R. Clarke Cooper, an assistant secretary of state, said that if the United States stopped providing the Saudis with arms, competitors like Russia and China would fill the void.CreditCreditTom Brenner for The New York Times
WASHINGTON — A senior State Department official on Wednesday defended the Trump administration’s use of an emergency declaration to push through arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, telling a hostile House committee that holding back the weapons would have offered an opening to commercial rivals in China and Russia.
In a contentious hearing, lawmakers from both parties pressed R. Clarke Cooper, the assistant secretary of state in the bureau of political-military affairs, to detail when the administration first developed the plan to declare an emergency and sell weapons to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates against Congress’s will.
Lawmakers are outraged by the decision by President Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in late May to use a loophole in the Arms Export Control Act to push through more than $8 billion worth of weapons sales, almost all to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. 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. In both chambers, bipartisan groups of lawmakers are already moving to block the sales, many of which Democrats had informally held up since last year.
Members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee asked whether the emergency declaration was being discussed within the administration when Mr. Pompeo and Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan briefed legislators in a closed-door meeting on threats posed by Iran, which took place three days before Mr. Trump declared the emergency on May 24.
During that briefing, lawmakers “did not hear a single word about an emergency or a plan to move ahead with this sale,” said Representative Eliot L. Engel, Democrat of New York and the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee. “It’s a slap in the face.”
Mr. Cooper repeatedly declined to discuss what he called the “predecision” timeline of events but testified that the move came in response to a “significant increase in intelligence threat streams” related to Iran. Some American officials and European allies have said the administration has been overstating threats tied to Iran. He continued to make the case that if the United States ceased providing the Saudis with arms, competitors like Russia and China would seize the opportunity.
Democratic lawmakers were furious.
“I want to know whether Congress was kept in the dark,” said Representative Colin Allred, Democrat of Texas. “If that decision was reached before we were briefed, I want to know why we weren’t told about it.”
Representative Michael McCaul of Texas, the top Republican on the committee, said he understood the growing threat from Iran’s behavior, but he called the use of emergency authority “unfortunate.”
“Some of these sales will not be ready for delivery for over a year,” Mr. McCaul said, stating his preference that the State Department stick with the statutory 30-day congressional review.
Lawmakers also demanded to know who was involved in the decision-making process, amid concerns that officials with conflicts of interest were behind the arms sales. Representative William Keating, Democrat of Massachusetts, asked whether Jared Kushner, the president’s senior adviser and son-in-law, was involved. Mr. Cooper first demurred, then said he was not.
Mr. Kushner is an ally of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia and is hoping the prince will support a peace proposal for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on which Mr. Kushner has been working. American intelligence agencies have concluded that the prince ordered the killing of the Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Lawmakers also pressed Mr. Cooper on the involvement of two officials at the State Department, Charles Faulkner, a former Raytheon lobbyist who worked until May 10 in the department’s legislative affairs bureau, and Marik String, a former deputy assistant secretary in Mr. Cooper’s bureau who became a top department legal adviser in late May.
Representative Ted Lieu, Democrat of California, and Senator Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts, sent a letter on Wednesday to the State Department inspector general asking him to open an inquiry into Mr. Faulkner’s involvement, calling it “a disturbing example of a conflict of interest and blatant government corruption.”
The letter noted that before his job at the State Department, Mr. Faulkner worked for BGR Group, a lobbying firm that represented Raytheon and was a registered agent of Saudi Arabia until October. For years, Riyadh paid the firm to get the Obama and Trump administrations to support the Saudi-led war in Yemen.
Mr. Cooper testified on Wednesday that he was “not aware” of Mr. Faulkner’s involvement in the May decision.
Democratic legislators who have been briefed on the intelligence on Iran say the White House and the Pentagon are overreacting to the threat. American officials told reporters in early May that the threat was related to the Iranian military or Iranian-allied Arab militias that could attack American interests.
“The administration has presented us no evidence that the gulf countries face any substantially new threat from Iran that would justify declaring an emergency, or that these weapons, which the Saudis need to keep bombing Yemen, would even be useful if such a threat arose,” said Representative Tom Malinowski, Democrat of New Jersey and a former assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor.
“If we allow these arms sales, the effect will be to prolong a war that does not serve U.S. interests, while signaling to the Saudis that they can get away with anything,” he continued.
Critics of the American involvement in the Yemen war say Congress should continue to try to use its powers to put a leash on the Trump administration.
“If the administration won’t reverse its arms sales decision on its own, then Congress ought to assert its constitutional prerogatives and continue to do what it can to force the administration’s hand,” said Robert Malley, the president and chief executive of the International Crisis Group.
Members of Congress are also looking at the Iran Disinformation Project, which had funding from the State Department and used social media accounts to attack American citizens over their views on Iran policy. The project’s website said it was begun in 2018 and funded by the State Department’s Global Engagement Center.
The @IranDisinfo account on Twitter has promoted posts from the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a group in Washington that supports hard-line policies on Iran.
The scandal emerged on May 30 when Iranian-Americans and Middle East experts pointed out the online attacks and the ties between the project and the State Department. The agency then suspended funding for the project. On Monday, a department spokeswoman, Morgan Ortagus, said that the “implementer went beyond the scope of their contract.”
Since he took over the State Department in April 2018, Mr. Pompeo has spoken forcefully of the need to confront Iran and weaken its presence in the region. In a memo he sent to Congress on May 24 to inform it of the emergency declaration, he said that the Houthis, the Yemeni rebel group, were an “Iran-supported force increasingly contributing to the Iranian regime’s efforts to destabilize the Arabian Peninsula.”