Federal lawmakers and anti-war voices are vowing to challenge the Trump administration's attempt to exploit a legal loophole to allow the export of billions of dollars in American-made weapons to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
"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."
—Sen. Bob Menendez
Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, announced Friday that President Donald Trump had officially informed lawmakers of his decision to try to flout congressional oversight to send arms to the Gulf nations.
Menendez's announcement followed reports this week that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other members of the administration were pressuring Trump to invoke a provision in the Arms Export Control Act that empowers the president to make an end run around Congress for arms sales if he determines "an emergency exists which requires the proposed sale in the national security interest of the United States."
"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," Menendez said in a statement.
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) initially sparked concerns about Trump's potential use of this provision on Twitter Wednesday. The senator—who has long fought to end U.S. support for the Saudi and UAE-led coalition's ongoing assault on Yemen—urged his Democratic and Republican colleagues to "stand up right now and tell the president not to set this dangerous precedent."
REALLY IMPORTANT THREAD: 1/ I am hearing that Trump may use an obscure loophole in the Arms Control Act and notice a major new sale of bombs to Saudi Arabia (the ones they drop in Yemen) in a way that will prevent Congress from objecting. Could happen this week.
— Chris Murphy (@ChrisMurphyCT) May 22, 2019
Unnamed government officials on Thursday confirmed to several publications—including Bloomberg, The Associated Press, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal—that the administration was moving toward employing the emergency provision to bypass the 30-day congressional notification period for arms sales and export weapons such as precision-guided munitions and combat aircraft.
In a tweet Friday, Trita Parsi, a foreign policy expert and founder of the National Iranian American Council, highlighted the potential geopolitical implications of sending weapons to Saudi Arabia following other recent moves by the president and members of his administration that have escalated tensions with Iran.
Trump plans to send more troops to the Mideast and sell more arms to Saudi - which will intensify Tehran’s perception of threat and increase its demand for deterrence rather than its conviction that dialogue with Trump can serve a useful purpose. https://t.co/PZPg9YPa7Z
— Trita Parsi (@tparsi) May 24, 2019
Lawmakers responded to reports of the emergency declaration with outrage. In a statement issued early Friday, before Trump's formal decision, Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) accused the administration of "resorting to the most desperate of measures" in the face of congressional opposition to "U.S. backing for the Saudi-led coalition's barbaric war."
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Earlier this year, Khanna helped lead the House effort to pass an historic War Powers resolution to end U.S. complicity in the war on Yemen. Though the measure was approved by both chambers of Congress with bipartisan support, it was blocked by Trump, and the Senate failed to override the president's veto in early May.
"Every bomb sold to Saudi Arabia is another bomb for Saudi bomber jets to drop on Yemeni hospitals, weddings, markets, and school buses," Khanna said. "Any claim from President Trump that selling weapons to Saudi Arabia constitutes an 'emergency' is a farcical attempt to obscure the shameful reality that 'made in the U.S.A' bombs are killing innocent civilians and fueling the world's worst humanitarian emergency in Yemen."
"Any claim from President Trump that selling weapons to Saudi Arabia constitutes an 'emergency' is a farcical attempt to obscure the shameful reality that 'made in the U.S.A' bombs are killing innocent civilians and fueling the world's worst humanitarian emergency in Yemen."
—Rep. Ro Khanna
Promising to fight back against the administration's efforts to export arms to the Middle East, Khanna echoed Menendez's promise on Thursday to "pursue all appropriate legislative and other means to nullify these and any planned ongoing sales."
For over a year, Bloomberg noted, Menendez "has had a hold on $2 billion worth of precision-guided munitions kits for Saudi Arabia and another $1 billion sale to the United Arab Emirates over concerns about civilian casualties from the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen."
Referencing past efforts to block arms sales in his statement Friday, Menendez said that "the Saudi government's flagrant human rights abuses are clear... Similarly, reports of the UAE's human rights abuses in Yemen, as well as its illicit transfers of U.S. military equipment to radical militias, are deeply troubling."
Republicans also responded with alarm to reports of the emergency declaration. Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), who sits on the Foreign Relations Committee, told the Times Thursday, "We have a gold standard for that sort of arrangement, and to violate it for Saudi Arabia is going to open the door for it to happen in multiple other places."
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) was among the lawmakers who said they would oppose arms sales to Saudi Arabia after American intelligence concluded that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman likely ordered the brutal assassination of Washington Post contributor and U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggi last year. Citing Graham, Bloomberg reported Thursday that there was "a bipartisan effort underway to figure how to prevent the administration from following through with the declaration."
"There's pretty widespread concern that now's not the time to go back to business as usual with Saudi Arabia," he said.
Trump's latest move to back Saudi Arabia comes amid calls for an end to all U.S. support for the coalition waging war on Yemen. A Times report from Wednesday pointed out that "while Saudi or Emirati pilots usually pull the trigger in raids on Yemen, the United States provides the warplanes, munitions, and intelligence used in many of those strikes," which have killed thousands of Yemeni civilians.
"This is unconscionable," Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) tweeted in response to the article. "The United States needs to pull out of the war in Yemen. This war is causing a humanitarian crisis."