House chairmen demand explanation on Trump's 'illegal' withdrawal from Open Skies Treaty

The chairmen of the House Foreign Affairs and Armed Services committees are demanding an explanation from the State and Defense departments on what they are calling President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump retweets personal attacks on Clinton, Pelosi, Abrams Biden swipes at Trump: 'Presidency is about a lot more than tweeting from your golf cart' GOP sues California over Newsom's vote-by-mail order MORE’s “illegal” move to withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty.

A provision in the annual defense policy bill signed into law in December requires the administration to notify Congress at least 120 days before it officially submits an intent to withdraw to the other treaty members.

Democrats say the required notice was not given to Congress before Trump announced Thursday he was pulling the U.S. out of the treaty.

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“From the start, this process has been flawed and dismissed congressional oversight,” Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot EngelEliot Lance EngelThe Memo: Trump agenda rolls on amid pandemic State Department scrutiny threatens Pompeo's political ambitions House Democrats object to Trump sending ventilators to Russia MORE (D-N.Y.) and Armed Services Chairman Adam SmithDavid (Adam) Adam SmithBoosting military deterrence in the Indo-Pacific region House chairmen demand explanation on Trump's 'illegal' withdrawal from Open Skies Treaty Overnight Defense: Trump to withdraw US from Open Skies Treaty | Pentagon drops ban on recruits who had virus | FBI says Corpus Christi shooting terror-related MORE (D-Wash.) wrote in a letter Friday to Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoFormer British governor: China has betrayed Hong Kong The other dangerous virus infecting our country Hong Kong police fire tear gas at pro-democracy demonstrators MORE and Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperBirx: 'I'm very concerned when people go out and don't maintain social distancing' Roundup: Everything you need to know about COVID-19 today 125 lawmakers urge Trump administration to support National Guard troops amid pandemic MORE.

“Exercising Congress’s constitutional duty, we are writing to demand an explanation for this intended illegal action and insist that the administration comply with Section 1234,” the chairmen added, referring to the section of the National Defense Authorization Act that required the notification to Congress.

Asked for comment on the letter, Pentagon spokeswoman Jessica Maxwell said that "as with all congressional correspondence, we will respond directly to the authors of the letter.” A State Department spokesperson similarly said that "as a general matter, we do not comment on correspondence with Congress."

Under the Open Skies Treaty, the more than 30 signatories, including the United States and Russia, can fly unarmed observation flights over each other. Its intention is to provide transparency about military activities to avoid miscalculations that could lead to war.

After Trump announced the U.S. withdrawal, Pompeo said the administration would submit its formal notice of intent Friday to the other treaty members.

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Under the process laid out in the treaty, a formal notice of intent kicks off a six-month period before the withdrawal is final.

In announcing the withdrawal, the Trump administration cited Russian violations, including Moscow restricting flights over Kaliningrad and areas near its border with the Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. 

Administration officials also pointed to Russian behavior they said did not violate the treaty but “undermined” its intent. Particularly, officials allege Russia is using imagery from the flights to target critical infrastructure in the United States and Europe, but would not provide an example.

In their letter, Engel and Smith recognized concerns about Russian flight restrictions, but argued those concerns “do not overshadow the value of the treaty to America’s national security” and can be addressed within the treaty’s implementing body.

Engel and Smith have written several previous letters to the administration on Open Skies, but said they have gotten no response. In the Friday letter, the pair railed against what they described as “egregious stonewalling” from the administration.

“We offered on several occasions to work closely with you and others in the Administration on the future of the Open Skies Treaty and other critical national security issues. Yet these overtures were ignored and now you are flouting legal requirements to consult and notify Congress,” they wrote. “It appears that short-sighted interests and partisan politics prevailed over reason and good foreign policy. This is a regrettable decision that will have lasting consequences.”

--Updated at 1:43 p.m.