‘Stop F—ing Lying’: Congress, Trump Officials in Heated Exchange Over Terrorism Designations

Congressional overseers are livid that the administration made major policy changes without prior formal consultations.

By , Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter, and , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo adjusts his mask while preparing to testify before a Senate Foreign Relations committee hearing on the State Department in Washington, D.C., on July 30, 2020. Jim Lo Scalzo-Pool/Getty Images

Congressional staffers exploded at Trump administration briefers in an expletive-laden phone call on Monday morning after U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo moved to designate Yemen’s Houthi movement as a terrorist organization and moved forward with plans to relist Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism, according to sources briefed on the conversation.

The call, which included the State Department’s top official on Yemen, Timothy Lenderking, sparked protests from both Republican and Democratic staffers angered by the administration’s failure to engage Congress on the designations in advance. Aid groups working on the ground in Yemen said the designation is likely to cause significant disruptions to deliveries in the war-wracked country with dire humanitarian implications. 

Staffers on the call said they’d “never heard staff drop f-bombs on an official call like this,” according to a source briefed on the call. At points, staff interjected and interrupted the briefers and accused the department of misleading Congress. 

“You need to stop fucking lying to Congress,” one staffer snapped, according to two sources familiar with the call, when they pressed administration officials on why they hadn’t briefed Congress in the months leading up to the designation. Foreign Policy first reported that the designation was imminent in November 2020.

The statute for designating new terrorist organizations requires the White House to notify Congress of its intent to designate foreign terrorist organizations at least seven days in advance. Congressional aides noted that the department sent its notice on the briefing within hours of Pompeo issuing his announcement. 

During the call, described to Foreign Policy by multiple Congressional sources, other staffers pointedly asked administration officials how many Yemeni children were going to die because of the designation, accusing the administration of using the designation to play politics. 

On Yemen no one could point to a single positive concrete action coming as a result of the designation,” said one aide. 

Adding to the tensions were technical problems: Several congressional aides said it took State Department officials 25 minutes to set up the conference call line they provided for the briefing. As one aide put it: “The call was an absolute mess.” Another aide said: “It was a fucking disaster.”

Among the other briefers on the call were Christopher Harnisch, the State Department’s deputy counterterrorism coordinator; Carrie Filipetti, a deputy assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs; and Trey Hicks, an assistant to the U.S. Agency for International Development. Asked about the call, a State Department spokesperson said the agency would not comment on internal deliberations or conversations with Congress.

Experts and humanitarian groups have said that a far-reaching designation against the Houthis, who control 40 percent of Yemen’s territory and the bulk of the population, will be almost impossible for nongovernmental organizations to work around in the short term. Nearly 80 percent of Yemen’s population—some 24 million people—rely on humanitarian aid, and the United Nations considers Yemen to be the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. 

Even some of Trump’s top Republican allies on Capitol Hill have criticized the move, warning of its potentially devastating humanitarian consequences if the administration doesn’t swiftly grant waivers to aid organizations operating in Yemen.

In light of near-famine conditions that have already existed in Yemen, this designation will have a devastating effect on Yemen’s food supply and other critical imports unless the executive branch acts now to issue the necessary licenses, waivers and appropriate guidance prior to designation,” Republican Sen. Jim Risch and Congressman Michael McCaul, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee respectively, said in a joint statement. Good intentions must not be eclipsed by significant unintended consequences.”

A senior diplomat familiar with the matter said that most of the assistance provided by the United Nations and aid groups touches national institutions now run by the Houthis, exposing them to possible sanctions and legal hoops to jump through to obtain exemptions to continue their work unhindered. 

Proponents of the designation have cheered Pompeo’s decision, arguing the move will hold to account the Houthis for attacks that threaten the civilian population while working with Iran to undercut peace efforts in Yemen. 

Critics, including Democratic lawmakers, also said the move will further undermine the peace process between the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthi movement.

Some U.S. and diplomatic officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, agree with that analysis.  “The Houthis will almost certainly now have nothing to do with a recognized peace process,” the senior diplomat said. “Everything becomes untransparent.”

The decision caps months of hard-fought debate within the State Department, which had gone back and forth about a potential designation, with Pompeo and former U.S. Special Envoy for Iran Brian Hook seen as a strong backers of plans to punish the Houthi group, two sources familiar with the matter told Foreign Policy. Supporters thought the move would help the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign against Iran. But around the time the memo to authorize the designation was set to move forward, Hook left the Iran post and was replaced in August 2020 by Elliott Abrams, who pushed back on the move, believing it would push the Houthis closer to Iran.

Talks briefly fell by the wayside, as the agency was busy dealing with issues on Capitol Hill, but Pompeo appeared to revive momentum for the designation ahead of a post-election trip to the United Arab Emirates, Israel, and Saudi Arabia in November 2020, with expectations he could announce the move in Riyadh. The United Nations even pulled American staffers out of northern Yemen in anticipation of retaliatory attacks, but the State Department held off, a move that appeared designed to help give the Saudis leverage to eke out a cease-fire deal with the rebel group.

With momentum for a designation appearing to ebb over the past several months, U.S. officials desperately tried to engage with the Houthi group to show signs they were backing away from terrorism and committed to the peace process. But sources said that a Houthi attack on Dec. 30, 2020, that targeted Yemen’s temporary capital of Aden set the Trump administration on an irreversible track toward the designation.

“There were frantic messages going from the U.S. to Houthis [saying] ‘don’t be dumb, boys,’ and then Aden happens,” the senior diplomat told Foreign Policy. “The people who understood [knew] at that point there was nothing that could be done to stop [a] designation.”

Pompeo directly referenced the Dec. 30 attack in a statement on Sunday night announcing the decision, saying that the Houthis had led “a brutal campaign that has killed many people, continues to destabilize the region, and denies Yemenis a peaceful solution to the conflict in their country.”

But other current and former officials worry that the designation could impact destitute Yemenis and would do little to challenge the Houthi movement, which is centered on Yemen and engages little with the outside world aside from its ties with Iran.

“I don’t think it has much impact on the Houthis at all,” said Gerald Feierstein, a former U.S. ambassador to Yemen during the Obama administration and now a senior vice president at the Middle East Institute. “They don’t have any international presence at all except for the relationship with Iran. They don’t have international bank accounts, they don’t have property overseas, [and] they’re completely reliant on Iran for their military support. For them, it’s a big zero, it’s a nothing.”

“It’s a nothing for Iran as well, what do they care if the U.S. designates one more of their affiliated organizations,” Feierstein added. “As far as I’m concerned, the only people that are going to be damaged by this are innocent Yemenis.”

Update, Jan. 11, 2021: This article was updated to provide more information about the internal State Department debate over the U.S. terrorism designation against the Houthis. This article was also updated to include comments from senior Republican lawmakers.

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

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