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Progressives want the must-pass defense budget to tie Trump’s hands with Saudi Arabia

There’s a fight brewing to hold Trump’s unfettered alliance with Saudi Arabia in the Yemen war accountable.

A protester dressed as Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman and another dressed as President Donald Trump outside the White House on October 19, 2018.
A protester dressed as Saudi Arabian crown prince Mohammad bin Salman and another dressed as U.S. President Donald Trump, demonstrate.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

Progressive lawmakers and activists are plotting their next move to hold President Donald Trump accountable over his relationship with Saudi Arabia, hoping to tie the president’s hands with the national defense funding bill.

The open question is, does the larger Congress, which only a few months ago took a historic vote to rebuke Trump’s foreign policy, still care about the war in Yemen?

In April, Congress passed a historic War Powers Resolution directing Trump to remove troops involved in “hostilities” in Yemen, a Saudi-led war that’s killed more than 50,000 and left tens of millions in need of humanitarian aid. Trump vetoed it, committed to the US’s long-standing alliance with the Saudis — not to mention his personal relationship with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (the same MBS who called for Saudi Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s killing).

Now, as the House prepares to tackle the annual national defense budget — a massive spending bill that will likely amount to more than $700 billion in military funding — progressives see an opening to force Trump’s hand in the Middle East. On Tuesday, a coalition of more than 40 activist groups sent every House lawmaker a letter demanding they include provisions to ban the transfer, sale, or export of any defense materials that would be used in the war in Yemen for a minimum of two years, and end all US aid — from intelligence to logistical support — to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in the war.

The defense bill is seen as a must-do in Congress; it has passed despite deep partisan divisions every year for more than 50 years. Activists say it’s necessary to use the NDAA as a vehicle to take action on Yemen, because the stakes couldn’t be higher.

Since his veto, Trump’s administration has escalated tensions with Iran and sidestepped Congress to unilaterally authorize $8 billion in arms sales, including to Saudi Arabia and its allies. For four years, the United States has been providing the Saudi-led coalition with intelligence, arms, and ammunition, and, until late last year, fuel for their warplanes. The planes that bombed a school bus, killing at least 40 children last August, did so with an American-made bomb.

Passing the War Powers Resolution with a bipartisan coalition was a monumental moment. It took incredible lobbying from anti-war activists, as well as internal pressure from progressive leaders like Reps. Ro Khanna (D-CA) and Jim McGovern (D-MA) and Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Chris Murphy (D-CT), to not only win over conservatives but also Democrats’ own leadership.

Now that group is hoping they can build the same energy behind the defense bill.

“We are trying to stiffen the resolve of members of Congress as we approach the consideration of the national defense budget,” said Hassan El-Tayyab, the co-director of Just Foreign Policy, a progressive foreign policy group. “We have the momentum here. What remains to be seen is whether [Congress] has the resolve to do what it takes.”

Congress has options. Will it take them?

The US was involved in the Saudi-led war before Trump took office. But by rejecting congressional attempts to end that involvement, he has cemented American fingerprints on one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world: According to the most recent United Nations report, 80 percent of the Yemeni population — 24 million people — is in need of humanitarian assistance.

Lawmakers, however, have a couple ways they could still weigh in on the use of the American military’s resources in this conflict.

Congress’ opposition to Trump’s policy around Yemen really caught bipartisan steam last year — closely tied to the shock and outrage over the killing of Saudi journalist, dissident, and American resident Jamal Khashoggi and Trump’s sympathetic response to Saudi interests. Trump has repeatedly emphasized his support for MBS, calling him a “great ally.” In March, reports showed that the United States approved six secret authorizations to sell Saudi Arabia nuclear power technology, which both Democratic and Republican lawmakers have warned could aid a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.

Trump’s administration and Republican leadership campaigned hard against the War Powers Resolution. But in the end, anti-war activists and progressive lawmakers won the fight in Congress, passing lawmakers’ first rebuke of the executive branch’s involvement in foreign wars since 1973. Now, they want to do the same to defeat Trump’s veto. The letter to lawmakers is asking for provisions almost identical to those in the War Powers Resolution on Yemen, as well as a bipartisan proposal from Sens. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Todd Young (R-IN) that would ban arms sales to Saudi Arabia. That proposal, from 2018, also codified the Trump administration’s decision to stop refueling Saudi warplanes.

“These aren’t muscles Congress is used to flexing: Without constant pressure from activists they might succumb to the inertia that’s defined Congress’ posture on the matters for the last of couple decades, born from a mix of capture, wrongheadedness, and obliviousness to their own power,” David Segal, the executive director of Demand Progress, said.

House speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office has said the war in Yemen remains a top priority, but it’s less clear what House Democrats’ strategy will be. Her office did not respond for comment on using the National Defense Authorization Act as a vehicle to act on Yemen.

“We continue to consider all viable options to end this humanitarian crisis,” Pelosi’s spokesperson said previously. Khanna, who sits on the House Armed Services Committee, said progressives will be leading the charge on the NDAA process.

There’s also a push for Pelosi to take Trump to court over his veto of the War Powers Resolution. A group of constitutional scholars backed a letter saying Trump’s unilateral decision to involve the United States in a war that Congress has expressly rebuked is unconstitutional.

Of course, there are uphill battles on all fronts. For one, Congress tying Trump’s hands on the defense funding bill would be a bold move that will undoubtedly run up against the interests of Congress’ many defense hawks. And it would have to pass the Republican majority in the Senate. As for a court case, there’s always the possibility that the Supreme Court wouldn’t take on the case. For now, activists are focusing on building the same coalition that passed the War Powers Resolution just two months ago.

“It’s really critical that they push it all the way because we are in this moment where clearly the executive branch is wanting to overreach,” El-Tayyab said. “Congress should set a precedent for future administrations. We think it’s critical.”

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