Editor’s Note: Bob Menendez represents New Jersey in the US Senate, where he is the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee. The opinions expressed here are his own. Read more opinion articles at CNN.
The American people have the right to know that while the Trump administration cannot seem to be bothered to build a political coalition to combat the biggest pandemic in a century, the administration has recently managed to find a way to double down on President Donald Trump’s repulsive embrace of Saudi Arabia’s murderous regime. And as usual, it involves arms. The administration is currently trying to sell thousands more precision-guided bombs to the President’s “friend,” Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Before we went into pandemic lockdown, I received draft State Department documentation that it is now pursuing this previously undisclosed sale – details of which have not yet been made public – even though the Saudis seemingly want out of their failed and brutal war in Yemen, and despite the fact that a bipartisan majority in Congress rejected previous sales of these weapons. The administration has refused to answer our fundamental questions to justify this new sale and articulate how it would be consistent with US values and national security objectives.
This is not an isolated problem. The administration’s attempt to carry out this arms deal comes on the heels of Trump’s firing of State Department Inspector General Steve Linick, who was reportedly investigating the administration’s special treatment of Saudi Arabia over the $8 billion deal, among other issues. The IG’s probe allegedly focused on Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s decision last year to declare what a bipartisan majority of Congress rightly condemned as a false emergency to avoid Congressional oversight of an $8 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Linick’s firing casts the first anniversary of that multi-billion dollar mistake into stark contrast. Not only has the President admitted to removing the IG at Pompeo’s behest, but the administration is also trying to get Congress to rubber stamp another massive sale of munitions to the Saudis. Congress has the ability to disapprove of the sale unless an emergency is declared – as it was last year.
Last year’s “emergency” arms sales debacle should serve as a warning to prevent history from repeating itself.
To review, as the Senate Democrat with jurisdiction over US arm sales, I initially stopped the $8 billion sale until the administration could prove that Saudi Arabia had stopped bombing Yemeni markets, funerals, school buses full of children, and hospitals. After Washington Post columnist and US resident Jamal Khashoggi was brutally murdered on what US intelligence agencies concluded were the orders of the Saudi Crown Prince, the campaign to justify the sale abruptly stopped.
Instead, the administration tried to sidestep Congress’ statutory oversight role to finalize the sale. In May 2019, Pompeo relied on deception to declare 22 arms sales were an “emergency,” including nearly 60,000 precision-guided bombs that the Saudis had previously rained down upon innocent Yemeni civilians. The so-called emergency? To “deter further Iranian adventurism.”
Sadly, subsequent Iranian attacks against oil facilities at Abqaiq and aggression in the Arabian Gulf confirmed these sales had little to do with deterrence of Iran and everything to do with placating bin Salman. In fact, Iran’s continued aggressive behavior and advances in nuclear technology development reconfirm its malign intentions in the region.
There was no emergency. It was a fabricated tale to reward an eager and unsavory customer of US arms.
As a result, I led a bipartisan coalition that passed 22 Senate resolutions disapproving the sales. The House of Representatives followed suit. While we couldn’t overturn Trump’s veto, we made clear that the Congress strongly rejected the administration’s sellout of US security and moral principles. Today, a year later, there is still no justification for the US to sell bombs to Saudi Arabia.
That is why I am particularly troubled that the State Department has again refused to explain the need to sell thousands more bombs to Saudi Arabia on top of the thousands that have yet to be delivered from last year’s “emergency.” The secretary of state needs to answer our questions. What is their reasoning to continue selling weapons to the Saudis? Why should Congress allow Trump to continue currying personal favor with a capricious Saudi despot who thinks he can butcher his critics without consequences?
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Ironically, that is why Inspectors General exist. They are key to a functioning democracy and their independence is paramount to conducting effective oversight of our federal agencies. Not coincidentally, Pompeo choked that accountability mechanism when he had Inspector General Linick silenced. We still don’t know exactly why Pompeo did it, but we know that Linick was seeking answers to these questions. That is why I joined forces with House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel to open a bicameral investigation into what appears to be a politically motivated act of retaliation designed to protect Pompeo.
As inconvenient as the President and the Secretary might find Congressional oversight or Inspectors General, we will continue doing our jobs. The question remains: why is the President and his top diplomat working so hard to prop up one of the world’s worst despots? Until we have an answer, Congress must reject this new multi-million dollar sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia.