WASHINGTON — Have you been wondering whether U.S.-Saudi arms deals can survive allegations the Saudi government killed Washington Post writer Jamal Khashoggi?
Yeah, so are we.
A growing chorus of U.S. lawmakers, mostly Senate Democrats, say its time to cut the kingdom off. But President Donald Trump has repeatedly said that’s a no-go, with $110 billion in proposed deals hanging in the balance. (Of that total, Saudi Arabia has signed letters of offer and acceptance for $14.5 billion in “helicopters, tanks, ships, weapons, and training,” according to the Pentagon.)
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s top Democrat, Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., has a months long hold on the proposed sale of U.S. precision-guided bomb kits to Saudi Arabia.
The committee’s chairman, Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., has pointed the finger at the Saudi royal family in Khashoggi’s alleged death and said now’s not the time to ask Congress to approve U.S.-Saudi deals.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., is again proposing legislation to end U.S. involvement in Yemen. And in a sign of the shifting politics, the Senate Armed Services Committee’s top Democrat, Sen. Jack Reed, said Wednesday the U.S. should stop refueling jets the Saudis use to conduct airstrikes in Yemen — a switch after Reed voted against Sanders' resolution months earlier.
Will this all blow over?
The answer is eventually, maybe, but it’s complicated. Pressure to punish Saudi Arabia is growing as more damning details become public, such as the alleged links between one of the suspects and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and that Khashoggi was tortured to death.
First, some wonkery.
To advance a proposed arms sale, the U.S. State Department, by decades-old tradition, grants the “four corners” — the top Democrat and Republican on the House and Senate Foreign Relations committees — an informal review period.
During that time, those four lawmakers can pause a sale while the administration answers their questions and concerns. These holds are not typically made public, but in this case Menendez has been openly frustrated with civilian casualties caused by Saudi airstrikes and skeptical that the administration is sufficiently leveraging the sales to end the war through diplomacy.
Such holds can be elastic, but they’re not meant to be indefinite or a congressional veto. And after the review period, the State Department can advance a sale to the Senate. There, lawmakers have 30 days to seek answers from the executive branch.
Can Trump trump Congress?
Could the president blow through the hold? Technically, yes, but not only would it be extraordinary — it would risk the optics of conducting business as usual with a regime accused of killing a journalist, and it risks angering Menendez, who can use his position to slow State Department nominees or otherwise bedevil the administration. (An administration official said it’s not a step to be taken lightly, but it hasn’t been ruled out.)
If the sale is advanced to the full Senate, it could be subject to a joint resolution of disapproval under the 1976 Arms Export Control Act. Such a measure would be privileged in the Senate, which means it could be quickly brought to a floor vote.
Whether Congress then rejects a U.S.-Saudi arms deal may also depend on what’s being dealt. For instance, Reed said Wednesday he opposes precision-guided munition sales to the kingdom but added it has “legitimate defensive needs” like Patriot anti-missile batteries — a line of thinking that could extend to a pending $15 billion sale of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system.
Supposing Trump wants to muscle a sale past Congress, it’s unlikely that in this session either chamber could muster the two-thirds majorities needed to override a presidential veto, congressional observers say. Both chambers are under the control of the GOP, which has shown reluctance to challenge the president on a range of issues.
While it appears steam is building to halt arms sales, Congress is also discussing sanctions under the 2016 Global Magnitsky Act, a tough move in its own right that could quench lawmakers' thirst for punitive action against Riyadh.
Twenty lawmakers, including Corker and Menendez, requested the Trump administration make a determination on whether Saudi officials violated the Global Magnitsky Act, which started a 120-day review clock. If the administration finds human rights violations occurred, it may apply sanctions prescribed by Global Magnistky or issue a waiver.
In the House, Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce, R-Calif., and ranking member Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., favored that track in an Oct. 12 letter to Trump. Arms sales weren’t mentioned.
The duo also asked Trump to take the intermediate steps of canceling Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s visit to an investment conference in Saudi Arabia next week, and of reviewing Saudi diplomatic and consular personnel and activities within the U.S.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., hinted Wednesday to CBS News that he favors the Global Magnitsky Act process, calling Khashoggi’s disappearance “really disturbing” and potentially problematic for the U.S.-Saudi relationship. But Ryan defended that relationship as "very important, and there is a lot to this relationship that that will persist no matter what.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, when asked whether the U.S. should halt arms sales to Riyadh, told Bloomberg he’s not ready to say which form of action he would take and called the allegations “extremely disturbing.”
“Clearly we need to find out what happened before deciding what action should be taken," McConnell, R-Ky., said Tuesday. “I can’t imagine if what we think happened, that we would take no action."
To what end?
The Obama administration used arms-sale holds in an attempt to improve a customer nations' behavior on human rights, but to limited effect, said Becca Wasser, a researcher with the think tank Rand.
"You have to ask the question: What end is the hold supposed to achieve? Is it intended to condition a partner’s behavior or punish them?” Wasser said. “I have a healthy amount of skepticism on both counts.”
Wasser predicted that holding up arms sales is not going to massively impact the U.S. defense industry or bin Salman’s signature economic agenda, Vision 2030.
As for Magnitsky sanctions, Wasser argued they’re more effective in Russia, targeting businessmen in the oligarch class who have reach with the Kremlin.
“It is less likely to be effective in Saudi, where the royal family and upper echelons of government that may be implicated are insulated,” she said.
What about midterms?
When the new Congress is seated in January, there likely will be a different status quo, and that could force a new calculus for lawmakers and the White House.
CNN projected last week that Democrats will take control of the House while the GOP will retain the Senate, but the margins will matter. Of the key players, Menendez is in a tight re-election battle, and both Corker and Ryan are leaving Congress at the end of the year either way.
For now, Congress isn’t taking any action because it will not be in session until after midterm congressional elections next month. But stay tuned.
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.