Engel blasts Trump’s ‘phony’ emergency, says Democrats will try to block Saudi Arabia weapons deal

WASHINGTON – A top Democrat vowed on Wednesday to use “every possible avenue” to block the Trump administration’s controversial decision to sell $8.1 billion in bombs and other U.S.-made weapons to Saudi Arabia and its allies.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the weapons deal last month and said the administration would sidestep Congress’ objection to the sale by deeming it a “national security emergency.” The move infuriated lawmakers in both parties, who argue that Saudi Arabia has become an unreliable ally more deserving of a rebuke than a reward.

“There is no emergency. It’s phony. It’s made up,” House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., said during a hearing on Wednesday. “And it’s an abuse of the law.”

Engel’s remarks came at a hearing Wednesday examining the sale.

“We’re looking at every possible avenue for stopping these transfers before they go forward under this phony justification,” he said.

R. Clarke Cooper, the State Department’s assistant secretary for political-military affairs, defended the deal in testimony before the committee. The sale involves a series of 22 arms sales to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan, according to excerpts of his testimony released by the State Department.

“These sales and the associated emergency certification are intended to address the military need of our partners in the face of an urgent regional threat posed by Iran,” Cooper told lawmakers. “This action is not intended to be an escalatory military step; instead, it is a loud and clear message to Iran that we stand by our regional partners.”

Cooper’s testimony comes after a bipartisan group of senators – including South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, one of President Donald Trump’s closest allies in the Senate – said they would try to block the sale by forcing 22 votes disapproving each one. 

That unusual move is unlikely to succeed in killing the $8.1 billion deal. President Donald Trump can veto the disapproval measures, and Congress would need a two-thirds super-majority to override that.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks during a press briefing at the State Department in Washington, DC, on June 10, 2019. (Photo: JIM LO SCALZO, EPA-EFE)

But the votes will be a highly public rebuke of Trump. And they will showcase the growing unease among lawmakers in both parties with the president’s cozy relationship with Saudi Arabia, despite the kingdom’s role in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, an American resident and Washington Post columnist. 

Senators Todd Young, R-Ind., and Chris Murphy, D-Conn., introduced the first of the 22 measures on Monday. They have both expressed concern about the Saudis’ conduct in the war in Yemen, which has left thousands of civilians dead and created an unprecedented humanitarian catastrophe.

“This administration has effectively given a blank check to the Saudis – turning a blind eye to the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi and allowing their ballistic missile program to expand,” Murphy said in a statement Monday. “Congress needs to change how we do business with the Kingdom. The process we are setting in motion will allow Congress to weigh in on the totality of our security relationship with Saudi Arabia, not just one arms sale.”

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