- Kevin Dietsch-Pool/Getty Images
- The Trump administration is keeping Congress out of the loop on its relationship with Saudi Arabia, sparking ire from lawmakers.
- The brutal killing of Jamal Khashoggi and the devastating war in Yemen have led lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to push back on Trump’s cozy relationship with the Saudis, but the president has refused to budge.
- Rep. Ro Khanna of California told INSIDER Trump’s obstinance on this issue can be explained by his administration’s “obsession” with containing Iran, but he warned that the president risks fueling more chaos in the Middle East with a “blank check policy” toward the Saudis.
- “What will bring peace is a more fair-handed diplomacy and one that doesn’t put all the eggs in the Saudi basket,” Khanna said.
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President Donald Trump’s administration has increasingly kept Congress in the dark on its dealings with Saudi Arabia in recent months, infuriating lawmakers who are concerned the US is getting exploited by a government that’s perpetuating chaos across the Middle East.
Last month, Trump officials stunned Congress when they issued a national emergency declaration to bypass legislative oversight for 22 separate arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates totaling $8.1 billion.
The administration used a national-security loophole in the Arms Export Control Act to circumvent congressional review and make the sale. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made a vague reference to threats posed by Iran to justify using the loophole but did not provide more specifics on the matter.
The emergency declaration also included a provision that allows the military defense contractor Raytheon to work with Saudi Arabia in developing high-tech parts used to build smart bombs. Although the US has sold smart bombs and other weapons to the Saudis under Trump and previous administrations, it protected the development process for national security reasons.
Trump’s decision to allow Raytheon to work with the Saudis to actually build parts for the bombs has raised red flags among lawmakers and national-security experts who say it could soon lead to Saudi Arabia making its own smart bombs with US tech.
Meanwhile, on Tuesday, Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia revealed that Trump’s administration approved the transfer of nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia at least twice since the assassination of the Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
The first of the two approvals was on October 18, two weeks after Khashoggi’s death, Kaine’s office said in a statement. The second was on February 18.
The Trump administration has approved a total of seven nuclear technology transfers to Saudi Arabia since December 2017, and Kaine’s statement said it took Trump officials more than two months to give him the answers he was looking for.
Khashoggi’s killing and the Yemen war continue to put Trump and Congress at odds
Since Khashoggi’s brutal killing in October, there have been growing bipartisan calls for the US to rethink its relationship with Saudi Arabia. The controversy was exacerbated by the fact the CIA reportedly concluded Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto ruler of the kingdom, ordered Khashoggi’s killing.
Still, Trump has continued voicing support for Prince Mohammed and has refused to hold the kingdom accountable for Khashoggi’s murder, even after the Senate in late 2018 unanimously approved a measure blaming the crown prince for his death.
Indeed, the administration has at times actively blocked measures to penalize Saudi Arabia’s brutality, such as when Trump vetoed a resolution Congress passed in April to end US support for Saudi Arabia in Yemen, a move partially inspired by Khashoggi’s death.
CNN on Wednesday also reported that the Trump administration didn’t brief important members of Congress on intelligence indicating the Saudis had advanced their ballistic missile program with China’s help. Lawmakers discovered the intelligence outside of regular US government channels, according to the report, and came to the conclusion it was intentionally left out of regular briefings by the administration.
‘What will bring peace is a more fair-handed diplomacy’
As Trump’s rift with lawmakers over the US-Saudi relationship grows, some in Washington believe he is deliberately circumventing Congress to continue a relationship he knows is unpopular but that he views as crucial to his agenda in the Middle East.
These lawmakers, however, perceive the relationship as toxic and antithetical to US values.
Rep. Ro Khanna, a California Democrat who sits on the House Armed Services Committee, told INSIDER Trump’s stubborn support for the Saudis is based on an ill-made bet that the US can help foster peace in the Middle East, and an “obsession” over containing Iran.
“What will bring peace is a more fair-handed diplomacy and one that doesn’t put all the eggs in the Saudi basket,” Khanna added.
Khanna and other legislators – on both sides of the aisle – are also increasingly concerned over the Saudi-led coalition’s war in Yemen against Iran-backed Houthi rebels. The conflict has led to the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, with US-made bombs contributing to thousands of civilian deaths in a conflict that’s killed roughly 70,000 people.
Khanna also pointed to reports suggesting the Saudis have supplied arms to Al Qaeda in Yemen – which in turn have been used against US troops – and referred to the Saudis as the “greatest exporter of terrorism” in the region.
Trump’s ‘blank check policy’ toward the Saudis could spark an arms race with Iran
Perhaps most critically, there are a host of broader geopolitical implications of Trump’s “blank check policy” told the Saudis, Khanna said, in particular the threat that the alliance could embolden Iran to restart its nuclear program and prompt an arms race.
Trump in May 2018 withdrew the US from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), an Obama-era pact designed to prevent the Iranians from obtaining a nuclear weapon in exchange for the easing of economic sanctions.
By pulling the US out of the landmark deal, Trump put the US at odds with key allies concerned he’d opened the door for Iran to restart its nuclear program.
“Instead of finding a diplomatic solution with Iran as President Obama was trying to do, this president has basically reneged on those commitments and increased the probability that they’re going to develop nuclear weapons,” Khanna told INSIDER.