CAPITOL HILL: A top State Department official received a bipartisan berating from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Wednesday over the “emergency” arms sales to Saudi Arabia that the Trump administration pushed through earlier this year — a move that cut Congress out of its normal oversight role.
Despite the anger expressed by all the Democrats present, and a handful of Republicans, over having been denied their say in a multi-billion weapon sale to a foreign partner, Congress has been unable to muster the votes to block the deal or overcome a presidential veto, and likely won’t any time soon.
But with the cameras on and a packed room at Wednesday morning’s hearing, members of Congress took the opportunity to press R. Clarke Cooper, assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs, on what constitutes an emergency, and demanded he justify the speed with which the administration said the deals had to get done.
“The process that the State Department followed in this issue, not to put too fine a point on it, was crap,” charged Republican Senator Ted Cruz. “Follow the damn law and respect it.”
At the time, Cruz had actually supported the Trump administration’s emergency declaration, which cleared the way for $8.1 billion in weapon sales for Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the UAE — without the usual legislative oversight — on the grounds that the Iranian threat was so severe that weapons needed to be shipped quickly. But today, Cruz said if the administration attempted to circumvent Congress again, he would vote against it.
“Since you began your tenure your department has shown only disdain for Congress,” Democratic Senator Bob Menendez said in one of several long, tense exchanges with Cooper.
“The secretary of state’s message is clear: ‘Congress can review arms sales, just don’t take too long, or ask tough questions. Otherwise I will ignore the law and cut you out of the process’,” Menendez added.
Menendez, the committee’s top Democrat, has long blocked the sale of tens of thousands of precision guided munitions kits due to concerns over US support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen. American-made munitions are involved in many of the Saudi-led coalition’s airstrikes that have killed hundreds of civilians in the four-year war.
In response to the stoppage in selling the weapons, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo invoked an emergency exemption in the Arms Export Control Act to push through the sales on May 24th. In response, a bipartisan group of senators, including Trump ally Lindsey Graham, voted to block the deal, which the president vowed to veto.
The sales include F-15 engines, Paveway Precision Guided Munitions, Advanced Precision Kill Weapon Systems, and Javelin Anti-Tank Missiles.
Asked repeatedly if any of the weapons have been delivered, 47 days after the emergency declaration, Cooper admitted, “delivery is pending.” Some of the equipment will take years to put under contract, build, and deliver — which undermines the administration’s argument there was no time for the usual approval process.
A new bill introduced Wednesday by Sen. Jim Risch, chairman of the Senator Foreign Relations Committee, and sponsored by Graham and Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, seeks to hit back at Saudi for human rights abuses at home and abroad, but doesn’t touch on the arms sale issue.
The bill is yet another effort by Congress to hold the kingdom accountable for a litany of human rights outrages, including the murder and dismemberment of Saudi journalist and US resident Jamal Khashoggi at a Saudi consulate in Turkey.
“It is the sense of Congress that, since the promotion of Mohammed bin Salman to the position of Crown Prince with significant authorities over foreign and domestic affairs of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the government of Saudi Arabia has demonstrated increasingly erratic and disturbing conduct,” the bill says.
The proposed legislation would not block arms sales but instead would ban travel by some members of the Saudi royal family.
At Wednesday’s hearing, Risch said he is “hoping that all of us can come together and pass a piece of legislation” that lays out “a bipartisan method for re-evaluating our relationship” with the Saudis.