WASHINGTON – The Trump administration will push through $8.1 billion in new weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and its allies, arguing that "Iranian aggression" presents a national security emergency which gives the president authority to bypass congressional objections.
"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," Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Friday evening in announcing the decision.
The move prompted fierce criticism from Democrats and at least one high-ranking Republican.
"The Trump Administration decided to do an end run around the Congress and possibly the law,” Sen. Bob Menendez, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement Friday.
"The possible consequences of this will ultimately jeopardize the ability of the U.S. defense industry to export arms in a manner both expeditious and responsible," the New Jersey Democrat added.
Rep. Michael McCaul, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said he agreed that Iran poses a threat to the U.S. and its allies in the Middle East. But he sharply disagreed with the administration's decision.
"The president’s decision to use an emergency waiver on these sales is unfortunate and will damage certain future congressional interactions," McCaul said.
The GOP chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Jim Risch of Idaho, reacted more cautiously. A staunch ally of President Donald Trump, Risch said he was "reviewing and analyzing the legal justification for this action and the associated implications.”
Pompeo further inflamed the debate Friday with a tweet suggesting that Congress had blocked the sales for more than a year – an assertion that sparked a viral outcry.
"We presented some of these sales almost 18 months ago to Congress, but it has failed to act," Pompeo tweeted.
Menendez has previously vowed to block any weapons sales to Saudi Arabia. But opposition to the arms transfers was bipartisan, as lawmakers expressed growing concerns about the Saudi regime's conduct in the Yemen war and other matters.
The day after Pompeo announced the new arms sales, the United Nations reported that 12 civilians had been killed, including seven children, in an airstrike by the Saudi-led coalition. Overall, the war has killed thousands of Yemeni civilians and caused the world's worst humanitarian crisis.
Weapons sales generally require a congressional sign-off. But the Trump administration is relying on a narrow provision in the 1976 Arms Control Act that allows the president to sidestep Congress in an emergency. Under that measure, the president must certify that an emergency exists "which requires the proposed sale in the national security interest," thus waiving Congress' power to review and stop the sale.
U.S. weapons sales to Saudi Arabia became particularly controversial in the wake of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist and Virginia resident who was killed last fall by a team of Saudi operatives. Lawmakers believe that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the country's de facto ruler, was complicit in Khashoggi's murder.
After Khashoggi vanished, Trump said the incident should not jeopardize potential U.S. weapons deals with the kingdom.
"It could very well be that the crown prince had knowledge of this tragic event – maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!" Trump said in a Nov. 20 statement aimed at ending the debate over how he should respond to Khashoggi's murder. “We’re not going to give up hundreds of billions of dollars,” Trump said then.
Experts say Trump has exaggerated the financial benefits of arms sales deals to the kingdom. And lawmakers in both parties have pushed to cancel or suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia as a signal to the regime that it does not have carte blanche to murder journalists outside its borders, particularly those who are U.S. residents.
The State Department said Friday's decision would pave the way for 22 pending arms transfers to Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Jordan. Pompeo argued that delaying the weapons shipment could cause "degraded systems" and leave those U.S. allies more vulnerable at a time of heightened tensions in the region.
Pompeo and other Trump administration officials say the U.S. has gathered "credible" intelligence suggesting a possible attack on U.S. forces by Iran. The Pentagon has made a series of military deployments to the region, including an additional 1,500 troops announced Friday, that Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan says are intended to deter Iran.
The new weapons sales are another indication of the Trump administration's increasingly confrontational approach to Iran – and a willingness to side-step Congress on foreign policy decisions.
Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said Friday's announcement, if left unchecked, would set a "dangerous precedent," and he feared any weapons sold to the Saudis and the UAE would end up killing civilians in the Yemen war, where the two Middle Eastern countries have waged a devastating bombing campaign against the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels.
"President Trump is only using this loophole because he knows Congress would disapprove of this sale," Murphy said. "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."
Pompeo said it would be a "one-time event" and he intended to consult Congress on future weapons transactions.
The State Department did not specify what weapons or how much each country would purchase. But lawmakers were told the sales involved precision-guided missiles, bombs, ammunition and aircraft maintenance support, according to Senate staffer who was not authorized to speak about the matter on the record.
Biggest weapons buyer: Saudi Arabia purchases the most weapons from the U.S.
Jamal Khashoggi's fiancee: Nnothing has been done' about journalist's killing
Saudi Arabia is the largest purchaser of American weapons. In 2017, the U.S. delivered $5.5 billion in weapons to its Middle Eastern ally, according to the Defense Security Cooperation Agency.
Saudi Arabia has purchased almost all of its weapons from the U.S. as a way to cement the U.S.-Saudi alliance, says Jonathan D. Caverley, an expert on the global weapons trade with the Naval War College.
5/ If he does this, it's because Trump knows he would lose a vote on the sale —Congress and the American public object to selling these bombs to the Saudis. But it's not too late - Ds and Rs should stand up right now and tell the President not to set this dangerous precedent.— Chris Murphy (@ChrisMurphyCT) May 22, 2019
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trump administration plans to sell new weapons to Saudis despite lawmakers' objections