WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo notified lawmakers Friday that President Trump is invoking his emergency authority to sidestep Congress and complete 22 arms deals that would benefit Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and other countries, despite lawmakers’ objections to the transactions.
Both Republicans and Democrats urged the Trump administration this week not to take the rare step of exploiting a legal window to push through deals, worth about $8 billion, according to congressional aides, that lawmakers have blocked from being finalized.
Pompeo’s notification letters effectively give the Trump administration a green light to conclude the sale and transfer of bombs, missile systems, semiautomatic rifles, drones, repair and maintenance services to aid the Saudi air fleet, and a controversial sale of precision-guided munitions that lawmakers fear Saudi Arabia may use against civilians in Yemen’s civil war.
Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey — the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who had been blocking the precision-guided munitions sale — said in a statement Friday that Trump had ‘‘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.’’
In a statement, Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Senator James Risch, an Idaho Republican, said that he was ‘‘reviewing and analyzing the legal justification for this action and the associated implications.’’
Traditionally, the administration must notify Congress when it contemplates a new arms sale, giving lawmakers the opportunity to review deals and block those they find objectionable. In each of his letters notifying lawmakers of the decision, Pompeo stated that he had ‘‘determined that an emergency exists which requires the proposed sale in the national security interest of the United States and thus, waives the congressional review requirements’’ — without noting the nature of the emergency or offering details about it. In his letters, he added that the government had ‘‘taken into account political, military, economic, human rights, and arms control considerations.’’
But lawmakers have frequently questioned the Trump administration’s approach to national security policy and its track record on human rights. In particular, Trump and Congress have long been at odds over his unapologetic embrace of Saudi leaders, despite US intelligence showing that the crown prince was behind the October 2018 murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was also a contributing columnist for The Washington Post.
Earlier this year, the House and Senate voted to end US support for the Saudi-led military coalition operating in Yemen, a move that Trump vetoed, with the support of most of the GOP. But many key Republican lawmakers who balked at curtailing US engagement through a war powers resolution have still advocated halting nondefensive weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and its coalition allies until the country does more to improve the humanitarian crisis in Yemen.
‘‘There is no new ‘emergency’ reason to sell bombs to the Saudis to drop in Yemen, and doing so only perpetuates the humanitarian crisis there,’’ said Senator Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat and one of Congress’ chief advocates for extricating the United States from the Yemen conflict. ‘‘This sets an incredibly dangerous precedent. . . . If we don’t stand up to this abuse of authority, we will permanently box ourselves out of deciding who we should sell weapons to.’’
But it is not clear how lawmakers will try to reassert control over the arms deals or challenge Trump’s authority to assume emergency authority over them. Democrats are hoping that Risch will agree to expedite legislation through the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that could stop the contracts before parts and weapons are sent abroad. Barring that, they may try to use funding measures to block completion of the sales by prohibiting federal funds from being used to transfer the weapons.
Lawmakers anticipated that the Trump administration might try to push arms deals benefiting Saudi Arabia through in light of increased tensions with Iran. Earlier this week, Pompeo, acting defense secretary Patrick Shanahan, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Joseph Dunford, briefed all House and Senate lawmakers on the intelligence behind the administration’s latest moves in the Persian Gulf, arguing they were necessary to respond to latest intelligence showing an increased threat.
Republicans largely endorsed their actions as prudent, while Democrats accused the officials of spinning the evidence to justify a march toward war, expressing consternation that the administration would not consult Congress before taking military action.
Yet the breadth of the Trump administration’s Friday decision, which benefits many more countries than just Iran’s regional rivals like Saudi Arabia and the UAE, will probably upset members of both parties, according to congressional aides.
Democratic congressional aides pointed to one transaction in particular — a deal to support manufacturing and production of F-18 combat jets — as particularly disturbing, as Saudi Arabia does not use the F-18; it only helps make them for countries like Israel, India, and South Korea.