Senior officials advised against Trump emergency arms sales to Saudis

Source: Politico | May 20, 2020 | Lara Seligman, Andrew Desiderio and Betsy Woodruff Swan

The dispute is now at the center of an inspector general’s probe into whether the deal was conducted legally.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo disregarded the advice of high-level officials at the State Department, Pentagon and within the intelligence community in invoking an emergency waiver last year to circumvent congressional review of billions of dollars in arms sales to the Gulf, according to two former administration officials and three congressional sources.

That decision was under investigation by a government watchdog who was fired last week at Pompeo’s urging, and it has fueled renewed accusations from lawmakers that the Trump administration bucked the will of Congress and even violated the law when it fast-tracked the weapons sales. The secretary of state is facing intense scrutiny over the inspector general’s ouster, which has unleashed a flurry of negative stories and a torrent of criticism on Capitol Hill.

In justifying the move to Congress, Pompeo wrote that Iranian aggression” and “increasing regional volatility” necessitated an urgent delivery of certain weapons to U.S. partners in the Middle East.

But during meetings last spring of the National Security Council at several levels, high-level career and political officials from the Pentagon, State Department and intelligence community agreed that there had been no change in Tehran’s behavior to justify invoking emergency authorities, and advised against doing so, according to a former administration official who attended the meetings.

“There is nothing going on right now that we could point to that would say it was any different than the month before,” the former official said.

Further, some of the weapons included in the sale — $8 billion worth of guided missiles for Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, bombs for Jordan, and other items — would not come online for at least a year.

“Our conclusion was, ‘Nobody supports this being an emergency, so we think that the declaration wouldn’t have any grounds and we shouldn’t do it,’” the ex-official added. Details of the meetings, including a May gathering of the National Security Council Deputies Committee, later made their way to Capitol Hill, reinforcing concerns among lawmakers about the arms sales and prompting legislative action to reverse the transactions.

Pompeo decided to go ahead with the emergency invocation anyway after consulting with then-Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan during an informal breakfast meeting, the former administration official said.

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The move infuriated lawmakers from both parties. Current law requires the executive branch to formally notify Congress of an arms sale of this nature; the House and Senate then have 30 days to vote to block the sale.

At the time, it was thought to be highly unlikely that a weapons sale to Riyadh would pass muster in Congress, where lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have become increasingly skeptical of the U.S. relationship with the kingdom. The regime’s killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and its continued participation in Yemen’s bloody civil war have prompted several lawmakers to propose sanctions against the Saudi government, a longtime close but often nettlesome American ally.

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State Department officials were recently briefed about Linick’s conclusions in the probe. Pompeo refused to sit for an in-person interview with the inspector general’s office, POLITICO first reported, though he did submit written answers.

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