President Trump appears to remain steadfast in his support for Saudi Arabia and committed to pursuing foreign military sales to Riyadh for fear of competition from peer adversaries in a new statement issued Tuesday.
In a written statement, the Trump administration lauded the U.S.-Saudi relationship and emphasized the $110 billion in military equipment from companies including Boeing [BA], Lockheed Martin [LMT] and Raytheon [RTN] that has already been approved for sale to the Gulf nation.
“If we foolishly cancel these contracts, Russia and China would be the enormous beneficiaries - and very happy to acquire all of this newfound business,” the statement said. The $110 billion includes deals made under President Barack Obama, as well as Trump.
Lawmakers from both parties and activists have called for the U.S. government to cease FMS sales to Saudi Arabia in the wake of multiple bombings by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen that have killed a number of civilians, including children. The Defense Department had been providing air refueling support to the Saudis in their war against Iranian-backed Houthi forces in the region, but Defense Secretary Jim Mattis announced Nov. 9 that that support would end.
Trump noted in his statement that Saudi Arabia would “gladly withdraw from Yemen if the Iranians would agree to leave” and would “immediately provide desperately needed humanitarian assistance.”
The disappearance and alleged murder of Saudi native and Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi embassy in Istanbul in October has also sparked outrage and a demand to halt military aid until the truth is unveiled. Multiple outlets are reporting that U.S. intelligence officials have access to tapes that prove Khashoggi was murdered at the embassy, and that the order was carried out by Riyadh’s Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman.
The crime against Khashoggi was “a terrible one, and one that our country does not condone,” Trump said in his statement, noting that the U.S. has invoked sanctions against 17 Saudi nationals who were named as accomplices in the crime, and that Saudi’s leaders continue to deny their involvement.
“The United States intends to remain a steadfast partner of Saudi Arabia to ensure the interests of our country, Israel and all other partners in the region,” the statement said. Speaking to White House reporters Tuesday, Trump said the decision to support Saudi Arabia was about “America First.”
“If you think I'm going to let Russia have that money or those things -- if you think I'm going to let China make the military equipment … We have the contracts. They wanted those contracts,” he said. “That would be a big fat beautiful gift to Russia and China. They are not going to get that gift.”
Trump told reporters that the United States will not give up “hundreds of billions of dollars of orders,” and predicted that if it did, “I think the oil prices would go through the roof.” He acknowledged in his statement that lawmakers on Capitol Hill may choose a different direction.
“I will consider whatever ideas are presented to me, but only if they are consistent with the absolute security and safety of America,” he said, noting that Saudi Arabia is second only to the United States in global oil production. “They have worked closely with us and have been very responsive to my requests to keeping oil prices at reasonable levels – so important for the world.”
Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), who serves as ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, called Trump’s remarks on FMS sales “an over-inflated figure for potential Saudi investment in the U.S. [that] signals that President Trump is willing to look the other way if the price is right.”
He called for the Senate to take up and pass the bipartisan Saudi Arabia and Yemen Act of 2018, which was introduced Nov. 15 and calls for the U.S. to suspend weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and explicitly prohibits U.S. refueling of Saudi coalition aircraft in the civil war in Yemen. Sens. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Todd Young (R-Ind.) introduced the legislation, while Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Reed co-signed the bill.
On the House side, Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.), a Marine Corps veteran and member of the House Armed Services Committee (HASC), on Tuesday issued a statement calling for “Immediate, heavy and embedded American military supervision of the Saudi war in Yemen” along with an immediate hold on all weapons sales to Riyadh.
“If the Saudis want to buy our weapons, we will hold them accountable to our values,” he said. “If the Saudis want to use our weapons, we will hold them responsible for how they do so. And if the Saudis think they can get away with killing an innocent journalist, we will make it unmistakably clear that they cannot.”
Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), current HASC ranking member and likely chairman when the 116th Congress convenes in January, noted that the foreign military sales Trump mentioned form “but a mere pittance of our economy” on a CNN segment Tuesday evening, and that the president’s decision to overlook Saudi Arabia’s alleged crimes is “not the direction that U.S. values and U.S policies should be going and it is deeply, deeply disturbing.”