Washington, DC – A senior US State Department official seeking to justify President Donald Trump‘s use of “emergency” powers to bypass congressional approval of an eight-billion-dollar arms sale to Saudi Arabia faced criticism from members of Congress on Wednesday in advance of a likely vote of disapproval of the deal next week.
R Clarke Cooper, the State Department’s assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs, appeared before the House Foreign Affairs Committee to defend the arms sales cleared by Trump’s emergency declaration last month, which waived a 30-day congressional review required by the US Arms Export Control Act of 1976. In declaring an emergency, the Trump administration cited growing tensions with Iran.
Democrats on the House panel said Trump’s action violated the law because there was no actual emergency. They also said the move sends a message that the US will tolerate human rights abuses by Saudi Arabia and civilian casualties in Yemen so long as Riyadh spends billions on American weapons.
“There is no emergency. It’s phony. It’s made up. And it’s an abuse of the law,” said Representative Eliot Engel, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
In the US Senate, where at least four Republicans will join Democrats to oppose the sale, a vote of disapproval of the arms deal is likely as soon as next week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters on Tuesday.
Cooper said the arms sales, combined with an escalation of US military posture in the Gulf region, were needed to counter increasing threats from Iran to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, as well as Americans in the region.
“These malign – even provocative actions mark a new evolution of the threat Iran poses to the security of hundreds of thousands of Americans who live and work in the Gulf states, and to the security of the region and our partners,” Cooper said.
Some Republicans also expressed outrage at the Trump administration’s move to bypass Congress.
“You tell us that you want to send a message with this to our adversaries. It appears that your adversary is Congress and the message is loud and clear: ‘We will stretch every statute beyond the breaking point in order to make the Congress irrelevant to the decision-making process,'” said Representative Brad Sherman, a Democrat.
“The arms sales you’re talking about are controversial. There is significant opposition in Congress. And rather than confront that, you go around it,” Sherman added.
US politicians are concerned about Saudi-UAE use of precision-guided missiles that have been aimed at civilian gatherings, hospitals, a school bus and water infrastructure in Yemen.
“In what ways is the United States holding Saudi Arabia accountable for war crimes it has committed by murdering civilians on multiple, multiple occasions in Yemen and causing a famine in Yemen?” asked Democratic Representative Andy Levin.
Cooper declined to answer most questions in a public setting, offering instead to brief members behind closed doors.
Save the Children, a US-based international non-profit group, has estimated that 37 children a month have been killed in Yemen by foreign-made bombs. A Save the Children hospital in Yemen was hit by an air attack on March 26, killing seven including four children.
The US relationship with Saudi Arabia “in its current form is immoral”, said Democrat Ilhan Omar.
“But it is not only immoral, it is counterproductive to our national security,” Omar added.
The Trump administration’s decision to sell arms to Saudi Arabia now comes in “open disregard for the will of Congress” and “is a slap in the face to our democracy,” she said.
The Export Control Act provides special procedures for Congress to overrule the president, but it would require a veto-proof, two-thirds majority vote in both chambers to succeed.
Trump vetoed a resolution in April that would have withdrawn US military support for the Saudi-UAE war in Yemen. Politicians were not able to come up with enough votes to override the veto.