Democrats to Scrutinize Ex-Lobbyist’s Role in Trump’s Arms Sales to Gulf Nations
WASHINGTON — Congressional Democrats are examining whether a former arms-industry lobbyist serving as a midlevel State Department official played a role in the Trump administration’s decision last month to sell weapons to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates without seeking legislative approval, lawmakers and current and former government officials said.
A House committee plans to question a senior State Department official on Wednesday over the sales, and in particular over the role of Charles Faulkner, who worked until recently in the department’s legislative affairs bureau, congressional aides said. Before joining the State Department, Mr. Faulkner worked for four years for a firm in Washington that lobbied for Raytheon Company, whose precision-guided bombs are a significant part of the arms packages to the gulf and had been blocked by Democratic lawmakers.
Lawmakers from both parties are still furious at the decision by President Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in late May to use a loophole in legislation to push through more than $8 billion worth of weapons sales, almost all to the gulf nations. The two countries are leading an air war against rebels in Yemen that has resulted in a humanitarian disaster and thousands of civilian deaths, many of them children.
Lawmakers from both parties are also reviewing ways to block the arms sales, much of which they had held up since last year.
The sales proposal includes a provision allowing Raytheon to join with the Saudis to build high-tech parts of the precision-guided bombs in Saudi Arabia, giving the Saudis access to closely guarded American technology, The New York Times reported last week.
“I want to hear from the State Department official tomorrow: Who all was involved in this decision making?” said Representative Ted Lieu, Democrat of California, who sits on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, which scheduled the Wednesday hearing. “It would be problematic if a former lobbyist for a defense contractor was involved.”
Mr. Faulkner declined to comment on Tuesday and referred questions to the State Department. No lawmaker has presented any evidence against Mr. Faulkner.
The Trump administration’s unwavering support of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates despite their human rights records has resulted in the biggest foreign policy rift yet between the administration and Congress.
In April, Mr. Trump vetoed a bipartisan congressional resolution that would have forced an end to American support for the gulf-led coalition in the Yemen war. The president’s top foreign policy advisers have all encouraged continuing support for the war, and Mr. Pompeo and Mr. Trump have made the final decisions on arms sales to the gulf.
This spring, Mr. Pompeo told State Department officials to find a way to push through the arms sales, officials said. Mr. Trump has spoken publicly of the importance of weapons sales to the Saudis.
Midlevel government officials like Mr. Faulkner advise on legal and practical mechanisms to support policy. Critics say Mr. Faulkner’s involvement in the process adds to questions about corporate and lobbying interests that have taken root in the administration despite Mr. Trump’s campaign promise to “drain the swamp.”
“I’m generally concerned about all the defense industry people who go in and out of government,” said Senator Christopher S. Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut. “The revolving door is a big part of the reason we spend a lot of money on military sales that we don’t need to.”
One person familiar with the discussions in the State Department over the arms sales said that the decisions are made at the highest levels, and that it was “ridiculous” to suggest that a midlevel official pushed Mr. Pompeo to act.
On Tuesday afternoon, the State Department released excerpts from the opening statement to be delivered to the House hearing on Wednesday by R. Clarke Cooper, who was confirmed in April by the Senate as assistant secretary of political-military affairs.
“These sales and the associated emergency certification are intended to address the military need of our partners in the face of an urgent regional threat posed by Iran, promote the vitality of our bilateral relationships by reassuring our partners, and preserve strategic advantage against near-peer competitors,” Mr. Cooper plans to say. The mention of competitors is a reference to China and Russia, both large arms sellers.
Mr. Faulkner, who remains employed by the State Department, played a prominent advisory role in the fall when Mr. Pompeo told Congress that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were doing enough to minimize civilian casualties in the Yemen war, the officials said.
At the time, Mr. Faulkner was the acting assistant secretary of the legislative affairs bureau, which recommended that Mr. Pompeo go through with the certification even though all offices in the State Department with expertise on the issues opposed it, current and former officials said.
Congress had required the certification from Mr. Pompeo because of rising outrage from Republican and Democratic lawmakers over the American role in the Yemen war. Outrage over the killing of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents also contributed to Congress’s continuing to block the sale of arms packages. Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, the top Democrat on the Foreign Affairs Committee, blocked the sale of more than 120,000 Raytheon precision-guided bombs for Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates last year, a package worth $2 billion.
Then on May 24, Mr. Pompeo announced that because of what the administration deemed an “emergency” over Iran, the United States would move forward with the arms sales. Both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are rivals of Iran, though the countries are not at war. The move angered lawmakers, some of whom pointed out that many of the munitions would not even be produced for years, so the emergency appeared to be nothing more than a pretext to justify sales.
Pressed by reporters on Tuesday, the acting defense secretary Patrick Shanahan offered a mixed response to the move, noting that the decision to declare an emergency was needed to be “responsive in this high-threat environment.”
“If they don’t buy from the U.S., of which we’re a very strong partner, then they for security reasons need to go to either China or Russia,” Mr. Shanahan said. But asked whether he supported the decision to sell the munitions by circumventing Congress, Mr. Shanahan responded, “My preference is always to follow the process.”
Legislators are now asking whether Mr. Faulkner helped guide Mr. Pompeo to the emergency loophole in the Arms Export Control Act. The act has a provision that allows the president to bypass congressional review of arms sales if he or she deems “an emergency exists that requires the proposed sale in the national security interest of the United States.”
Mr. Faulkner worked under Mary Elizabeth Taylor, the assistant secretary for legislative affairs, and in theory, she would have also weighed in on the decision to use the emergency declaration. Ms. Taylor worked on legislative affairs at the White House and for the office of Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican majority leader. Mr. Faulkner left his job on May 10, two weeks before Mr. Pompeo made the announcement.
On Wednesday, legislators plan to ask Mr. Cooper whether Mr. Faulkner and Ms. Taylor helped push through the arms sales. On May 24, Mr. Cooper told members of Congress and aides in a phone call about the decision by Mr. Trump and Mr. Pompeo. At the time, people on the call asked Mr. Cooper about Mr. Faulkner’s involvement, and Mr. Cooper responded by saying he did not know anything about that.
That initial scrutiny of Mr. Faulkner was first reported by The Times. Last week, The Wall Street Journal reported that the State Department had forced Mr. Faulkner to leave his job in early May. Mr. Faulkner’s name first became publicly linked to the general arms sale policy when The Intercept reported in September on his role in the certification process.
After that appearance of his name, Mr. Faulkner spoke with ethics officials in the department about whether there was a conflict of interest, said people with knowledge of the matter.
Mr. Faulkner joined the State Department in June 2017, according to his LinkedIn page. From 2012 to 2016, he worked for BGR Group, a lobbying firm that represented Raytheon.