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Trump may sell Saudis new weapons despite Congress’ objections


Senators voted Thursday to recommend that the U.S. end its assistance to Saudi Arabia for the war in Yemen and put the blame for the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi squarely on Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. (Dec. 13)

WASHINGTON – The Trump administration will push through a new weapons sale to Saudi Arabia and bypass congressional objections by declaring the transaction an “emergency,” two Democratic senators said Friday.

The State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the matter. But top Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said the Trump administration officially notified lawmakers on Friday of the intention to move ahead with the sale of precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. 

“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.

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said the move, 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.”

It was not immediately clear how much the sale is worth or what kinds of U.S.-made weapons would be transferred to the two countries. A Department of Defense spokeswoman also declined to comment. 

Menendez had previously vowed to block any weapons sales to Saudi Arabia. Those transactions 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 have become particularly controversial since 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. 

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

Shortly after Khashoggi vanished, President Donald 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.

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.

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