Trump admin bypassing Congress with $8 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates

PHOTO: President Donald Trump shows a chart highlighting arms sales to Saudi Arabia during a meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington on March 20, 2018.PlayEvan Vucci/AP, FILE
WATCH Trump defends US-Saudi Arabia bond amid Khashoggi updates

The Trump administration on Friday said it would sell $8 billion-worth of weapons to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates with getting congressional approval, citing Iran as an urgent threat.

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The move has sparked bipartisan outrage on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers are promising to block the sales and calling out Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for what they see as an illegal maneuver made in a shady manner.

"President Trump is only using this loophole because he knows Congress would disapprove of this sale. There is no new 'emergency' reason to sell bombs to the Saudis to drop in Yemen," said Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., a vocal critic of U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition's war in neighboring Yemen. "This sets an incredibly dangerous precedent that future presidents can use to sell weapons without a check from Congress."

PHOTO: People are seen near houses a day after they were hit by airstrikes carried out by the Saudi-led coalition that left a reported six people killed and more than 40 others injured including children and women on May 17, 2019, in Sanaa, Yemen. Mohammed Hamoud/Getty Images
People are seen near houses a day after they were hit by airstrikes carried out by the Saudi-led coalition that left a reported six people killed and more than 40 others injured including children and women on May 17, 2019, in Sana'a, Yemen.

The State Department authorizes the sale of weapons to foreign countries, but Congress has the authority to block a given sale by a vote within 30 days of being notified by the administration. In 2017, the Senate came within four votes of blocking a $510 million sale of munitions to Saudi Arabia, which is fighting alongside the Yemeni government, UAE, and an Arab coalition against Houthi rebels, who are increasingly supported by Iran.

What began as a civil war and has now raged for over four years has become a proxy war between the Saudis and Iranians, the region's two major powers, killing tens of thousands at least and creating the world's worst humanitarian crisis, including a devastating cholera outbreak and pervasive starvation. The U.S. has backed the Saudi and Emirati coalition from the start with reconnaissance, intelligence, training, and, until November, midair refueling.

But there have been growing calls for the U.S. to withdraw its support. In April, President Trump vetoed a historic bipartisan resolution to pull all U.S. military support for the coalition in Yemen that passed both chambers for the first time. The resolution gained steam in particular after Saudi agents murdered Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey -- a gruesome act that has pushed many lawmakers to question the U.S.-Saudi relationship.

In the face of that, however, the Trump administration is now invoking an emergency clause in the Arms Export Control Act to move ahead with these sales. The 22 separate sales include precision-guided munitions, mortars, anti-tank missiles, and equipment and spare parts, including fighter jet engines, according to documents that the State Department provided to Congress and ABC News obtained.

"These sales will support our allies, enhance Middle East stability, and help these nations to deter and defend themselves from the Islamic Republic of Iran," Pompeo said in a statement Friday evening. "Delaying this shipment could cause degraded systems and a lack of necessary parts and maintenance that could create severe airworthiness and interoperability concerns for our key partners, during a time of increasing regional volatility."

Pompeo formally notified Congress of the sales, which also allow UAE to sell precision-guided munitions to Jordan, in a series of memos and letters on the Friday of a Memorial Day weekend when almost all lawmakers had left town.

PHOTO: President Donald Trump shows a chart highlighting arms sales to Saudi Arabia during a meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington on March 20, 2018. Evan Vucci/AP, FILE
President Donald Trump shows a chart highlighting arms sales to Saudi Arabia during a meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington on March 20, 2018.

"Current threat reporting indicates Iran engages in preparations for further malign activities throughout the Middle East region, including potential targeting of U.S. and allied military forces in the region," he wrote. "The rapidly-evolving security situation in the region requires an accelerated delivery of certain capabilities to U.S. partners in the region."

In particular, Pompeo detailed the threat of consistent Houthi rocket fire into Saudi Arabia and UAE, saying these weapons were needed urgently for both countries to defend themselves.

But Congress calls that "bogus," according to a congressional aide with direct knowledge.

"It frankly seems they're just trying to find anything that has a Saudi and UAE connection and cut Congress out of it and go forward – actual legal, substantive policy details be damned," they said.

Congress has approved defensive military sales, such as anti-ballistic missile systems, to both countries in the past, the aide added, but this is about continuing to arm the coalition as it bombs Yemen, despite reports from the United Nations that it has indiscriminately targeted civilians and civilian infrastructure, including hospitals and utility services.

"There hasn't been a problem with [defensive weapons], and that's demonstrable. What they're doing here, however, is they're wanting to sell immediately – without Congressional oversight, review, or possibility of a vote -- offensive weapons that have always been represented to us as being available to be used and have been used in Yemen," the aide said.

Pompeo disagreed, saying in his statement, "Today’s action will quickly augment our partners’ capacity to provide for their own self-defense."

PHOTO: Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in photo from 2014, was killed in Istanbul on Oct. 2, 2018. Balkis Press via AP, FILE
Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in photo from 2014, was killed in Istanbul on Oct. 2, 2018.

It's also an open question which authorities can be used to bypass Congress and sell arms to certain countries. The Arms Export Control Act allows the president to declare an "emergency" that requires a sale to be made immediately. President George H.W. Bush used it to arm regional allies in the lead-up to the Gulf War against Saddam Hussein, and George W. Bush expedited weapons to Israel during the 2006 war with Lebanese Hezbollah.

But the law allows for the emergency clause to be invoked in certain circumstances, including in some cases only for Australia, Japan, South Korea, Israel, New Zealand, and NATO allies, so particular sales may not be allowed for others like Saudi Arabia and UAE.

"They're citing a legal authority that they don't have," said another congressional aide, also with direct knowledge.

Lawmakers' offices were briefed on the decision by Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs R. Clarke Cooper, and when he was challenged on that question, he said it was an issue of "semantics," prompting an outraged response, according to both congressional aides.

Some of the proposed sales are also weapons systems that take years to produce and deliver, potentially undermining the administration's argument of an emergency.

There are already discussions on Capitol Hill on how to act in a unified way to halt the process.

That will mean legislation that somehow blocks the sales or stripes the administration of certain authorities, although it's unclear yet what it would specifically look like.