In a last-minute pitch to save President Donald Trump's deal with Sudan, the Trump administration offered to pay victims of the Sept. 11 attacks $700 million of U.S. funds to drop their pursuit of claims against the African country, according to two sources familiar with the negotiations.
In response, lawyers for the 9/11 claimants said they wanted as much as $4 billion, a steep price the administration and Senate Republicans rejected, sources said.
The negotiations, which have not been previously reported and continued late Friday, show the lengths to which the Trump administration is willing to go to save its deal with Sudan to normalize ties with the U.S. and Israel and compensate another group of American terror victims -- those killed and injured in the 1998 embassy bombings.
"This whole episode just shows you that everything was planned for an announcement, and now they're trying to reverse engineer an agreement based on what they announced," Cameron Hudson, a former State Department and CIA official, said of the administration. "That's now how international diplomacy works."
Sudan has been found liable for harboring the al Qaeda operatives responsible for the embassy attacks in Kenya and Tanzania. But it has not been found to have a role in 9/11, making the administration offer of hundreds of millions of U.S. taxpayer dollars more extraordinary.
The State Department declined to comment, citing ongoing negotiations.
The U.S. and Sudan signed a deal in November to settle a judgment against Sudan for the 1998 attacks, which totaled $10.2 billion. In exchange for Sudan agreeing to pay $335 million, the U.S. removed its state sponsor of terrorism designation on the country -- the strictest U.S. sanctions that block assistance from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund -- and committed to working with Congress to pass legislation to restore Sudan's "legal peace," meaning it can't be sued as a sovereign state.
But Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., have blocked that legislation for months, saying 9/11 claimants' litigation must be protected. Last week, the two led congressional Democrats in proposing two resolutions to the administration, and the multiple sides have scrambled to achieve one this week.
Congress is set to adjourn next week, leaving the clock ticking on a deal and imperiling Trump's plans to hold a joint signing ceremony with Sudan and Israel in the first week of January, according to both sources.
There is also pressure in Khartoum, where a fragile power-sharing government is trying to steer the country out of 30 years of oppressive rule by Omar al-Bashir, the strongman forced out last year by mass demonstrations. The transitional government is struggling to deal with high inflation, food and fuel shortages, political instability, and now COVID-19 -- desperate for U.S. and international investment.
The Trump offer this week followed weeks of negotiations over changing U.S. law to allow 9/11 claims to continue in other ways. But lawyers for a group of victims have rejected that because it would weaken their case, particularly now the state sponsor of terrorism designation will be lifted. That step, initiated in October, will be finalized Monday, according to one source familiar with the matter.
"We strongly support a successful transition to democracy in Sudan; making this deal work for victims of terrorism should not be in conflict with that goal," Schumer and Menendez said in a statement Wednesday, calling on Trump and Republicans "to step up to the plate and work with us."
Last week, Schumer and Menendez offered two changes to U.S. law that would strengthen 9/11 claims under either the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, or FSIA, or the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, or JASTA.
"All our 9/11 clients are asking for is preservation of their ability to prove their claims in court and, when they receive judgments, to be able to enforce those judgments under the law," said Dennis Pantazis, the lead attorney for a group of 9/11 widows.
But the Trump administration rejected those because they would violate the Sudan deal. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke again to Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, Sudan's top military chief, Friday to see if the government would accept changes to JASTA, according to a source, but they have rejected FSIA tweaks because they'd still be considered a terrorist state.
"They can't afford to have the terrorist label hang over them for potentially years to come," said Hudson, now a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council's Africa Center.
The administration has also opposed Menendez and Schumer's proposal because it would strengthen 9/11 claims against Saudi Arabia, a key partner on Trump foreign policy that the administration is still lobbying to recognize Israel in some way, joining the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco.
That effort, known as the Abraham Accords, has been driving Trump foreign policy, with Trump trading Israeli recognition for his unprecedented sale of armed drones and F-35 elite fighter jets to the United Arab Emirates and, as of Thursday, U.S. recognition of Morocco's control of the disputed territory Western Sahara.
While Osama bin Laden was based in Sudan for years, it's not clear the Sudanese government aided or facilitated the 9/11 attacks. The 9/11 Commission, the independent body that investigated the attacks, said in its 2004 report, "It appears that the Sudanese government expropriated all his assets; he left Sudan with practically nothing. Nor were bin Ladin's assets in Sudan a source of money for al Qaeda."
Still, Congress may pass legal peace legislation that includes a carve-out for the 9/11 claims to continue, leaving the Trump administration or the incoming Biden administration to salvage the U.S. deal with Sudan.