The Trump administration on Wednesday defended its decision to pursue an emergency certification for an arms deal with Saudi Arabia despite Democratic criticism that the deal was not submitted for congressional review.
At a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing, R. Clarke Cooper, assistant secretary for Political-Military Affairs at the State Department, told lawmakers that the sales “are intended to address the military need of our partners in the face of an urgent regional threat posed by Iran.”
But committee chairman Eliot Engel (D-NY) denounced the administration’s “outrageous decision” to “cut an entire branch of the federal government out of the conversation” after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Congress in May that the administration would pursue $7 billion in arms sales to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Jordan using an emergency loophole in the Arms Control Act.
The justification, Pompeo said at the time, was “to deter further the malign influence of the government of Iran throughout the Middle East region.”
During the hearing, Democratic committee members expressed skepticism. Engel pointed to comments by Acting Defense Secretary Pat Shanahan in May, in which he said the Iran threat had been diminished thanks to the deployment of U.S. military weaponry, like the USS Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group, B-52 bombers, and Patriot air-defense missiles to the Middle East. Days later, the administration invoked the emergency loophole provision to move forward with the Saudi arms deal.
“Which came first — the arms sales or the threat?” Engel asked. “Shanahan said the threat had diminished … If the Iran threat were to be reduced in some way, would you move ahead with the transfers?”
“This was a one-time event,” Cooper responded. “It’s a tool of diplomatic deterrence … Talking about timing, timing certainly was of the essence in terms of sending a message … sending a message of deterrence to Tehran … sending a message to our partners, that we are with them shoulder to shoulder.”
While most lawmakers acknowledged that Iran poses a threat through proxy warfare in Yemen, few committee members pointed to the threat posed by Saudi Arabia. In one rare instance, Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-NY) said, “When I think about Wahhabism, that’s a threat to us … When I think about who was in those planes that destructed (sic) the World Trade Center … they were Saudi Arabians.”
Indeed, many members of Congress have an increasingly negative view of Saudi Arabia, in large part due to its role in the death of dissident Saudi journalist and U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggi in October. While the kingdom continues to spend its way into an ever-closer relationship with the Trump administration, Congress has also expressed concerns over Saudi’s increasingly deadly role in Yemen’s civil war.
Cooper tried to ensure lawmakers that U.S. arms would not contribute “to gross violations of human rights,” adding that “we have worked with the Saudi coalition … to reduce civilian casualties.” He did not provide specifics on how the United States would go about doing that.
“You tell us that with more accurate technology … Saudi Arabia will hit fewer hospitals … that assumes that they’re not trying to hit hospitals,” Sherman said, referring to multiple reports of Saudi airstrikes on hospitals in Yemen and the humanitarian crisis that has resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians and pushed others to the brink of famine.
“This declaration of emergency is bogus,” Sherman added. “Is there any personal liability that anybody in the executive branch faces if they just decide to ignore the Arms Control Export Act? … Can you basically do anything you want as long as you can say it with a straight face?”
Cooper deflected, reiterating the threat posed by Iran.
Other Democrats expressed frustration with the possibility that President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and White House adviser Jared Kushner may have been involved in arms discussions with the Saudis. Rep. WIlliam Keating (D-MA) pressed Cooper on whether Kushner was “in any way directly or indirectly” involved in the process.
“Mr. Kushner doesn’t have an interagency role in the review of these cases,” Cooper said.
“What about the overall issue?” Keating asked. “Was Jared Kushner involved in discussions with Saudis about arm sales?”
“There are a number of lines of communication with our partners, including Saudi Arabia,” Cooper said.
Keating, frustrated, yielded to his colleagues, adding that Cooper was refusing to answer the question.
While Republicans also criticized the administration’s decision to bypass Congress, some did so by employing whataboutism, with Rep. Scott Perry (R-PA) pointing to the Obama administration’s negotiation of the U.S.-Iran nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), without involving Congress in the discussions. (The JCPOA was submitted to Congress for final review in 2015 and was approved).
Given Republicans’ muted criticisms on Wednesday, it is unlikely the party will come together to support a Senate effort to request a report from the administration on Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, a move that could force a vote on U.S. aid to Riyadh, including the arms deal.
“We understand,” said Ranking Member Michael McCaul (R-TX). “We just have an issue with the process … I understand, in this case, it was an emergency.”