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Senate fails in bid to block Trump from selling arms to Saudis

Sale to go ahead after lawmakers unable to override veto on bill blocking $8.1 billion in weapons sales to Riyadh, Abu Dhabi despite bipartisan concerns

President Donald Trump shows a chart highlighting arms sales to Saudi Arabia during a meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the Oval Office of the White House, Tuesday, March 20, 2018, in Washington. (AP/Evan Vucci)
President Donald Trump shows a chart highlighting arms sales to Saudi Arabia during a meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the Oval Office of the White House, Tuesday, March 20, 2018, in Washington. (AP/Evan Vucci)

WASHINGTON — The Senate failed in a bid to override a series of vetoes issued by President Donald Trump Monday, allowing the administration to move forward with plans to sell billions of dollars of weapons to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Trump’s decision to sell the weapons in a way that would have bypassed congressional review infuriated lawmakers from both parties. In a bipartisan pushback, Democrats and Republicans banded together to pass resolutions blocking the $8.1 billion weapons sales to the US allies in the Persian Gulf.

A vote Monday to override Trump’s vetoes failed, 45-40. A two-thirds vote was needed.

The White House argued that stopping the sales would send a signal that the United States doesn’t stand by its partners and allies, particularly at a time when threats from hostile countries such as Iran are increasing.

Trump had sought approval for 22 separate sales of aircraft support maintenance, precision-guided munitions and other weapons and equipment to countries including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates at a moment of heightened tensions in the Middle East.

Critics said the arms sales would aggravate the devastating war in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia is leading a US-backed coalition in a battle against the Iranian-supported Houthi rebels, and which the UN said has triggered the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

The wreckage of a bus remains at the site of a deadly Saudi-led coalition airstrike, in Saada, Yemen, August 12, 2018. (Hani Mohammed/AP)

Trump’s administration took the extraordinary step of bypassing Congress to approve the sale in May, as his administration declared Iran to be a “fundamental threat” to the stability of the Middle East.

Tensions between Iran and the West have mounted since Trump unilaterally withdrew the US withdrew from a 2015 accord that restricts the Iranian nuclear program. Trump reimposed sanctions that had been lifted under the accord.

Saudi Arabia has long been a regional rival to Iran, and tension has mounted between the UAE and Tehran over several issues, including the UAE’s coordination with US efforts to curb what it calls Iran’s malign activities in the region.

Senate Democrat Ben Cardin said that by not blocking the sales, Republicans “abdicated their constitutionally mandated responsibilities” to conduct oversight.

“We have both a legal and moral obligation to make certain that US weapons are not used to repress human rights or perpetrate violence against innocent civilians,” Cardin said.

Cardin, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, pointed to a Saudi artillery attack earlier Monday in northern Yemen that medics said killed 13 civilians, including two children.

The Senate votes came after the House Oversight Committee released a report criticizing the Trump administration over its apparent willingness to let private parties with close ties to the president wield outsized influence over US policy toward Saudi Arabia.

New documents obtained by the committee “raise serious questions about whether the White House is willing to place the potential profits of the president’s friends above the national security of the American people and the universal objective of preventing the spread of nuclear weapons,” the report said.

Tom Barrack speaks with reporters in the lobby of Trump Tower in New York, on January 10, 2017. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

The 50-page Oversight report, released Monday, says Trump’s longtime personal friend, campaign donor and inaugural chairman, Tom Barrack, negotiated directly with Trump and other White House officials to seek positions within the administration, including special envoy to the Middle East and ambassador to the United Arab Emirates.

At the same time, Barrack was promoting the interests of US corporations seeking to profit from the transfer of nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia; advocating on behalf of foreign interests seeking to obtain US nuclear technology; and taking steps for his own company, Colony NorthStar, to profit from the proposals, the report said.

A spokesman for Barrack said he has been cooperating with the Oversight panel and provided documents the committee requested.

The spokesman, Owen Blicksilver, said Barrack’s investments and business activities are well known and are intended to “better align” Middle East and U.S. objectives. Barrack has never served in the Trump administration.

The Trump administration has approved seven applications for US companies to sell nuclear power technology and assistance to Saudi Arabia. Lawmakers from both parties have expressed concerns that Saudi Arabia could develop nuclear weapons if the US technology is transferred without proper safeguards.

Congress is increasingly uneasy with the close relationship between the Trump administration and Saudi Arabia. Trump has made the kingdom a centerpiece of his foreign policy in the Middle East as he tries to further isolate Iran. In the process, Trump has brushed off criticism over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the Saudis’ role in the war in Yemen.

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