Senior Trump administration officials are quietly discussing whether to end a decades-old process for congressional review that has allowed lawmakers from both parties to block weapons sales to foreign governments over humanitarian concerns, according to current and former administration officials and congressional aides. The move could quickly advance sales of bombs to Saudi Arabia, among other deals.
If adopted, the change would effectively end congressional oversight of the sale of U.S. weapons and offers of training to countries engaged in wars with high civilian casualties or human rights abuses. It would also certainly widen rifts between the administration and Congress.
Senior administration officials have been especially frustrated in the past three years by bipartisan efforts in Congress to hold up arms sales to Saudi Arabia, which, along with the United Arab Emirates, has used U.S. weapons to wage a devastating war in Yemen that has killed thousands of civilians.
President Donald Trump has championed the sales — even holding up charts in the White House during a news conference to stress their importance — as have Jared Kushner, his son-in-law and senior adviser, and Peter Navarro, a trade adviser.
In May 2019, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared an emergency to bypass Congress and fast-track more than $8 billion in bombs and other weapons, mainly to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — citing a need to “deter further Iranian adventurism” in the region.
A State Department inspector general began an investigation of that action in June 2019 and was close to completing an investigation into whether Pompeo and other aides had acted illegally when the inspector general was fired by Trump last month at Pompeo’s urging.
More recently, the administration has chafed at decisions by Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., and others to block the sale of $478 million worth of precision-guided bombs to Saudi Arabia and a license for a U.S. company, Raytheon Technologies, to expand its manufacturing footprint in the kingdom.
Lawmakers this year also placed a hold on a new package to Saudi Arabia — technology that would connect military databases with those of domestic security forces. That package, which has not been reported publicly, has raised concerns among lawmakers because of domestic human rights abuses by Saudi authorities.
A decision by the Trump administration to block Congress from the arms sales review process would not just free up deals with Saudi Arabia. It would also effectively push through sales of Predator drones to the United Arab Emirates; a refurbishment package for Egyptian attack helicopters; sophisticated radars for Pakistan; and missiles, bombs and machine guns for Turkey, among other items, officials said.
All of those deals, which have not previously been reported, are being held up by lawmakers over questions about how the items will be used. Under the current system, the State Department gives informal notification to relevant foreign policy committees in Congress of proposed arms sales. The lawmakers then give input to administration officials, which helps agencies in making adjustments to ensure the sales get approved by Congress as a whole.
Under this informal process, lawmakers can hold up sales, which is what both Republican and Democratic senators have done with arms sales to Gulf Arab nations.
Once any differences are resolved, the administration gives Congress formal notification of the arms sales, which then starts a 30-day period when lawmakers can object.
If the administration scraps the informal notification process, it would tell Congress of proposed arms sales only through the formal process. That framework allows members of Congress to introduce and vote on resolutions to disapprove of certain sales. But to actually block a deal, a measure would require support from two-thirds of both chambers to overcome an inevitable presidential veto.
“This is not just a thumb in the eye to Democrats; this is a thumb in the eye to Republicans and to all of Congress,” said Max Bergmann, a senior adviser at the State Department during the Obama administration who had helped oversee military sales. “The way the arms sale process has worked is one of the rare bipartisan mechanisms that has existed no matter who controls the White House and Congress.”
Menendez, the Democratic senator, said ending the informal notification system would make the process harder for all sides. “The American public has a right to insist that the sales of U.S. weapons to foreign governments are consistent with U.S. values and national security objectives,” he said.
The State Department and the Pentagon both declined to comment.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper supports ending the informal notification process but is letting Pompeo take the lead in the efforts, officials with knowledge of the matter said. Esper thinks a faster process for arms sales would help him on a range of security issues in the Middle East, these officials said.
Career officials in both departments have warned political appointees against ending the process.
The discussions come at a particularly sensitive time for Pompeo.
Three congressional committees are investigating whether Pompeo urged Trump to fire the State Department’s inspector general, Steve Linick, over inquiries Linick was conducting into the secretary. One of those focused on whether Pompeo and other administration officials acted illegally when he announced the “emergency” declaration to push through the $8.1 billion sales of weapons in 22 batches mainly to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Those sales had been held up since 2017 by lawmakers from both parties in the informal notification process.
Pompeo was aware of Linick’s investigation and had submitted a written statement in response to questions from the inspector general’s office. In early March, investigators briefed several senior State Department officials on their findings, but the report has not been completed.
Pompeo has said Linick was “undermining” the department.
Andrew Miller, a former department official, said he had heard that discussions had been underway for months among administration officials over ending the informal notification process.
He said some congressional offices became aware of the discussions at the time that State Department officials gave informal notification to those offices about the new $478 million package of precision-guided bombs to Saudi Arabia, which includes the license for Raytheon. Congressional aides say that license is just as troubling as the bombs.
“In terms of the policy, it has two contradictory effects,” said Miller, a deputy director for policy at the Project on Middle East Democracy. “On one hand, it could circumvent congressional oversight and lead to more reckless sales. On the other hand, it deprives the administration of an early opportunity to adjust sales to reflect congressional concerns, which could actually lead to delays.”
Congressional aides said the fact that Kushner has a direct channel with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia — the two communicate using WhatsApp and other methods — raises more questions about the arms deals and increases the importance of oversight. Among other things, U.S. intelligence agencies believe the prince ordered the 2018 killing of Jamal Khashoggi, a Virginia resident and Washington Post columnist; that killing has contributed to lawmakers putting holds on arms sales.
Under the review process, Congress scrutinizes hundreds of proposed arms sales packages each year. The vast majority go through the process smoothly, but there have been prominent instances in which lawmakers and the Trump administration have clashed.
The informal notification process has existed in one form or another since the late 1980s. Executive branch agencies agreed with lawmakers on the latest iteration in early 2013. Under a “gentleman’s agreement,” a legislative aide said, congressional committees would approve packages during the informal process in 20, 30 or 40 days, depending on the sensitivity of the package. However, on those few packages on which lawmakers had additional questions, the committees could continue to freeze them until they got satisfactory answers.
Trump administration officials are frustrated by that part of the process. In a classified briefing with congressional committee members this month, R. Clarke Cooper, assistant secretary of state in the bureau of political-military affairs, urged lawmakers to lift holds on contentious sales within reasonable amounts of time.
Some current and former national security officials said the informal process did need revamping.
“Both sides have a legitimate argument,” said Bilal Saab, director of the Middle East Institute’s defense and security program and a former Pentagon official who worked on security cooperation. “You have congressional staffers who can put an indefinite hold on an arms sales case because their boss has a personal vendetta against political rivals in the administration. That’s excessive, and it’s bad for foreign policy. But Congress does not want to be cornered.”
Saab recommended a compromise that would allow Congress to put a 30-day informal hold on a sale to resolve any grievances, after which the hold would be lifted.