(WASHINGTON) — The Trump administration on Friday said it would sell $7 billion-worth of weapons to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates with getting congressional approval, citing Iran as an urgent threat.
The move has sparked bipartisan outrage on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers are promising to block the sales and calling out Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for what they see as an illegal decision made in a shady manner.
“The excuse that this is somehow an emergency is just flat out false, and they know it. But they’re still going ahead and doing it, which is beyond the pale,” said a congressional aide, speaking anonymously to discuss the details of these deals, which the State Department has not yet released publicly.
The State Department authorizes the sale of weapons to foreign countries, but Congress has the authority to block a given sale by vote within 30 days of being notified by the administration. In 2017, the Senate came within four votes of blocking a $510 million sale of munitions to Saudi Arabia, which is fighting alongside UAE and an Arab coalition against Houthi rebels in neighboring Yemen.
The conflict, which began as a civil war and has raged for over four years now, pits the Saudi-backed government against the Houthis, who are increasingly supported by Iran. It’s set up a proxy war between the region’s two major powers that has killed tens of thousands and created the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, including a devastating cholera outbreak and pervasive starvation.
With growing calls for the U.S. to withdraw its support for the Saudi and Emirati coalition, especially in Congress, the Trump administration is now invoking an emergency clause in the Arms Export Control Act to move ahead with these sales. The 22 separate sales include precision-guided munitions, mortars, anti-tank missiles, and equipment and spare parts, including fighter jet engines, according to documents that the State Department provided to Congress and ABC News obtained.
The State Department has not responded to requests for comment. State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus said earlier this week that the department does not comment on potential pending arms sales.
Pompeo formally notified Congress Friday of the sales, which also allow UAE to sell precision-guided munitions to Jordan, in a series of memos and letters.
“Current threat reporting indicates Iran engages in preparations for further malign activities throughout the Middle East region, including potential targeting of U.S. and allied military forces in the region,” he wrote. “The rapidly-evolving security situation in the region requires an accelerated delivery of certain capabilities to U.S. partners in the region.”
In particular, Pompeo detailed the threat of consistent Houthi rocket fire into Saudi Arabia and UAE, saying these weapons were needed urgently for both countries to defend themselves.
But Congress calls that “bogus,” as a second congressional aide told ABC News.
“It frankly seems they’re just trying to find anything that has a Saudi and UAE connection and cut Congress out of it and go forward — actual legal, substantive policy details be damned,” they said.
Congress has approved defensive military sales, such as anti-ballistic missile systems, to both countries in the past, the aide added, but this is about continuing to arm the coalition as it bombs Yemen, despite reports from the United Nations that it has indiscriminately targeted civilians and civilian infrastructure, including hospitals and utility services.
“There hasn’t been a problem with [defensive weapons], and that’s demonstrable. What they’re doing here, however, is they’re wanting to sell immediately — without Congressional oversight, review, or possibility of a vote — offensive weapons that have always been represented to us as being available to be used and have been used in Yemen,” the second aide said.
It’s also an open question whether or not the administration has the authority to bypass Congress in this way. The Arms Export Control Act allows the president to declare an “emergency” that requires a sale to be made immediately. President George H.W. Bush used it to arm regional allies in the lead-up to the Gulf War against Saddam Hussein, and George W. Bush expedited weapons to Israel during the 2006 war with Lebanese Hezbollah.
But the law allows for the emergency clause to be invoked in certain circumstances, including only for Australia, Japan, South Korea, Israel, New Zealand, and NATO allies, so it may not apply in the case of Saudi Arabia and UAE.
“They’re citing a legal authority that they don’t have,” said the second aide.
Lawmakers’ offices were briefed on the decision by Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs R. Clarke Cooper, and when he was challenged on that question, he said it was an issue of “semantics,” prompting an outraged response, according to both Congressional aides.
“It just erupted. This is law, it’s not semantics,” said the first aide.
Some of the proposed sales are also weapons systems that take years to produce and deliver, potentially undermining the administration’s argument of an emergency.
There are already discussions on capitol Hill on how “to act in a unified way to stop this,” according to the first aide, adding, “There’s pretty universal outrage here right now.”
That will mean legislation that somehow blocks the sales or stripes the administration of certain authorities, although it’s unclear yet what it would specifically look like.
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