WASHINGTON — A bipartisan group of 21 House lawmakers have introduced a bill to immediately stop all military sales and aid to Saudi Arabia’s government.
The bill, led by Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., came as President Donald Trump said the killing of a Saudi journalist was a botched operation and his administration has taken its first steps in punishing the Saudis by deciding to revoke the visas of the suspects.
Halting arms sales could have repercussions for the U.S. defense industry, which considers Saudi Arabia a lucrative overseas market. Trump, who initially touted Saudi leaders’ claims of innocence as “credible” and opposed cutting arms sales, has played up $110 billion in prospective deals with the kingdom, which he spearheaded last year.
Among other sales, the action leaves vulnerable Lockheed Martin Corp.’s potential $15 billion sale to Saudi Arabia of its Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system. The deal, started under the Obama administration and approved by Congress, remains under negotiation, according to U.S. officials.
On Lockheed’s earning’s call Tuesday, Chief Financial Officer Bruce Turner said the THAAD order was the “largest order that we’ve been waiting,” but it “has not taken place yet,” and he was “not sure when that will take place.”
Calls in the U.S. Congress to punish Riyadh for journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s apparent death at the hands of Saudi government operatives are growing louder. American lawmakers are considering three avenues in response , including sanctions, stopping U.S. arms sales and cutting aid to Saudi-led military operations in Yemen.
Notable co-sponsors of McGovern’s House bill include House Armed Services Committee members, Walter Jones, R-N.C.; Ro Khanna, D-Calif.; Jackie Speier, D-Calif., and Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii. The libertarian leaning Reps. Justin Amash, of Michigan, and Thomas Massie, were the only other Republican co-sponsors.
“Under both Democratic and Republican Administrations, I’ve called for a serious review of our arms sales to the Saudi government,” McGovern, ranking member of the House Rules Committee, said in a statement. “With the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, it’s time for the United States to halt all weapons sales and military aid to Saudi Arabia. Our democratic values are on the line here – and we need to step up as a country and do the right thing.”
Since before the Khashoggi controversy, arms sales to Saudi Arabia have effectively been frozen as Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s top Democrat, Sen. Robert Menendez has maintained a hold on precision-guided munitions kits made by the Massachusetts-based Raytheon. Menendez, of New Jersey, is among lawmakers frustrated by that airstrikes attributed to the Saudi-led coalition fighting Iranian backed Houthi rebels in Yemen have resulted in significant civilian casualties
South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Trump ally, member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a lead appropriator, told CNN on Monday that he feels “completely betrayed” by Riyadh. “The relationship is important, but our values are more important,” he said.
The SASC’s top Democrat, Sen. Jack Reed, of Rhode Island, last week said Congress should not approve any new offensive arms sales to Riyadh, and the U.S. military should stop refueling Saudi Arabian aircraft fighting in Yemen, one of the key ways the U.S. supports the kingdom in that fight.
At the White House, Trump awaited a briefing Thursday from CIA Director Gina Haspel, who has been in Turkey.
He had told reporters at the White House on Tuesday that the operation was a fiasco.
“They had a very bad original concept,” Trump said. “It was carried out poorly, and the cover-up was one of the worst cover-ups in the history of cover-ups. Somebody really messed up, and they had the worst cover-up ever.”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the move to revoke visas was just a first step.
Visa records are confidential and Pompeo was not more specific about who the revocations would affect, but the State Department later said 21 “Saudi suspects” would have visas revoked or would be declared ineligible to enter the U.S.
“These penalties will not be the last word on this matter,” Pompeo told reporters at the State Department.
The administration “will continue to hold those responsible accountable. We’re making very clear that the United States does not tolerate this kind of ruthless action to silence Mr. Khashoggi, a journalist, with violence,” he said. “Neither the president or I am happy with this situation.”
Still, Pompeo stressed the strategic importance of the U.S.-Saudi relationship.
“We continue to view as achievable the twin imperative of protecting America and holding accountable those responsible for the killing of Mr. Khashoggi,” Pompeo said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.