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Trump to sidestep Congress to clear arms deals benefiting Saudi Arabia, UAE

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meets with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh in January.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meets with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh in January. (Pool photo by Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Reuters)

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo notified lawmakers Friday that President Trump is invoking his emergency authority to sidestep Congress and complete 22 arms deals that would benefit Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other countries, despite lawmakers’ objections to the transactions.

Republicans and Democrats urged the Trump administration this week not to take the rare step of exploiting a legal window to push through deals — worth about $8 billion, according to congressional aides — that lawmakers have blocked from being finalized.

Pompeo’s notification letters effectively give the Trump administration a green light to conclude the sale and transfer of bombs, missile systems, semiautomatic rifles, drones and repair and maintenance services to aid the Saudi air fleet, and precision-guided munitions that lawmakers fear Saudi Arabia may use against civilians in Yemen’s civil war.

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, had been blocking the sale of the precision-guided munitions. In a statement, he said that Trump had “failed once again to prioritize our long term national security interests or stand up for human rights, and instead is granting favors to authoritarian countries like Saudi Arabia.”

Foreign Relations Committee Chairman James E. Risch (R-Idaho) said in a statement that he was “reviewing and analyzing the legal justification for this action and the associated implications.”

Traditionally, the administration must notify Congress when it contemplates a new arms sale, giving lawmakers the opportunity to review deals and block those they find objectionable. In each of his letters notifying lawmakers of the decision, Pompeo stated that he had “determined that an emergency exists which requires the proposed sale in the national security interest of the United States and thus, waives the congressional review requirements” — without noting the nature of the emergency or offering details about it.

In his letters, he added that the government had “taken into account political, military, economic, human rights, and arms control considerations.”

Lawmakers have frequently questioned the Trump administration’s approach to national security policy and its track record on human rights. In particular, Trump and Congress have been at odds over the president’s unapologetic embrace of Saudi leaders, despite U.S. intelligence showing that the Saudi crown prince was behind the October 2018 killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a contributing columnist for The Washington Post.

This year, the House and Senate voted to end U.S. support for the Saudi-led military coalition operating in Yemen — a move that Trump vetoed with the support of most of the GOP. But even key Republican lawmakers who balked at curtailing U.S. engagement through a war-powers resolution have advocated halting nondefensive weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and its coalition allies until the country does more to improve the humanitarian crisis in Yemen.

“There is no new ‘emergency’ reason to sell bombs to the Saudis to drop in Yemen, and doing so only perpetuates the humanitarian crisis there,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), one of Congress’s chief advocates for extracting the United States from the Yemen conflict, said in a statement. “This sets an incredibly dangerous precedent. . . . If we don’t stand up to this abuse of authority, we will permanently box ourselves out of deciding who we should sell weapons to.”

But it is not clear how lawmakers will try to reassert control over the arms deals or challenge Trump’s use of emergency authority over them. Democrats are hoping that Risch will agree to expedite legislation through the Foreign Relations Committee that could stop the contracts before parts and weapons are sent abroad. Barring that, they may try to use funding measures to block completion of the sales, by prohibiting federal funds from being used to transfer the weapons.

Lawmakers anticipated that the Trump administration might try to push through arms deals benefiting Saudi Arabia, in light of increased tensions with Iran. Earlier this week, Pompeo, acting defense secretary Patrick Shanahan and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., briefed all House and Senate lawmakers on the intelligence behind the administration’s latest moves in the Persian Gulf, arguing they were necessary to respond to evidence showing an increased threat.

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Republicans largely endorsed their actions as prudent, while Democrats accused the officials of spinning the evidence to justify a march toward war, expressing consternation that the administration would not consult Congress before taking military action.

Yet the breadth of the Trump administration’s decision Friday, which benefits many more countries than just Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Iran’s regional rivals, will probably upset members of both parties, according to congressional aides. Thus far, however, few are openly criticizing it, save for figures such as Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.), who is also the only congressional Republican to have endorsed the idea of impeaching Trump.

Amash tweeted about the arms sale Friday: “Congress must reclaim its powers. When will the legislative branch stand up to the executive branch?”

Democratic congressional aides pointed to one transaction — a deal to support manufacturing and production of F-18 combat jets — as particularly disturbing. Saudi Arabia does not use F-18s but helps make them for countries such as Israel, India and South Korea.

Democrats are also questioning whether Trump invoked the proper emergency authority under the Arms Export Control Act, pointing out that deals with NATO countries and allies such as Australia are treated as legally distinct from deals with nations such Saudi Arabia and arguing Pompeo’s letters conflate them.

“The Administration failed to even identify which legal mechanism it thinks it is using, described years of malign Iranian behavior but failed to identify what actually constitutes an emergency today, and critically, failed to explain how these systems, many of which will take years to come online, would immediately benefit either the United States or our allies and thus merit such hasty action,” Menendez said, accusing Trump of “destroying” relations between Congress and the executive branch and jeopardizing the interests of defense contractors.