WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump has claimed as many as “over a million” American jobs were created by U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia that are facing fresh scrutiny this week, but don’t take that to the bank, according to a new think tank report.
The actual number of jobs likely ranges from 20,000 to 40,000, according to the Center for International Policy, based in Washington, D.C. Its new 38-page report, released Thursday, comes amid a new focus on the administration’s arms sales to Saudi Arabia and Trump’s firing of the State Department’s inspector general, who was probing those sales.
“The Trump administration continues to aggressively promote arms sales based on their supposed economic benefits, to the detriment of security and human rights concerns,” said William Hartung, a co-author of the report. “The most obvious example has been the administration’s dogged determination to continue sending arms to Saudi Arabia despite its brutal war in Yemen, which has killed thousands of civilians in airstrikes using U.S.-supplied bombs.”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday confirmed his department’s inspector general, Steve Linick, who Trump fired last week, was investigating a massive arms sale to Saudi Arabia made last year. Democrats said on Monday that Linick was probing how the department pushed through the deal despite congressional objections.
Trump fired Linick late Friday in what congressional aides have suggested was a move to preempt investigations into Pompeo’s personal conduct or possible impropriety in the Saudi arms sale. Pompeo declined to explain the move and maintained he did not know the scope or scale of the arms sale investigation.
As the country was debating a halt to Saudi arms sales in 2018 after the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi ― who the American intelligence community says was murdered in the Saudi consulate in Turkey under orders by the Saudi kingdom ― The Washington Post broke down Trump’s escalating claims about the jobs it created.
Over just a few days, Trump equated Saudi arms deals he secured in 2017 to 450,000 jobs, then 500,000, then 600,000 and then “over a million” — all while the White House’s 2017 statement said the deal would be “potentially supporting tens of thousands of new jobs in the United States,” the Post reported.
Those larger numbers already strain credulity because the national security and defense segment of the aerospace and defense industry supported 370,000 direct jobs, according to the Aerospace Industries Association’s latest public estimate.
In the CIP report, Hartung concluded that a more accurate number to associate with Saudi arms sales would be 20,000 to 40,000. He arrived at it, he said, by multiplying the cost of the initial deliveries under the sale, roughly $4 billion, by 7,000, which is the standard number of jobs economists estimated per $1 billion in the defense industry — and then adding a buffer.
“Despite unprecedented efforts by Congress to stop U.S. support for the war [in Yemen] and stop arms sales to Saudi Arabia, the Trump administration has gone full speed ahead — and if you ask the president about why, it’s all about jobs and profits,” Hartung said. “So if he’s going to talk about jobs, we should give that some scrutiny.”
In May 2019, Trump declared an emergency under the Arms Export Control Act to bypass Congress and expedite $8.1 billion in weapon sales for Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates. At the time, Pompeo said the sales were needed “to deter further the malign influence of the Government of Iran throughout the Middle East region.”
Lawmakers at the time were delaying the sales over humanitarian concerns, and Democrats pushed back over what they saw as overreach by the executive branch. Congress passed a series of measures on a bipartisan basis aimed at curbing U.S. support for Riyadh’s involvement in Yemen’s civil war, but Trump vetoed the measures and the Senate failed to override the veto.
More broadly, the CIP’s report found the Trump administration made at least $85.1 billion in arms sales offers during the year 2019. But because 10 percent of U.S. arms offers for 2019 involved licenses for the production of U.S. weapons overseas, called offsets, that undercut job creation in the United States.
The top three exporting firms — Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Raytheon — were involved in more than $59 billion worth of arms deals in 2019, which amounts to more than two-thirds of total offers by the Trump administration. The report’s authors say their totals are a “conservative estimate,” citing a “lack of full transparency on Direct Commercial Sales (DCS) licensed by the State Department.”
To cite one example, Lockheed Martin CEO Marillyn Hewson used an April 2019 earnings call to tout State Department approvals for $1 billion in F-16 sales to Morocco — the third-largest customer for U.S. arms in 2019 — as well as F-16 deals with Bahrain, Slovakia, Bulgaria and Greece. America’s largest customer, Japan, was approved to receive Aegis Combat Systems for two Atago ships, while the U.K. awarded a $3.6 billion contract under its atomic weapons program, alongside helicopter buys in India and Poland.
One surprising finding is that in spite of Trump’s personal push on arms sales, figures under his administration do not surpass the Obama administration by much. When adjusted for inflation, offers in the first three years of the Trump administration averaged $63 billion per year, versus $61.5 billion per year under the Obama administration.
Echoing the administration’s more confrontational stance toward China, arms sales saw a “sharp shift” between 2018 and 2019, as East Asia and the Pacific region received the largest share of offers by value. They made up 39 percent of total deals during that time period. Meanwhile, offers fell dramatically in Europe and Eurasia, from 55 percent of deals in 2018 to 16 percent in 2019.
The report was critical of the administration’s change in policy for the American sales of small arms and light weapons as detrimental to humanitarian concerns, and it came with a series of recommendations aimed at strengthening Congress’ hand in overseeing arms sales more broadly. The report recommended stopping all U.S. arms from going to countries engaged in genocide, violation of the laws of war or severe internal repression, as called for in Rep. Ilhan Omar’s Stop Arming Human Rights Abusers Act.
Among other recommendations, it also recommends all major arms sales require congressional approval, rather than assuming sales will go forward unless Congress votes them down by a veto-proof majority.
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.