Engel blasts Trump's 'phony' emergency, says Democrats will try to block Saudi Arabia weapons deal

Deirdre Shesgreen

Correction: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized the legislation introduced Monday by Sens. Todd Young, R-Ind., and Chris Murphy, D-Conn.

WASHINGTON – A top Democrat vowed on Wednesday to use "every possible avenue" to block the Trump administration’s controversial decision to sell $8.1 billion in bombs and other U.S.-made weapons to Saudi Arabia and its allies.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the weapons deal last month and said the administration would sidestep Congress’ objection to the sale by deeming it a “national security emergency.” The move infuriated lawmakers in both parties, who argue that Saudi Arabia has become an unreliable ally more deserving of a rebuke than a reward.

"There is no emergency. It's phony. It's made up," House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., said during a hearing on Wednesday. 

"We're looking at every possible avenue for stopping these transfers before they go forward under this phony justification," Engel said.

Republicans also raised questions about the weapons sale at Wednesday's hearing, in which lawmakers noted that previous U.S.-made weapons sold to the Saudis and the United Arab Emirates have ended up in the hands of terrorist groups and that Saudi Arabia has been accused of gross human-rights violations, among other objections. 

R. Clarke Cooper, the State Department’s assistant secretary for political-military affairs, defended the deal in testimony before the committee. The sale involves a series of 22 arms sales to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan.

"Timing was of the essence," Cooper said of the sale. Moving ahead with the sale sent "a message of deterrence to Tehran," he said, and signaled to U.S. allies in the region that the U.S. stands "with them shoulder to shoulder."

Cooper said the Trump administration had notified Congress of its intent to sell some of the weapons 18 months ago, but lawmakers blocked them from going forward. 

He cited intelligence threats suggesting Iran was preparing to attack U.S. assets in the region as the trigger for the emergency declaration, which allowed the administration to evade congressional sign-off on the sale. 

"The threat has not abated," Cooper said of Iran.

But lawmakers noted that the American weapons will take months, if not a year, to be delivered to Saudi Arabia and the two other Gulf countries. 

Rep. Michael McCaul, the top Republican on the committee, noted that in previous instances where the Executive Branch has used its emergency powers to bypass Congress on arms sales, "critical weapons were delivered quickly during hot wars."

But in this instance, "some of these sales will not be ready for delivery for over a year," the Texas Republican said. 

McCaul said he is working with Engel on new legislation that would make future arms sales subject to certain conditions, including that they would not contribute to civilian deaths.

Most of the weapons being sold to the Saudis and UAE are offensive arms to be used in the Yemen war, which have killed thousands of civilians and created a massive humanitarian crisis. The Saudi-led coalition, with U.S. support, is fighting Iranian-backed rebels there. 

A few Republicans came to the Trump administration's defense, saying Iran represents a menacing threat in the region and blaming Senate Democrats for blocking the arms sales. Rep. Scott Perry, R-Penn., placed blame specifically on Sen. Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat who had prevented the sales from going through.

But others seemed uneasy with the Trump administration's decision. 

"I want to support the administration," said Rep. Ted Yoho, R-Fla. But he pointed to a CNN report that found U.S.-made weapons sent to the Saudis and the UAE had been transferred to groups linked to al Qaeda and Iran. 

"What guarantee do we have that this equipment won't get into the hands of terrorist groups?" Yoho asked. 

Cooper said the weapons deal included accountability measures aimed at preventing such moves.

Wednesday's contentious hearing came after a bipartisan group of senators – including South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, one of President Donald Trump's closest allies in the Senate – said they would try to block the sale by forcing 22 votes disapproving each one. 

The Senate could start voting on those proposals as early as next week. Engel and other Democrats introduced similar legislation in the House on Wednesday. 

Those moves seem unlikely to succeed in killing the $8.1 billion deal. President Donald Trump can veto the disapproval measures, and Congress would need a two-thirds super-majority to override that.

But the votes will be a highly public rebuke of Trump. And they will showcase the growing unease among lawmakers in both parties with the president's cozy relationship with Saudi Arabia, despite the kingdom's role in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, an American resident and Washington Post columnist. 

Senators Todd Young, R-Ind., and Chris Murphy, D-Conn., introduced a separate measure on Monday that would require the Trump administration to produce a report on Saudi Arabia's human rights record. That information could then be used to block security assistance to the kingdom.

“This administration has effectively given a blank check to the Saudis – turning a blind eye to the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi and allowing their ballistic missile program to expand,” Murphy said in a statement Monday. “Congress needs to change how we do business with the Kingdom. The process we are setting in motion will allow Congress to weigh in on the totality of our security relationship with Saudi Arabia, not just one arms sale.”

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Engel blasts Trump's 'phony' emergency, says Democrats will try to block Saudi Arabia weapons deal