WASHINGTON — In an often-heated series of exchanges Wednesday, members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee grilled a top State Department official on the Trump administration’s decision to push through arms sales over objections from Congress.
For more than an hour, senators pushed R. Clarke Cooper, assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs, on what constitutes an emergency, whether the Iran situation had escalated to that point and if the Trump administration plans to use the exemption again.
“The secretary of state’s message to us is clear: ‘Congress can review arms sales. Just don’t take too long, or ask tough questions. Otherwise I’ll just ignore the law and cut you out of the process entirely,’ ” Sen. Bob Menendez, the ranking member on the committee, told Cooper.
For the better part of a year, Menendez prevented the sale of precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates over concerns of how they will be used as part of the Saudi-led actions against Iranian-backed fighters in Yemen, an operation that has contributed to a humanitarian crisis in that country. The issue escalated following the death of columnist Jamal Khashoggi, which has been tied to the Saudi royal family.
On May 24, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo invoked an emergency exemption in the Arms Export Control Act to push through the $8.1 billion in weapon sales for Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the UAE over congressional objections.
While Pompeo cited the threat from Iran as a reason for the move, members on both sides of the aisle expressed skepticism, as many of the weapon systems would take some time to make their way to those countries, and the committee has since moved legislation that would restrict the ability to use that emergency power in the future.
While Cooper did say there were no plans in the immediate future to use the emergency exemption on other arms deals, he frequently danced around questions during the hearing, citing a desire not to discuss details in an open forum and instead responding with technicalities.
That in turn led to several exasperated exchanges with senators, particularly as Cooper twisted around to avoid answering a simple question asked by many senators from both sides of the aisle: 47 days after declaring that an emergency warranted breaking the usual arms transfer rules, which of the 22 weapons packages have actually arrived in the region?
The answer: Of the eight Foreign Military Sales agreements, three have been issued draft letters of acceptance but none have led to hardware on the ground in either nation. As to the Direct Commercial Sales agreements, licenses have been issued, which indicate companies are moving forward; however, the State Department does not track in real time the movement of DCS cases.
The effort to pull that information out of Cooper led Menendez, who voted to support Cooper’s nomination just months ago, to exclaim: “This is far from the transparency that you pledged to when you were before this committee. Far from the transparency that led me to support your nomination.”
While Democrats were predictably critical during the hearing, perhaps the most notable comments came from Texas Republican Ted Cruz.
“The process that the State Department followed in this issue, not to put too fine a point on it, was crap,” an audibly annoyed Cruz said. “For whatever reason, the administration, through what seems to me a not fully baked decision-making process, decided to circumvent the law, circumvent the constitutional responsibility of Congress and act unilaterally.”
Cruz also pledged that if the State Department tries to use the emergency exemption again without a “clear and extent emergency” that Congress agrees with, he would vote against supporting the administration, and that other Republicans would follow.
“Follow the damn law, and respect it,” he added.
Interestingly, twice during the hearing, Cooper indicated that part of the reason for pushing through the deals was concern that other nations such as Russia or China would step in and replace America as a weapons supplier of choice.
“It was a message on several levels. The immediate one was deterrence to Iran. There was the reassurance, as noted here, to the partners. But it was also a warning or rebuff to near-peer adversaries who are maybe looking to augment or seek opportunity” in the region, Cooper said.
That was also a point emphasized in his written testimony, in which Cooper said: “We simply cannot allow openings our adversaries will most certainly exploit to disrupt partnerships, to reduce our regional influence, to impact our defense industrial base, and to spread chaos. Remaining a reliable security partner to our allies and friends around the world is also in the interest and furtherance of our values.”
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.