Trump Bypasses Congress Over Saudi Arms, Sparking Lawmakers' Ire
(Bloomberg) -- The Trump administration is bypassing Congress to approve the sale of more than $2 billion in weapons to Saudi Arabia, citing a rarely used provision in the Arms Export Control Act despite bipartisan objections by lawmakers.
The provision lets President Donald Trump circumvent the normal process for congressional approval by declaring an emergency that requires the sales to go through immediately “in the national security interests of the United States.” Secretary of State Michael Pompeo cited the threat from Iran as justification, but said in a later statement that he viewed the decision “to be a one-time event.” Lawmakers were upset regardless.
“I am disappointed, but not surprised, that the Trump administration has 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,” Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement Friday.
Republican Senator Jim Risch of Idaho, the committee’s chairman, said in a statement, “I am reviewing and analyzing the legal justification for this action and the associated implications.”
The move is one more example of tension between the legislative and executive branches, as Trump also tests the limits of his constitutional authority in how government contracts are awarded, where taxpayer money is spent and to what extent he must cooperate with congressional oversight of his administration.
In a letter to Risch explaining the decision to allow sales to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan, Pompeo said Iran’s “malign activities” in the region necessitated the decision to sidestep congressional approval. He said the weapons sales “must occur as quickly as possible in order to deter further Iranian adventurism in the Gulf and throughout the Middle East.”
Pompeo said in a statement on Friday that his “emergency notification” would total about $8.1 billion and involve “arms transfers” to Jordan and the United Arab Emirates as well as Saudi Arabia.
While most Republican lawmakers have stood by Trump, even allies like South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham have expressed concern about the precedent this sets for overruling Congress. Graham said Thursday that the Senate has “tools to deal with the administration,” but he has not yet indicated what action he and other lawmakers would try to take.
“There’s pretty widespread concern that now’s not the time to go back to business as usual with Saudi Arabia,” Graham said, adding that he voiced his concerns to Pompeo.
For more than a year, Menendez has had a hold on $2 billion in precision-guided munitions kits for Saudi Arabia and an additional $1 billion sale to the United Arab Emirates over concerns about civilian casualties from the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen. Other lawmakers have placed holds on other Saudi arms sales.
“President Trump circumventing Congress to sell more weapons to Saudi Arabia is unacceptable,” Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein of California said in a statement Friday. “The Saudi-led war in Yemen is not an emergency, it is a crime against humanity.”
In a statement later on Friday, Pompeo said his decision wouldn’t “alter our long-standing arms transfer review process with Congress. I look forward to continuing to work with Congress to develop prudent measures to advance and protect U.S. national security interests in the region.”
Trump’s first foreign visit as president was to Saudi Arabia, and he has cultivated a close relationship with the country he considers to be a crucial ally in his efforts to isolate Iran. Yet both Democrats and Republicans have urged the U.S. to hold the Saudis accountable for the killing last October of columnist Jamal Khashoggi and for the kingdom’s role in the Yemen conflict.
Menendez said Thursday there would be bipartisan opposition if the Trump administration overrules the holds, and he warned that the companies involved may face consequences.
“Any attempt to export under that provision would be a violation of the Export Control Act,” Menendez said in an interview. “Do they want to subject themselves to the liability of that?”
Menendez said in a statement Thursday that he would “pursue all appropriate legislative and other means to nullify these and any planned ongoing sales should the administration move forward in this manner.”
Yet Congress has few options and little legislative recourse to prevent the Trump administration from pursuing this sale, once the emergency declaration is cited.
Congress is typically notified by the administration of arms sales that exceed a certain threshold before the sales are completed. If the top Republican or Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs or Senate Foreign Relations Committees have any concerns, they can place an informal hold by refusing to consent to the notification process. This allows for those concerns to be worked out between the parties.
An emergency declaration circumvents that process and allows the sale to go through without the notification requirement. According to the law, the president is supposed to give Congress a “detailed justification for his determination, including a description of the emergency circumstances” and a “discussion of the national security interests involved.”
(Updates with State Department statement, in seventh paragraph. An earlier version corrected Jim Risch’s title in fourth paragraph.)
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