A bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced new legislation Wednesday that would halt the Trump administration’s push to circumvent Congress and expedite $8.1 billion in arms sales to Gulf countries by declaring an emergency.
The bill was announced shortly after a contentious hearing on Capitol Hill during which House lawmakers grilled a top State Department official over the Trump administration’s policy on selling weapons to countries like Saudi Arabia without congressional approval.
Proposed by California Democrat Rep. Ted Lieu and Michigan Republican Rep. Justin Amash, the joint resolution “would reject all 22 sales the Administration is attempting to ram through under a phony emergency declaration,” according to a statement released by House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel, a New York Democrat.
In May, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo formally told lawmakers of the administration’s plan to use a pre-existing rule that would allow it to expedite arms sales to allies in the Middle East.
The move drew bipartisan condemnation, with lawmakers decrying the precedent it sets, questioning the administration’s claims of an emergency and raising the issue of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record and the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
House lawmakers reasserted that view Wednesday.
“The emergency declaration is nothing more than an egregious abuse of power by an Administration that doesn’t like being told, ‘No.’ There is no emergency, but there is a conflict in Yemen that has killed thousands of civilians with US-made weapons and a Congress that is tired of being complicit,” Lieu said in a statement.
“The Trump Administration knows that these sales would not meet that standard, so they decided to declare a fake emergency in order to bypass Congress. It’s a tactic they’ve used before. This legislation sends a strong signal that we will not tolerate the Trump Administration’s blatant abuse of power,” he added.
Rhode Island Democratic Rep. David Cicilline also voiced his frustration over the administration’s decision-making, specifically with regards to its policy on Saudi Arabia.
“Aiding and abetting Saudi Arabia’s horrific attacks on civilians in Yemen is unconscionable. We should demand better from countries that purport to be our allies,” he said. “The President is once again trying to circumvent the law to do something the American people oppose. Congress needs to step up and prevent this from happening.”
Tensions on display
The latest legislative rebuke against the Trump administration’s emergency declaration came hours after State Department Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs R. Clarke Cooper was grilled by lawmakers on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Cooper argued that an emergency declaration was necessary to not only address threats posed by Iran but also to send a message of support to US partners in the region.
“These sales and the associated emergency certification are intended to address the military need of our partners in the face of an urgent regional threat posed by Iran; promote the vitality of our bilateral relationships by reassuring our partners; and preserve strategic advantage against near-peer competitors,” he testified.
But those comments were ill received by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle who challenged Cooper’s assertion that the emergency declaration was warranted.
“As I said last month, the recent use of this emergency authority in my judgment was unfortunate. Of note, some of these sales will not be ready for delivery for over a year. I would have preferred State to adhere to the formal statutory 30-day congressional review process to expedite these 22 arms sales, where a Resolution of Disapproval process could have been an option,” the committee’s top Republican Michael McCaul said in his opening remarks.
However, McCaul did note that he agreed with Cooper’s concerns related to US allies looking to Russia and China to buy weapons, noting CNN’s recent reporting that Saudi Arabia has expanded its ballistic missile program with help from Beijing as an example.
“Last week, it was reported that Saudi Arabia, however, has been buying ballistic missiles from China. While we are not discussing ballistic missile technology today, it is disturbing if our allies are deepening their defense relationships with our adversaries like China,” he said.
Was Kushner involved?
In addition to voicing their opposition to the emergency declaration itself, House lawmakers sought to extract answers related to the administration’s decision making process leading up to May’s announcement and the involvement of President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and White House Senior Adviser Jared Kushner.
But Cooper, repeatedly declined to answer questions from Democratic Rep. Bill Keating about whether Kushner played any role in discussions with the Saudis about arms sales.
“Was Jared Kushner, since you are in a position to know, in any way involved in this what so ever?” Keating asked, referring to the events that ultimately culminated in the administration’s emergency declaration.
“What I can tell you … Mr. Kushner does not have an interagency role in the review of these cases,” Cooper answered, only conceding that Kushner was not specifically involved in constructing the declaration itself despite repeated questions about his overall coordination with Saudi officials.
Kushner refused in a recent interview with Axios on HBO to discuss his private communications with the Crown Prince, with whom he is known to be close.
At one point during his testimony, Cooper appeared to argue that Congressional objections to certain proposed arms sales, namely those from top Senate Foreign Affairs Committee Democrat Bob Menendez, were to blame for delays in the approval process and factored into the administration’s decision to declare an emergency.
“Yes, the protracted process did contribute to the conditions that necessitated an emergency,” Cooper said.
Menendez responded to Cooper’s comments in a statement to CNN saying: “Disdain for law and process is not an excuse to break it. It’s also not an excuse to create a fake emergency, mislead Congress, and rush weapons into Saudi hands without assurances that they won’t be used to kill civilians.”
Juan Pachon, a spokesman for Menendez, also pushed back against Cooper’s claim, saying the Senator “was waiting for the Secretary of State and the State Department to answer his human rights concerns regarding both sales, but there has been no engagement on substance since Jamal Khashoggi was brutally murdered by the Saudis.”
“Clearly, the Secretary of State decided that he couldn’t answer those concerns substantively or persuasively, and so concocted an emergency so he wouldn’t have to do so. You have to give Mr. Cooper points for creativity in how he tried to defend the indefensible,” Pachon added.