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Trump officials consider defying Congress to sell more weapons to Saudi Arabia

  • NEW YORK TIMES / JUNE 28, 2019
                                Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and President Donald Trump shook hands as world leaders posed for a photo at the Group of 20 summit in Osaka, Japan.

    NEW YORK TIMES / JUNE 28, 2019

    Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and President Donald Trump shook hands as world leaders posed for a photo at the Group of 20 summit in Osaka, Japan.

WASHINGTON >> The Trump administration is moving to sell another cache of munitions to Saudi Arabia, according to lawmakers and congressional aides, a step that would again defy Congress and ignore the objections of lawmakers in both parties about Riyadh’s human rights record.

The State Department informally notified lawmakers in January that it was planning to move forward with the sale of precision-guided missiles worth $478 million to Saudi Arabia and to approve licenses to allow Raytheon to expand its manufacturing footprint inside the kingdom. The top Democrats on the Senate and House foreign affairs committees have both withheld their support for the plan, effectively blocking it, but they fear State Department officials will push the sales through anyway.

Such a move would infuriate lawmakers in both parties, who have repeatedly objected to the United States continuing to supply Riyadh with weapons it has used in strikes on civilians since it began fighting a war in Yemen. Republicans and Democrats were enraged last year when the administration declared an emergency over Iran to bypass Congress and move forward with an $8 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf nations.

“I have strong concerns about sending weapons to Saudi Arabia that could be used to kill civilians in Yemen or perpetrate human rights abuses, and I’ve tried to block those sales from going forward,” said Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee. “The Trump administration has disregarded every safeguard meant to prevent the abuses of American weapons, so it’s up to Congress to ensure strict adherence to these guidelines.”

The proposal draws further scrutiny to an already fraught issue. The State Department inspector general, Steve Linick, who was fired this month by President Donald Trump at the suggestion of Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, was in the final stages of an investigation into whether the administration had acted illegally when officials declared the emergency. Linick had presented preliminary findings to senior State Department officials in early March.

The new proposal would effectively build off the sale pushed through over Congress’ objections last year, sending an additional 7,500 precision-guided missiles from Raytheon to Riyadh on top of the 60,000 bombs Saudi officials bought last summer, according to a congressional aide who described it on the condition of anonymity because it had not yet been officially turned over to Congress. As of December, roughly a third of those munitions had been delivered.

Perhaps more significant, it would allow Raytheon to expand an already approved relationship with the Saudis to build high-tech bomb parts in Saudi Arabia. That provision was initially included in last year’s emergency declaration, but the proposal currently being considered would authorize additional manufacturing, the aide said, including an earlier version of the precision-guided missile the Saudis have already bought from Raytheon.

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said the plan to expand an existing manufacturing relationship was particularly objectionable given that Trump has defended the weapons sales as vital to creating new U.S. jobs.

“I don’t think we should ever sell arms to a dangerous country because it creates jobs,” Murphy said, but “this frankly robs the president of one of his primary arguments for why these sales are so necessary.”

“If they’re going to kill civilians, further destabilize the Middle East, and it’s not going to create jobs, then what the hell is the point?” he added in an interview.

A State Department official declined to comment, citing a policy of not addressing or confirming proposed defense sales until Congress has been formally notified. The existence of the proposal was first reported by The Daily Beast and confirmed by Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, in an op-ed article for CNN.

Bipartisan outrage erupted in Congress last year over the United States’ relationship with Saudi Arabia after the administration’s tepid response to the death of Jamal Khashoggi, the Washington Post columnist and Virginia resident. Lawmakers have also blamed the administration for aggravating the Yemen crisis and for the killing of civilians there in the five-year civil war, which has helped create the world’s greatest humanitarian crisis.

But each time lawmakers have tried to curtail Washington’s relationship with Riyadh, Trump has intervened. The president used his first veto to reject legislation that would have ended U.S. military involvement in Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, and he later vetoed a bipartisan measure blocking the sale of billions of dollars of munitions to the kingdom.

“This resolution would weaken America’s global competitiveness and damage the important relationship we share with our allies and partners,” Trump said in a statement after vetoing that bill. He added that “Saudi Arabia is a bulwark against the malign activities of Iran and its proxies in the region.”

If the State Department were to advance the munitions sale over lawmakers’ objections, it is unlikely Congress could block it. Both chambers would need to muster enough support to form a veto-proof majority opposing the sale.

But Murphy, who has been one of the most vocal proponents of ending U.S. military involvement in Saudi Arabia, suggested that lawmakers could be more resistant to the sales after an FBI report that found that the gunman in last year’s deadly shooting at a military base in Florida, a Saudi Air Force cadet, was regularly in touch with al-Qaida for years.

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