May 18, 2020

So I was right to be suspicious. The story broke today that Steven Linick, the State Department Inspector General Trump has announced he is removing, was not simply looking into whether Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his wife Susan had used staff members for personal errands.

Linick was finishing up an investigation of Pompeo’s decision last year to approve billions of dollars in arms sales to Saudi Arabia against the wishes of a bipartisan majority in Congress. State Department officials were recently briefed on the inspector general’s conclusions.

The 2018 Saudi arms deal was important at the time, but has been so eclipsed by other events we could likely all use a refresher. Here’s my best shot at pulling the story together. A warning: I expect that I don’t have all the pieces perfectly in place (I can’t tell yet how many authorizations for sharing nuclear technology were secretly permitted, for example) because there are so many moving pieces. I apologize in advance for errors, and promise I’ll get this material more fine tuned as the story warrants.

It starts with the fact that in 2018, Congress took a stand against the Trump administration’s willingness to look the other way after the murder and dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi, a U.S. resident and writer for the Washington Post. On October 2, 2018, Khashoggi disappeared in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul where he was going to retrieve documents so he could remarry. Evidence gradually leaked out that Khashoggi had been murdered, and our intelligence agencies concluded that the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman (often called MBS), had authorized the killing.

But Trump refused to acknowledge that connection, and sidestepped the law requiring him to report to Congress about the murder. This raised questions about the administration’s relationship to the Saudis, especially in two areas: first, the apparent friendship between Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and MBS; and second, the efforts of administration officials, originally led by General Michael Flynn during the transition, to work around established channels to export nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia. This deal would be worth a lot of money if they could pull it off.

(Multiple whistleblowers warned the House about this, and the House Committee on Oversight and Reform published a report on it in February 2019. The administration granted authorizations to two U.S. companies to share the technology for nuclear power plants shortly after Khashoggi’s murder. Members of the administration continued to meet with nuclear power developers for the Middle East, a plan that appears to have been part of Kushner’s Middle East peace plan, prompting bipartisan groups of lawmakers to try to block the deals out of concern that Saudi Arabia would develop a nuclear weapon. Energy Secretary Rick Perry secretly approved six authorizations by March 2019, but as near as I can tell, Pompeo refused to release the names of the companies who got those authorizations.)

Meanwhile, the Saudis were embroiled in a war in Yemen, which was causing a humanitarian crisis. Congress opposed supporting the Saudis in that war. In April 2019, it passed a resolution to withdraw support for the Saudis in that conflict, but Trump vetoed it and Republicans in the Senate refused to override his veto.

There is a law, the Arms Export Control Act, which requires that the president give Congress 30 days notice before selling arms over a certain value to another country, so lawmakers can weigh in on the sales. But the law also permits the president to bypass Congress if he declares that “an emergency exists that requires the proposed sale in the national security interest of the United States.”

In May 2019, Trump abruptly extended a longstanding emergency declaration with regard to Iran, which enabled Pompeo to approve the sales of 8.1 billion dollars worth of arms to three Arab nations, but primarily Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, despite congressional disapproval. Congress members and career Foreign Service officers opposed the sales, which included sensitive national security technology. But Pompeo pushed hard for them. “These sales will support our allies, enhance Middle East stability and help these nations to deter and defend themselves from the Islamic Republic of Iran,” Pompeo said.

Lawmakers of both parties were furious, and both houses voted to block the sales, but Trump vetoed their measures. At this point, In June 2019, the House Foreign Affairs Committee asked Linick to launch an investigation into the way that State Department officials, including Pompeo, had handled the arms sales. They saw no credible justification for an emergency that required sidestepping congressional approval, and noted that many of the weapons would not be ready for shipping for a year or more, negating the idea they were for an emergency. Their letter strongly hinted that the decision threw work to defense industries with inappropriate ties to the administration.

Pompeo refused to be interviewed by the inspector general’s office, and asked Trump to fire Linick. Trump claimed he had “never even heard of” Linick, but “many of these people were Obama appointments. So I just got rid of him.”

This story strikes me as big. The arms sales themselves are a big deal, but I wonder if there is a connection between the sales and the attempt to share nuclear technology with the Saudis. Lots and lots of money at stake there. And Flynn-- who is also in the news these days as the Justice Department seeks to drop his case-- was deep into the project, too.

Too many moving pieces to have at all a clear view yet. We’ll see.

Or not. This afternoon, Trump announced he is currently taking the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine. The White House physician released a letter that did not confirm the president’s statement. Indeed, it skirted the issue altogether, simply saying that the president and the doctor, Sean P. Conley, had discussed the drug, and “we concluded the potential benefit from treatment outweighed the relative risks.”

It is hard to imagine any doctor would have prescribed a drug whose side effects include heart attack to an older, overweight, president. It seems more likely that he is not actually taking such a drug, but said so because he was looking either to boost the drug again or to grab headlines away from the story about the Saudi arms sales. If so, it worked well; media outlets have prioritized his statement about taking the drug over the story of the Saudi arms sales and their connection to the firing of the State Department’s inspector general. The story has also taken attention from the fact that more than 90,000 American have now died from Covid-19.

A quick follow-up to the story of North Carolina Senator Richard Burr stepping down from his position at the head of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has replaced him with Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who has, in the past, been a hawk on Russian interference in American elections. This was a better appointment than I feared.

Once again, we’ll see.

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Notes:

Letter from doctor:

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Trump says he takes drug: https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2020/05/18/coronavirus-update-us/

Yemen veto: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/16/us/politics/trump-veto-yemen.html

Khashoggi case: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/16/world/middleeast/khashoggi-saudi-prince.html

Arms sales law: https://fas.org/sgp/crs/weapons/RL31675.pdf

Arms sales and emergency declaration: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/24/world/middleeast/trump-troop-increase-middle-east-iran.html

Yemen veto: https://thehill.com/blogs/floor-action/senate/441841-senate-fails-to-override-trumps-yemen-veto

Arms sales: https://thehill.com/policy/defense/453523-house-votes-to-block-trumps-saudi-arms-sale

Letter to Linick: https://foreignaffairs.house.gov/_cache/files/3/7/371f6cc5-e8ff-4107-9eb3-58d58e85f216/D61CA667E291A5DB4139B057A98A3ACD.hfac-dem-letter-to-ig-investigation-on-emergency-arms-to-saudi-arabia.pdf

https://www.politico.com/news/2020/05/18/linick-administration-arms-sales-saudi-arabia-265024

Kushner and MBS: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/mar/10/us-saudi-arabia-trump-kushner-mohammed-bin-salman

Nuclear power plants: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/19/us/politics/trump-saudi-arabia-nuclear-power.html

https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-nuclear-saudi/u-s-shared-nuclear-power-info-with-saudi-arabia-after-khashoggi-killed-idUSKCN1T52ER

House report on Saudi sales: https://oversight.house.gov/sites/democrats.oversight.house.gov/files/Trump%20Saudi%20Nuclear%20Report%20-%202-19-2019.pdf

Authorizations: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-saudi-nuclear/us-approved-secret-nuclear-power-work-for-saudi-arabia-idUSKCN1R82MG

Rubio: https://www.politico.com/news/2020/05/18/marco-rubio-tapped-to-serve-as-senate-intelligence-committee-chairman-265460