Saudi Arabia Between Congress and the Trump Administration

The Trump Administration and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia have recently enjoyed a moment of relative calm after months of negative press coverage and criticism from members of Congress in the wake of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi on October 2, 2018. But now that the 116th Congress has resumed normal functions—after business was slowed due to a historic partial government shutdown—lawmakers are again growing angry with Riyadh and its supporters in the White House.

In the month of February alone (see here and here), Democratic, Republican, and Independent members of Congress have introduced bills and resolutions criticizing Saudi Arabia for its actions in the war on Yemen, its role in helping Saudi nationals flee the United States while they were under criminal investigation, and its flawed human and women’s rights record. Lawmakers have also sought to curb US-Saudi cooperation on civilian nuclear energy projects. To make matters worse, the Trump Administration continued its defense of Riyadh by ignoring congressionally mandated reporting requirements on the Saudi-led coalition’s efforts to minimize civilian casualties in Yemen. It also disregarded the Global Magnitsky Act reporting requirement on Saudi officials’ involvement in Khashoggi’s murder.

As tensions again rise between Capitol Hill and the White House, some lawmakers, particularly those in the GOP Senate majority, are looking to defuse the situation. Senator James Risch (R-Idaho), the new chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC), is trying to calm members of his party who are angry with the administration over its handling of the Khashoggi murder investigation and its defense of Riyadh; at the same time, he is trying to do so without angering or publicly breaking with President Trump. In that vein, Risch has been attempting to assure senators that the administration has followed the law as the Global Magnitsky Act requires (though some senators view this as a somewhat dubious claim). In addition, he organized a classified briefing with State and Defense Department officials on February 25 about the war in Yemen and a separate closed-door briefing planned to explore Global Magnitsky sanctions.

It is not clear that Risch’s efforts will help sway his fellow Republicans, never mind the Democratic members of his committee. Most senators who cared to comment after the closed-door briefing on Yemen said it did not change their opinion about the administration’s response to Saudi Arabia’s reckless actions.

Intra-Congressional Tensions

The White House’s relationship with Saudi leaders will undoubtedly lead to friction between the legislative and executive branches. How lawmakers hope to respond to Riyadh’s behavior and its defense by the Trump Administration is already exposing tensions within the halls of the capitol. Inside the SFRC, Risch’s early efforts at keeping the GOP caucus united are causing tension among members of the two parties, with some Democrats voicing concerns about Risch serving as a “rubber-stamp” for the Trump Administration.

Partisan squabbling is already on display between and within the two chambers. The Democratic-controlled House passed a War Powers Resolution earlier this month that aims to remove US troops from hostilities in Yemen. Senator Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky), leader of the GOP-controlled Senate, used a technical Senate rule to stymie an otherwise guaranteed vote on the privileged resolution. This process unfolded in a highly unusual way. After the recorded vote on H.J. Res. 37 on the House floor, Rep. David Kustoff (R-Tennessee) motioned to recommit the bill back to the House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC). Normally, this procedure is used by members of the minority to voice displeasure with the majority’s bill, but it is rarely acted on and usually just serves as a delaying tactic. This time, however, Kustoff was using the maneuver to refer the bill back to committee with instructions for the HFAC to immediately send the bill back to the floor with an amendment that, among other things, stated that combatting anti-Semitism is in US national security interests, as is opposing boycotts of Israel. The motion to recommit passed overwhelmingly.

McConnell, the longest serving Republican majority leader in the Senate’s history, used the Senate rulebook to argue that the anti-Semitism amendment is not “germane” to the resolution; that is, the anti-Semitism amendment is outside the scope of the law that dictates the expedited procedures for privileged legislation (see here and here for a better understanding of the procedures for debating privileged legislation). In short, after the Senate Parliamentarian sided with him, H.J. Res. 37 became “de-privileged” and McConnell was no longer obligated to bring H.J. Res. 37 for a vote in the Senate. This maneuver predictably drew the ire of Chairman of the HFAC Eliot Engel (D-New York). The irony here is that Engel gifted the provision to McConnell. When people like Kustoff offer motions to recommit, the majority usually objects and the motion dies. However, Engel not only failed to object, but he encouraged passage of the anti-Semitism amendment, effectively serving the Senate leadership with the non-germane amendment they needed in order to quash a vote on popular legislation.

What to Expect

The Senate will likely vote soon on a clean War Powers Resolution (in the form of S.J. Res. 7). Should it pass the Senate—and it is identical to the joint resolution that passed late in the 115th Congress—House Republicans will most likely try again to add the anti-Semitism amendment. If Democrats vote no, the GOP will attempt to paint them as soft on anti-Semitism. But if it is adopted by the House, then the Senate will have to consider the resolution again, where the Senate leadership will likely invoke the same “germaneness” clause to avoid having to hold a vote.

In the meantime, congressional committees, particularly in the House, will continue putting pressure on the administration to address the behavior of Saudi Arabia. One committee is already investigating the White House for its negotiations with Riyadh over a civilian nuclear energy program. In addition, individual lawmakers will continue writing to the administration for information. Bills are forthcoming that look to force Trump Adminsitration officials to divulge information about Saudi Arabia and the White House’s posture toward it or would propose a fundamental change in US-Saudi relations and punish Riyadh for its actions in Yemen and the murder of Khashoggi. As Senator Marco Rubio (R-Florida) said recently, “The congressional branch has the ability to stop things from happening, but it doesn’t have a lot of power to make the president do anything. So obviously, you could take action on unrelated matters to force an administration to do something, but ultimately there’s no law we can pass that makes them answer a question if they refuse to comply.” Most likely, as the fight between Congress and the White House over Saudi Arabia heats up, lawmakers will try and stop mutual efforts between the two countries (e.g., US-Saudi cooperation on nuclear technology, weapons sales). They will also take action on unrelated matters (e.g., investigating financial ties between members of the Trump family and Gulf states) to increase pressure on the administration.

Also Happening in Washington

I. Congress

1) Legislation

Expressing Support for Addressing Arab-Israeli and Israeli-Palestinian Conflicts in Concurrence. House members introduced H. Res. 138 which expresses support for Arab and Muslim-majority states’ willingness to normalize relations with Israel even while a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians remains to be realized. The resolution’s authors declare support for the reported recent outreach from Gulf Arab states toward Israel, including a meeting in Warsaw, Poland last week.

US Policy Recognizes Israeli Sovereignty over the Golan Heights. A group of Republican senators introduced S. 567 in an effort to adopt as official US policy the idea that Israel has full sovereignty over what is considered occupied Syrian territory in the Golan Heights. This movement has been picking up momentum in the last year, though most serious observers would still caution against formal recognition of Israel’s sovereignty over the territory. A House counterpart was introduced this week as H.R. 1372.

2) Personnel and Correspondence

Sens. Cruz and Grassley Ask Administration About Hezbollah in Venezuela. Republican Senators Ted Cruz (Texas) and Chuck Grassley (Iowa) sent letters to four Trump Administration officials hoping for clarity on reports that Hezbollah has a presence in Venezuela. The senators asked for the Department of Justice to determine if Hezbollah should be designated—separately from its designation as a foreign terrorist organization—as a transnational criminal organization.

II.Executive Branch

Trump Backtracks on Syria Withdrawal. During the last week, Reuters and CNN reported that President Trump will leave a total of 400 US troops in Syria. ACW Fellow Joe Macaron recently analyzed the strategy, or lack thereof, and its implications for the situation in Syria.

Pompeo Meets with UN Secretary General over Yemen. On February 21, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with UN Secretary-General António Guterres to discuss, among other things, the global community’s efforts to bring about an end to the war in Yemen.

Egypt Working Group Writes to Pompeo, Bolton over Egypt’s Sisi. On February 22, a bipartisan group of scholars sent letters to Secretary Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton urging them to speak with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi and discourage his pursuit of constitutional changes that would allow him to remain in office until 2034. Members of the group called on the two senior administration officials to publicly and privately urge Cairo to drop its pursuit of the constitutional change and end its crackdown on domestic civil liberties.

Ambassador Kelly Craft Picked to Serve as Next US Ambassador to the UN. On February 22, President Trump announced on Twitter that GOP donor and current US ambassador to Canada, Kelly Knight Craft, is his choice to represent Washington at the United Nations. Craft had no foreign affairs experience before being nominated and confirmed as ambassador, but she could prove an easier nominee to confirm than Heather Nauert, the president’s first choice to replace Nikki Haley at Turtle Bay.

Kushner, Greenblatt, and Hook Take Off for Five-State Visit. On February 23, top White House advisor Jared Kushner and special envoys Jason Greenblatt and Brian Hook left for official visits to Arab Gulf States. The trio planned to visit the UAE and Oman first, followed by Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, then to make an unannounced stop in Turkey. Finally, they are expected to visit Qatar. This trip is an effort to garner support for the administration’s proposal for negotiated peace between Palestinians and Israelis. On February 25, Kushner gave a rare interview with Sky News Arabia where he outlined, vaguely, some of the elements of the administration’s proposal, including delineating the borders of Israel, establishing Palestine under one government, and addressing a host of other economic aspects.

Ambassador Brownback Visits Abu Dhabi for Interfaith Conference. On February 24, the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback was in the United Arab Emirates to meet with stakeholders and give an address at the Ministerial on Advancing Religious Freedom. Abu Dhabi impressed Ambassador Brownback; he referred to the UAE as a “‘pathfinder nation’ for religious freedom and tolerance in the region.”

David Satterfield Nominated to be Ambassador to Turkey. On February 25, President Trump formally nominated Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Satterfield to serve as US ambassador to Turkey. With David Schenker nominated to take over Satterfield’s position, the administration felt it could retain Satterfield’s services in a different capacity. He will likely win confirmation easily.

Marcus Montgomery is a Junior Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Marcus and read his previous publications click here