declared an emergency to push ahead with 22 arms transfers to Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Jordan, prompting a resolution of disapproval from Congress in a serious rebuke. Democrats began pushing back on the sale in 2018, and earlier this year they launched an investigation into the firing of the State Department inspector general, who was reviewing the emergency sale. 

Heartburn in the executive branch over that informal review process, aides said, helped contribute to the Trump administration’s decision to force through the sale in an unprecedented move after attacks by Iranian forces and proxies on Saudi oil facilities and tankers in the Gulf of Oman last year. 

Equally concerning to some lawmakers is that the administration is sometimes using channels to grease the wheels for arms sales that aren’t visible to authorizers on Capitol Hill, a congressional aide said, including by private communications between Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor Jared Kushner and Mohammed bin Salman, the de-facto leader of the country. 

“That operates in the background on these things,” the aide said. “It was MBS ringing Kushner that really brought that stuff to a head last year.” 

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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