Trump to invoke emergency to sell arms to Saudis, citing Iran threat

Democrat senators rebuke administration for turning to rarely used provision, which allows for weapons sales without congressional review

In this undated photo released by Saudi Press Agency, SPA, Saudi military personnel conduct military exercises dubbed Gulf Shield One in Saudi Arabia. (Saudi Press Agency via AP)
In this undated photo released by Saudi Press Agency, SPA, Saudi military personnel conduct military exercises dubbed Gulf Shield One in Saudi Arabia. (Saudi Press Agency via AP)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Trump administration notified Congress on Friday that it is invoking a rarely used provision in federal law to bypass congressional review of arms sales to Saudi Arabia, two Democratic senators said.

The administration is issuing an emergency declaration that will allow it to sell arms to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and others despite congressional objections, according to Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Democratic Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut. Menendez said the administration did not cite a specific legal or practical reason for using the provision in the Arms Export Control Act other than threats from Iran.

“I am disappointed, but not surprised, that the Trump administration has failed once again to prioritize our long-term national security interests or stand up for human rights, and instead is granting favors to authoritarian countries like Saudi Arabia,” Menendez said in a statement.

“President Trump is only using this loophole because he knows Congress would disapprove of this sale,” Murphy said in a statement. “There is no new ’emergency’ reason to sell bombs to the Saudis.”

US Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) speaks during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC on July 25, 2018. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds)

US officials had said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo could decide to invoke the provision as early as Friday. The State Department had no immediate comment.

Congressional opposition to US military support for Saudi Arabia has been growing, and lawmakers have blocked about $2 billion in arms sales to the kingdom for more than a year amid concerns over civilian casualties in the Saudi-led military operation in Yemen and outrage over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October by Saudi agents.

US President Donald Trump last month vetoed legislation that would have ended US military assistance for the Saudi-led war in Yemen against Iran-backed rebels but administration officials have complained that sales remain blocked. The law requires Congress to be notified of potential arms sales, giving the body the opportunity to block the sale. But the law also allows the president to waive that review process by declaring an emergency that requires the sale be made “in the national security interests of the United States.”

A Saudi soldier sits atop an armored vehicle on the border with Yemen, at a military post in Najran, Saudi Arabia, Tuesday, April 21, 2015. (AP Photo/Hasan Jamali)

Menendez and Murphy said they would challenge the decision but it was not immediately clear how they might do that.

“With this move, the president is destroying the productive and decades-long working relationship on arms sales between the Congress and the executive branch,” Menendez said. “The possible consequences of this decision will ultimately threaten the ability of the US defense industry to export arms in a manner that is both expeditious and responsible.”

There is precedent for using the emergency exemption for arms sales to Saudi Arabia. President Ronald Reagan invoked it in the 1980s and both presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush used it for sales before the 1991 Gulf War and the 2003 Iraq war.

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