WASHINGTON — In defiance of federal law, the State Department is refusing to submit reports to Congress detailing efforts by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to alleviate the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, according to legislators and congressional aides.
Trump administration officials have missed both congressionally mandated deadlines this year to submit the biannual reports, most recently last week. This has further inflamed tensions between the administration and legislators who were already furious with the administration’s unflagging support of the Saudi government and were still stung by the White House’s decision in May to circumvent Congress to sell arms to Riyadh.
“Congress has tried again and again to bring accountability and transparency to America’s role in the war in Yemen. At every turn, the Trump administration has blocked our efforts,” said Representative Eliot L. Engel, Democrat of New York and the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee. “But we won’t stop looking for ways to dial back our involvement in a conflict that’s fueling the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.”
Last year, Senator Todd Young, Republican of Indiana, and Senator Jeanne Shaheen, Democrat of New Hampshire, both of whom sit on the Foreign Relations Committee, successfully added a provision to the military defense policy bill that required the State Department to submit certifications to Congress describing the actions Saudi and Emirati officials have taken to reduce the risk of harm to civilians.
Absent those certifications, the law prohibited the United States from refueling Saudi coalition aircraft conducting missions focused exclusively on the war, unless the administration chose to issue a national security waiver.
The State Department told lawmakers in February, before one of the scheduled deadlines, that it was no longer obligated to provide those certifications to Congress, because the United States had stopped refueling aircraft from the Saudi-led coalition engaged in Yemen in November, according to four congressional aides briefed on the message. Key members of Congress believe the law wasn’t meant to be read that narrowly, particularly as the United States still provides the Saudis with munitions and military intelligence. A spokesman for the State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“The Trump administration is brazenly violating the bipartisan law I authored with Senator Young and sidestepping congressional oversight. The letter and intent of the law are clear,” said Senator Jeanne Shaheen, Democrat of New Hampshire. “By refusing to submit the final two certifications and adhere to the transparency that is expected of the State Department, the Trump administration has allowed our foreign partners to misuse our military equipment and exasperate the humanitarian situation.”
Senator Todd Young, Republican of Indiana, said that the law was “undeniably clear” and urged the administration to “ensure that the support we provide furthers U.S. interests, principles and objectives.”
Senator Jim Risch of Idaho, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and a Trump loyalist, introduced legislation last month that sought to reset the relationship with Saudi Arabia after the grisly killing of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi dissident and journalist, and amid continuing concerns about Riyadh’s bloody military campaign in Yemen. That legislation clarified that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was still required to submit the certifications to Congress even if the United States halted in-flight refueling of Saudi coalition aircraft.
The first certification the State Department submitted to Congress in September drew the ire of a bipartisan group of lawmakers who said they found it “difficult to reconcile known facts with at least two of your certifications,” and warned administration officials to “take all evidence into account” in future certifications.
“In short, we are skeptical a certification that the two governments have undertaken demonstrable actions to reduce the harm to civilians is warranted when the Saudi coalition has failed to adopt some U.S. recommendations while civilian deaths and casualties due to coalition airstrikes have increased dramatically in recent months,” the senators wrote to Mr. Pompeo.
Privately, lawmakers are worried that the State Department has ceased providing certifications to avoid any further backlash, according to the congressional aides.
It is just the latest legally mandated congressional deadline that the Trump administration has flouted. Lawmakers are still demanding that the White House provide Congress with a report determining whether or not Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, was responsible for Mr. Khashoggi’s death. That report was due in February.
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