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Democrats spar with State official over arms sales maneuver

Rep. David Cicilline accused a senior State Department official of gas-lighting Congress in his assertions about why the administration needed to subvert Congress on arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Rep. David Cicilline accused a senior State Department official of gas-lighting Congress in his assertions about why the administration needed to subvert Congress on arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

A senior State Department official on Wednesday appeared to blame Democrats for the administration’s decision last month to declare a state of emergency over Iran to avoid congressional review of billions of dollars of weapon sales to Arab Gulf states.

R. Clarke Cooper, assistant secretary of State for political-military affairs, attributed the emergency order to holds placed in spring 2018 by Senate Foreign Relations ranking member Robert Menendez on $2 billion in proposed precision-guided missile sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Menendez, D-N.J., placed the holds in response to the many civilian casualties in the Yemen civil war, in which the two Gulf nations are fighting against Iranian-backed Houthi insurgents.

The holds were broken with the emergency declaration.

“Yes, the protracted process did contribute to the conditions that necessitated an emergency,” Cooper testified at a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing examining the rationale for the May emergency declaration.

Menendez’s holds were not legally binding but part of a longstanding bipartisan tradition between the executive branch and lawmakers for resolving concerns about weapon exports before they are formally announced and put before Congress for review under the Arms Export Control Act.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo cited the emergency declaration as justification to avoid an otherwise mandatory 30-day review period under the arms export law. The $2 billion in missile sales were combined with other weapon systems to form a 22-component $8.1 billion package.

Democrats used the hearing to roundly castigate the Trump administration’s rationale for declaring an emergency, alternately characterizing it as “phony” and “bogus.” They accused Cooper and other State Department officials, including Pompeo, of trying to circumvent lawful congressional oversight.

“It’s a little hard to believe that we’re supposed to take your complete disregard for the congressional review process as an indication that you value congressional engagement,” Rep. David Cicilline, said to Cooper, who was involved in the decision on the emergency declaration. “This is gas-lighting. Your claiming you’re ignoring this provision is your way of affirming the role Congress plays. That’s an absurdity.”

Rep. Abigail Spanberger chided Cooper for his complaints that Democrats were drawing out the arms sale review process.

“You’ve referred multiple times to a protracted process and I would just remind you, sir, that the protracted process you are bemoaning is, in fact, the constitutional process that we as members of Congress have a responsibility to exercise when we are selling our weapon systems that are this lethal to countries abroad,” the Virginia Democrat said.

Menendez also responded in a statement to CQ Roll Call.

“Disdain for law and process is not an excuse to break it,” he said. “It’s also not an excuse to create a fake emergency, mislead Congress, and rush weapons into Saudi hands without assurances that they won’t be used to kill civilians.”

After Saudi dissident journalist and Virginia resident Jamal Khashoggi was assassinated by Saudi government agents in Turkey last October, Menendez’s office said the State Department effectively ended substantive engagement over the human rights concerns raised around the proposed weapon sales.

“Clearly, the secretary of State decided that he couldn’t answer those concerns substantively or persuasively, and so concocted an emergency so he wouldn’t have to do so,” said Menendez spokesman Juan Pachon. “You have to give Mr. Cooper points for creativity in how he tries to defend the indefensible.”

Reassuring Saudi Arabia

Cooper said the emergency declaration was necessary to respond to what the Trump administration has assessed is a heightened likelihood for regional Iranian aggression.

But he spent more time arguing the weapons deal was necessary to reassure Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates of the U.S. commitment to them. Among the notable features of the deal is that it includes at least three licenses for U.S. defense companies for the first time to co-produce sensitive weapon components with the two Gulf nations.

“The co-production is part of our reassurance of our allies,” Cooper said. “We want to make sure that these particular partners not only had that reassurance, it’s to send a message that we do trust them as a partner.”

Democrats repeatedly made the point that many of the weapons systems in the broader package would not be ready for delivery for many months, seemingly not soon enough in the case of an actual security crisis with Iran.

“A real emergency would require weapons that have already been built and are relevant to whatever the immediate threat is. A real emergency would not justify building new factories in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to manufacture weapons that have been built in the United States for years and years,” said House Foreign Affairs Chairman Eliot L. Engel, D-N.Y. “There is no emergency. It’s phony. It’s made up. And it’s an abuse of the law.”

Republican committee members were more restrained in their remarks, though a number said they were also concerned with the way the State Department chose to declare an emergency to avoid congressional oversight.

“We just have an issue with the process,” said ranking member Michael McCaul, R-Texas, who said he shared the administration’s assessment of the threat posed by Iran.

For months, McCaul and Engel have been working on a bill Engel said would “make sure future arms sales only go forward if the country buying those weapons meets certain conditions.”

McCaul said he spoke Tuesday with Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Jim Risch about the bill, which he described as a “common-sense” approach that could pass Congress and be signed by the president.

Menendez is leading a bipartisan group of senators that have introduced 22 resolutions of disapproval to the Arab arms sales and are expected to get floor attention as soon as next week.

A group of House Foreign Affairs members announced Tuesday they were taking similar action.

“Our arms sale process was designed to include congressional review to ensure that U.S. interests and laws are always met with each sale,” said Rep. Ted Lieu who introduced a joint resolution objecting to all 22 components of the weapon sales. “The Trump administration knows that these sales would not meet that standard, so they decided to declare a fake emergency in order to bypass Congress.”

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