Frustrated that Congress Keeps Holding Up on Approval, Trump Administration Mulls Ending Congressional Review of Arms Sales
Jason Ditz / AntiWar.com
(June 25, 2020) — The Trump Administration is looking at options, according to officials, to find a way to end a decades-old practice of notifying Congress about major US arms sales to foreign powers, with an eye toward ending the Congressional oversight and review of such sales.
This appears to be driven by the number of times that Congress has tried to hold up sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, both over concern about war crimes in Yemen and about where those arms ultimately end up, in violation of US conditions for the sales.
Even though Congress has a right to put holds on these sales, its not clear they have been able to do much anyhow, with President Trump claiming a state of national emergency to circumvent restrictions and keep selling arms to the Saudis.
Bogus claims of an emergency are somewhat embarrassing, it seems, or at least inconvenient enough that the administration figures that the path of least resistance would be to just stop informing Congress about the sales in the first place, precluding any judgment.
Trump Administration Considers Ending Congress’ Review of Arms Sales
WASHINGTON (June 25, 2020) – President Donald Trump’s administration is considering ending a long-standing system for congressional review of foreign weapons sales, congressional aides said on Thursday, a plan that would face stiff opposition from his fellow Republicans as well as Democrats.
For four decades, leaders of the Senate Foreign Relations and House of Representatives Foreign Affairs committees have had the right to review, and block, weapons sales under an informal review process.
The White House, frustrated over delays in sales to Saudi Arabia in particular, is considering whether to end that process, although it has not made a final decision.
The administration’s discussions were first reported by Foreign Policy. “There is a fear that has existed for quite a long time that the administration would end this,” one aide told Reuters.
Congressional aides said ending the review process was opposed by members of both parties in both the Republican-led Senate and Democratic-led House of Representatives. The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
A year ago, Trump infuriated lawmakers by declaring a national emergency in order to complete $8 billion in military sales to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states.
Members of Congress had delayed sales of military equipment to the region, angry about the war in Yemen as well as rights abuses like the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at a Saudi consulate.
Military aid was also integral to Trump’s impeachment last year, which centered on whether he had held up such aid to Ukraine to exert political pressure on its government.
Senator Bob Menendez, the top Foreign Relations Democrat, has placed “holds” on sales to Saudi Arabia, citing rights concerns.
“The American public has a right to insist that the sales of US weapons to foreign governments are consistent with US values and national security objectives. Consequently, the Congress is charged with exercising effective oversight of such sales,” Menendez said.
Trump Mulls Ending Heads-Up to Congress on US Weapons Sales
Administration officials say they are tired of regular efforts by Capitol Hill to review arms exports to Saudi Arabia and other nations.
(June 25, 2020) — The Trump administration is in discussions to end a decades-old practice of informally notifying Congress of major arms sales to foreign countries, in a move that reflects mounting tensions between the administration and Capitol Hill, officials and congressional aides tell Foreign Policy.
The proposal comes amid mounting frustration from senior administration officials over informal holds from lawmakers on arms sales to countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, two close US partners in the Middle East. Lawmakers have tried to block weapons sales to these countries over concerns about human rights issues and the prospect of civilian casualties, particularly with the Saudi-led coalition’s war against Iran-backed rebels in
The proposal sets the stage for another potential showdown between the Trump administration and lawmakers. It comes amid broader debates on Capitol Hill over the president’s ability to wage war without prior congressional approval — centered on US military support for the Saudi coalition in Yemen — and an ongoing congressional investigation into Trump’s firing of the State Department inspector general, who was probing the administration’s emergency arms sale to Saudi Arabia last year.
If the administration moves forward with the plan, officials and congressional aides said, it would still send formal notifications to Congress for review, giving lawmakers a legal avenue to block sales in a 30-day window of time by passing a joint resolution to oppose the arms sales. (For close US allies such as NATO members, Israel, Japan, or Australia, that window is 15 days.) But it would eliminate a practice dating back to the 1970s of informally notifying Congress of planned arms sales well in advance, so that lawmakers and congressional staffers, the State Department, and Pentagon officials can hash out concerns and disagreements about such sales behind closed doors.
“Putting politics aside for a moment, both sides have a bone to pick,” said Bilal Saab, a scholar at the Middle East Institute and former Pentagon official. “Congress doesn’t want to be boxed in with pre-cooked arms sales cases and the executive branch is sick and tired of holds that sometimes are made by [congressional] staffers … and have adverse effects on foreign policy and relationships with partners.”
The United States views foreign military sales as an important diplomatic tool beyond their military value, providing an avenue to deepen ties with foreign governments around the world. President Donald Trump has also cast his efforts to boost US arms sales abroad as a domestic economic boon, claiming at different points that arms sales to Saudi Arabia created anywhere from 450,000 to over “a million” jobs. (An independent study from the Center for International Policy, a think tank, released in May estimated the actual total to be 20,000 to 40,000 jobs.)
While congressional aides were not surprised by the proposed move, which they said the Trump administration has been considering as far back as two years, a decision to end the informal consultation would be seen as a major slight to Capitol Hill’s oversight authority.
“That would be viewed as going nuclear,” said Juan Pachón, the communications director for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s top Democrat, Sen. Bob Menendez.
Current and former officials familiar with the matter say Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has grown frustrated over lengthy informal congressional holds on arms sales he sees as important for US national security and would support this plan. Lower-ranking officials in the State Department and Office of the Secretary of Defense oppose the plan, these officials say, believing that it will worsen relations between the administration and Congress, and it could prompt lawmakers to enact new laws that would give them greater powers in approving arms sales.
When approached for comment, the Pentagon referred Foreign Policy to the State Department. The State Department declined to comment.
Some former US officials are concerned doing away with the informal review would allow more American weapons to flood into the Gulf without proper checks and balances.
“I’m concerned that this could facilitate the sale of weapons under less than ideal circumstances and could lead to an almost lackadaisical approach to selling weapons with destructive power around the world,” said Andrew Miller, a former National Security Council director during the Obama administration and now deputy director for policy at the Project on Middle East Democracy. “They’re determined to continue flooding the Gulf with weapons.”
Other current and former officials point out that there are additional avenues for Congress to get advance notice about arms sales, including in classified briefings with administration officials and the so-called Javits Report, a State Department report issued to Congress annually that lists expected sales for the year.
Saab, of the Middle East Institute, said there are other opportunities for the administration and Congress to find compromise in their growing disagreements about foreign arms sales. One compromise is to keep the 30-day peer review process but both sides commit to resolving mutual issues and grievances within that period with no holds afterwards,” he said.
“What it comes down to is this: this is a power play that is not inevitable. It could have been rectified with better communication and transparency on both ends.”
The move comes as the administration has put pressure on Congress to deliver another round of precision-guided munitions to the Saudi Arabia, one congressional aide said, despite a lack of consensus on Capitol Hill that Riyadh actually needs the weapons. “They haven’t finished delivering the ones from last year,” the aide said. “They’re not urgent operationally for the Saudis.”
But over the course of the past three years, the White House has become more intent on pushing through arms sales to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries, seen by the administration as an important check on its top rival in the region, Iran.
Just months into the Trump administration, then-Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker, a Republican, placed a hold on further clearances of US weapons sales to the Gulf during the informal review period after a Saudi-led coalition of countries imposed a blockade of nearby Qatar.
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has pursued foreign-policy objectives that have anger both Democratic and Republican lawmakers. This includes a destructive aerial campaign in Yemen that once relied upon American refueling support and the squelching of political dissent against Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, after the CIA concluded the Saudi royal ordered the 2018 assassination of Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi.
That administration’s frustrations over perceived foot-dragging on Capitol Hill came to a head last summer when the Trump administration declared an emergency to push ahead with 22 arms transfers to Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Jordan, prompting a resolution of disapproval from Congress in a serious rebuke. Democrats began pushing back on the sale in 2018, and earlier this year they launched an investigation into the firing of the State Department inspector general, who was reviewing the emergency sale.
Heartburn in the executive branch over that informal review process, aides said, helped contribute to the Trump administration’s decision to force through the sale in an unprecedented move after attacks by Iranian forces and proxies on Saudi oil facilities and tankers in the Gulf of Oman last year.
Equally concerning to some lawmakers is that the administration is sometimes using channels to grease the wheels for arms sales that aren’t visible to authorizers on Capitol Hill, a congressional aide said, including by private communications between Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor Jared Kushner and Mohammed bin Salman, the de-facto leader of the country.
“That operates in the background on these things,” the aide said. “It was MBS ringing Kushner that really brought that stuff to a head last year.”
As Saudi Arabia closes in on paying off its Yemen debt, it has been pulled into Friday’s shock dismissal of Steve Linick, who was probing the Trump administration’s effort to evade congressional approval of arms deals to Riyadh.
The shock firing of the State Department’s top watchdog is raising fears that diplomats won’t be protected against political retaliation.
A rocky marriage of convenience that has lasted since World War II could derail as oil markets crash and mutual mistrust reaches new heights.
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