By Mike Stone
WASHINGTON, June 12 (Reuters) – U.S. Republican members of Congress pushed back on Wednesday against President Donald Trump’s plan to sell $8 billion in weapons to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, saying it was “unfortunate” the administration used an emergency declaration to avoid Congressional review.
Members of Congress had been blocking sales of military equipment to Saudi Arabia and the UAE for months, angry about the deaths of civilians in their air campaign in Yemen, as well as human rights abuses such as the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at a Saudi consulate in Turkey last year.
The Trump administration is pressing Riyadh to show “tangible progress” toward holding to account those behind Khashoggi’s killing, a senior administration official said on Tuesday.
The ranking Republican on the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs committee, Michael McCaul, said at a hearing on Wednesday that he supports “the efforts of Saudi Arabia to defend themselves against Iran,” but “the recent use of this emergency authority, in my judgment, was unfortunate.”
Another Republican, Representative Ann Wagner, asked for a better understanding of the administration’s move to sidestep congressional oversight given Saudi Arabia’s human rights abuses.
Citing an Iran-related emergency, the Trump administration told congressional committees on May 24 that it would go ahead with 22 military deals worth $8.1 billion to Saudi Arabia, UAE and Jordan, circumventing a long-standing precedent for lawmakers to review major weapons sales.
Strains between Washington and Tehran have increased in recent weeks, a year after Trump, a Republican, abandoned a 2015 nuclear accord between Iran and world powers to curb Tehran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.
Trump’s administration announced that it was sending 1,500 additional troops to the Middle East, which it described as an effort to bolster defenses against what it sees as a threat of potential attack by Iran.
“Iran will never initiate a war but will give a crushing response to any aggression,” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said on Wednesday.
In a memorandum justifying the emergency declaration, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said, “Iranian malign activity poses a fundamental threat to the stability of the Middle East and to American security at home and abroad.”
Democrats on the committee called the emergency declaration phony.
Defending the administration’s position at Wednesday’s hearing, assistant secretary of state for Political-military affairs Clarke Cooper said: “This is an emergency, this is a one time event.”
However, Cooper later said a “one time event is conditions based,” and that this was the fifth time in history that such an emergency was used to push through the sale of weapons.
Cooper said that some of the weapons have already been sent to the customer since the emergency declaration and before Wednesday’s hearing. “Anything that’s what’s called ‘off then shelf’ then it’s already moving” to customers, Cooper said.
But Cooper said “there was nothing new in these 22 sales,” indicating that the packages had been previously notified to Congress, but did not progress through the established channels for weapons sales notifications.
U.S. Senators have drafted 22 “resolutions of disapproval.” The resolutions are intended to “protect and reaffirm Congress’ role of approving arms sales to foreign governments.”
Companies that would benefit include Raytheon Co precision-guided munitions (PGMs), support for Boeing Co F-15 aircraft, and Javelin anti-tank missiles, which are made by Raytheon and Lockheed Martin Corp.
(Reporting by Mike Stone in Washington, editing by Grant McCool)