(WASHINGTON) — Congress is moving ahead with legislation to block $8 billion of arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates after the Trump administration declared an “emergency” to bypass Congress and move ahead with the controversial sale over lawmakers’ objections given the two countries’ human rights records.
Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs R. Clarke Cooper was called up to defend the decision Wednesday, but faced a grilling from both Republicans and Democrats on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. While the Trump administration has defended the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia, Congress has said business as usual must end, in particular because of the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents and the Saudi and Emirati-led coalition’s bombing campaign in Yemen.
Clarke said the growing threat from Iran and its ally the Houthi rebels fighting the coalition-backed government in Yemen and the administration’s desire to improve Saudi and Emirati “readiness” and reassure them of U.S. support predicated an emergency.
“There is no emergency. It’s phony, it’s made up, and it’s an abuse of the law — once again, attempting to cut Congress out of the whole picture,” said the committee’s chair, Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y. “This is not a dictatorship. We don’t rule this country by fiat … Remember when you were in school and you learned checks and balances? Congress is a coequal branch of government.”
The committee’s highest-ranking Republican, Rep. Mike McCaul, called the move “unfortunate” and said he was blindsided by it after talking to National Security Adviser John Bolton a week prior to the emergency declaration. He and Engel both questioned how it was an emergency if the transfer of most of these weapons would take months, if not years in some cases — and why the administration didn’t give Congress a formal 30-day notice instead to allow it to vote on the sales.
Congress is typically first informally notified about an arms sale, allowing lawmakers a chance to work with an administration about any concerns. Once those concerns are settled, the State Department makes a formal notification, giving Congress 30 days to pass a resolution of disapproval if they choose. Otherwise, the sale gets the green light.
Some members had delayed these sales because of their concerns over the Saudi and Emirati coalition’s alleged war crimes in Yemen — using U.S.-made bombs to target civilians and civilian infrastructure — as well as their human rights abuses at home. To push past those objections, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued the emergency declaration on May 24, which bypasses congressional authority for an arms sale.
Clarke dismissed several members’ concern about being bypassed by saying Congress had been consulted informally for months about these sales — some as long as 18 months.
“I don’t know how much more consultative we can be in that sense… Our communication and our engagement with Congress never abated. There was never a cessation of it at all,” Clarke said, adding that Congress’s delays instead helped to create the emergency by harming the Saudis and Emiratis’ readiness.
That drew ire from lawmakers. Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., accused him of “gaslighting” and called his arguments “an absurdity,” while Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Fla., scolded Clarke, “Please don’t … I don’t appreciate the effort to be clever and refuse to answer the question.”
In particular, several members were upset that Pompeo briefed them three days before he made the emergency declaration and did not mention it. Clarke declined to say when exactly the decision was made to declare the emergency, but said the threat intensified in those three days to warrant the emergency — which several members did not buy.
Democrats called the emergency “bogus” or “phony,” as well as the sales themselves “appalling,” “illegal,” and an “abuse of authority.”
The sale includes defensive Patriot missiles to protect from Houthi attacks, such as the one on Abha International Airport in southwestern Saudi Arabia on Wednesday that injured at least 26 civilians. But a “number of them” of the sales are for offensive weapons for the Saudis to conduct their bombing campaign in Yemen, Clarke said.
Among those are $2 billion worth of precision-guided munitions that Clarke said are already being provided to the coalition. That is what most Democrats expressed concern about — as they’ve been used in bombing civilian targets.
Clarke said it was important to proceed with the sales to keep the Saudis’ trust: “We want to make sure that these particular partners not only had that reassurance, it’s to send a message that we do trust them as a partner,” he said.
That also sparked backlash: “They continue year after year in Yemen to hit [civilian] targets that we have specifically asked them not to hit, and our response to that is to blow past congressional objections to give them these weapons so that they can trust us. Isn’t the issue whether we can trust them?” asked Rep. Tom Malinowski, D-N.J.
The Senate has previously introduced its own bipartisan legislation to block all 22 sales, and it will vote as soon as next week on the resolutions. So far, there are four Republicans who will join the 45 Democrats and 2 Independents in support of the measure, clinching its passage, with the resolutions’ proponents saying the vote total could get as high as 70.
That high a figure seems unlikely, however, and if the resolutions pass both chambers, Trump is still expected to veto them — his second veto to support the Saudi and Emirati-led coalition’s war in Yemen and only the third of his presidency.
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