Senators demand answers on Trump administration backing of Saudi coalition in Yemen

Senators demand answers on Trump administration backing of Saudi coalition in Yemen
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A bipartisan group of senators on Wednesday questioned the Trump administration on its certification that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are taking steps to protect civilians in the Yemeni civil war and are complying with U.S. laws on arms sales.

“While we appreciate your timely submission, after reviewing the unclassified and classified components and receiving updates from our staffs regarding the administration’s September 20 briefing, we find it difficult to reconcile known facts with at least two of your certifications,” the senators wrote in a letter Wednesday to Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoOvernight Defense: Trump, Dem leaders fight before cameras over border wall | GOP skeptical of having military build wall | US spars with Russia, Venezuela over bomber deployment Russia, Venezuela lash out after US criticisms of bomber deployment Our deep divide over nuclear disarmament MORE.

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The letter was organized by Sens. Jeanne ShaheenCynthia (Jeanne) Jeanne ShaheenOvernight Defense: Nauert tapped for UN envoy | Trump teases changes to Joint Chiefs of Staff | Trump knocks Tillerson as 'dumb as a rock' | Scathing report details Air Force failures before Texas shooting New Hampshire's secretary of state narrowly holds seat Overnight Health Care: Senators urge vote on delaying health insurance tax | Joe Kennedy III 'hopeful' he can back 'Medicare for all' bill | Latest Ebola outbreak becomes world's 2nd-worst MORE (D-N.H.) and Todd YoungTodd Christopher YoungOvernight Defense: Dunford expected to finish Joint Chiefs term | House lawmakers pushing for Yemen vote | Pentagon says a few hundred troops leaving border This week: Trump, Dems set to meet amid funding fight Congress digs in for prolonged Saudi battle MORE (R-Ind.). It was co-signed by Sens. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsLobbying World Senators want assurances from attorney general pick on fate of Mueller probe 5 themes to watch for in 2020 fight for House MORE (R-Maine), Christopher CoonsChristopher (Chris) Andrew CoonsDem: 'Disheartening' that Republicans who 'stepped up' to defend Mueller are leaving IRS issues guidance aimed at limiting impact of tax on nonprofits' parking expenses Focus on Yemen, not the Saudi crown prince MORE (D-Del.), Jerry MoranGerald (Jerry) MoranSenators want assurances from attorney general pick on fate of Mueller probe Overnight Defense: Senate rebukes Trump with Yemen vote | Mattis, Pompeo briefing fails to quell Senate concerns with Saudis | Graham demands CIA briefing on Khashoggi | Pentagon identifies three troops killed in Afghanistan McConnell, Flake clash over protecting Mueller probe MORE (R-Kan.), Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyGOP fights piling up for McConnell Corker to introduce resolution holding Saudi crown prince 'responsible' for Khashoggi's death Overnight Defense: Dunford expected to finish Joint Chiefs term | House lawmakers pushing for Yemen vote | Pentagon says a few hundred troops leaving border MORE (D-Conn.) and Jeff MerkleyJeffrey (Jeff) Alan Merkley How to reform the federal electric vehicle tax credit Dem senator accuses Trump of aiding 'cover up' over Khashoggi Criminal justice reform splits 2020 Democrats MORE (D-Ore.).

Shaheen and Young authored the provision of the annual defense policy bill that required Pompeo to make the certification on Saudi and Emirati behavior in Yemen's civil war.

If Pompeo did not make the certification, U.S. refueling of Saudi-led coalition aircraft would have had to stop.

U.S. lawmakers have increasingly expressed concern about the Yemeni civil war, which has been raging since 2015 and has resulted in thousands of civilian deaths. Those deaths have been largely blamed on airstrikes from the Saudi-led coalition.

While lawmaker concern has been boiling over for months, the most recent letter comes as anger at the Saudis is reaching a fever pitch after the disappearance of a journalist and prominent Saudi critic.

Last month, as required by the National Defense Authorization Act, Pompeo certified that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are taking steps to end the war, alleviate Yemen’s humanitarian crisis and protect civilians.

In their letter, the senators took issue with Pompeo’s certification that the Saudi and Emirati governments are taking “demonstrable actions to reduce the risk of harm to civilians and civilian infrastructure resulting from military operations” in Yemen.

They specifically highlighted that Pompeo’s memo to Congress says the administration continues “to press the need for additional actions to reduce civilian casualty incidents.”

“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,” they wrote.

The senators also raised concerns about the fact that Pompeo’s memo says the Saudis and Emirates are complying with U.S. laws on arms sales “with rare exception.”

“We do not understand a certification that the Saudi and Emirati governments are complying with applicable agreements and laws regulating defense articles when the [memo] explicitly states that, in certain instances, they have not done so,” they wrote.

The senators specifically asked for answers by the end of October on what percentage increase in civilian casualties and deaths from November to August is because of coalition airstrikes; how administration can credibly certify that Saudi Arabia and the UAE are working to reduce civilian harm when the death toll is rising; what the exceptions are to the Saudis and Emirates complying with U.S. laws on arms sales; and how the administration credibly certify that those countries are complying with U.S. law given those exceptions.

“We know you share our goals of ending the civil war, alleviating the humanitarian crisis, and protecting civilians,” the senators concluded. “We also agree that the continuing civil war, worsening humanitarian crisis, and ongoing killing of civilians by the Saudi coalition only serves the interests of Iran and emboldens extremists who seek to harm Americans and our partners.

“Those are some of the reasons we are concerned that your initial certification, despite several troubling facts, leaves the Saudi-led coalition with the fundamental misunderstanding that the American people and their representatives in Congress are willing to accept the status quo in Yemen.”