Lawmakers push back on late Trump terror designation for Yemen’s Houthis

Lawmakers in both parties are pushing back on the State Department’s decision to label Yemen’s Iranian-backed Houthi rebels as a terrorist organization, criticizing the move as having a disastrous impact on delivering lifesaving assistance to people suffering under the worst humanitarian crisis ever. 

The criticism from Republicans and Democrats marks a rare moment of unity in the waning days of the Trump administration, though lawmakers in both parties have previously criticized the administration’s support for the Saudi-led coalition’s role in Yemen’s civil war. 

Outrage related to the eleventh-hour policy announcement was shared on an expletive-laden phone call between congressional aides and State Department officials. 

The call was initiated by the State Department on Monday morning to brief Congress on its terrorism designation, which Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced near midnight the day before. 

Sunday’s late-night announcement narrowly met requirements for the State Department to provide seven days’ notice to Congress of its policy directive, which is set to take effect on Jan. 19, one day before President-elect Joe Biden is inaugurated. 

Both Republicans and Democrats, while recognizing Iran’s malign influence in Yemen and atrocities by the Houthis, raised issues that the Trump administration’s rush to label them a terrorist organization would have a devastating effect on Yemen’s food supply. Ninety percent of Yemen’s food is imported.

“I am cognizant of the destabilizing role that the Houthis play in the conflict, including by doing Iran’s bidding and obstructing humanitarian assistance. However, this designation makes it harder to deliver life-saving assistance in a country already experiencing the worst humanitarian crisis in the world,” Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.), chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement Monday. 

The top Republican lawmakers on the Senate and House panels for foreign affairs, Sen. James Risch (R-Idaho) and Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), said in a joint statement Monday that they are “concerned” that designating the Iranian-backed Houthis as a terrorist organization “without mitigation measures in place, will have devastating humanitarian impacts.” 

“In light of near-famine conditions that have already existed in Yemen, this designation will have a devastating effect on Yemen’s food supply and other critical imports unless the Executive Branch acts now to issue the necessary licenses, waivers and appropriate guidance prior to designation. Good intentions must not be eclipsed by significant unintended consequences,” they said.

Pompeo took note in his announcement Sunday night that the State Department is “planning” to put in place measures to “reduce” the designation’s impact on certain humanitarian activity and imports to Yemen. The secretary added that the State Department had “expressed our readiness to work with relevant officials at the United Nations,” nongovernmental organizations and other international donors to ensure delivery of critical assistance. 

He also said the Treasury Department is “prepared” to issue license exceptions that would allow for the delivery of assistance and certain activities by U.S. officials. 

But lawmakers and human rights organizations say these efforts fall woefully short of mitigating the humanitarian impact. 

“Designating the Houthis as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) is a death sentence for thousands of Yemenis and a clear attempt by the Trump administration to hamstring future peace negotiations,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (Conn.), the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Near East, South Asia, Central Asia and Counterterrorism.

The criticism took on a more heated tone between congressional staffers and the State Department in a phone call Monday.

One congressional staffer exclaimed, “Why do you keep f—ing lying to us?” according to a congressional aide who was briefed on the phone call, which also relayed the news of the department putting Cuba on the state sponsors of terrorism list.

The aide further described the call as a “massive debacle,” with State Department officials “wholly unprepared” to answer questions on policy coming from Democratic and Republican aides. 

Foreign Policy first reported on the expletive-laden phone call and that staffers were outraged at the department for briefing them on both designations only after they were announced. 

A spokesperson said the State Department did not “comment on internal deliberations or our conversations with Congress.” 

The designation of the Houthis as a terrorist organization was under discussion by the State Department for months, but the formal announcement is being viewed as one of a number of last-minute policy decisions Pompeo is using to solidify his and Trump’s legacy. 

“The United States calls on the Iranian regime to stop smuggling weapons to Ansarallah [Houthis] in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions and to stop enabling Ansarallah’s aggressive acts against Yemen and towards its neighbors, including Saudi Arabia,” Pompeo said in his statement Sunday.  

Tags Chris Murphy Gregory Meeks Houthis Joe Biden Michael McCaul Mike Pompeo Saudi Arabia State Sponsors of Terrorism Yemen
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