Trump approved sharing sensitive nuclear technology with Saudi Arabia after Khashoggi murder

Trump shakes hands with Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the White House in 2018.
Trump shakes hands with Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the White House in 2018.PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON ( WASHINGTON POST) - The Trump administration approved transfers of sensitive nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia twice after the death of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, according to records shared with a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Democratic Senator Tim Kaine, citing information from the Department of Energy, announced on Tuesday (June 4) that the Trump administration had allowed US nuclear energy companies to share technology and other information with Saudi Arabia on Oct 18, 2018 - just 16 days after Khashoggi was killed at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul - and again on Feb 18, 2019, less than a week after the House voted to end US backing for the Saudi-led military effort in Yemen's civil war.

The two transfers are among seven that have been previously reported but without details about their timeline. According to the Department of Energy, Kaine said, the transfers began in December 2017.

The revelation that President Donald Trump facilitated outfitting Saudi Arabia with nuclear know-how, even as members of his own party implored him to stop weapons sales and sanction the Saudi crown prince as punishment for Khashoggi's death, is the latest test for lawmakers over Trump's foreign policy ventures, particularly in the oil-rich Persian Gulf.

For Kaine, it "adds to a disturbing pattern of behaviour" that includes the administration's decision last month to invoke emergency powers to expedite arms sales benefiting Saudi Arabia without explanation and veto a war powers measure that would have curtailed US support for Saudi operations in Yemen.

"I have serious questions about whether any decisions on nuclear transfers were made based on the Trump family's financial ties rather than the interest of the American people," he said in a statement.

"President Trump's eagerness to give the Saudis anything they want, over bipartisan congressional objection, harms American national security interest and is one of many steps the administration is taking that is fueling a dangerous escalation of tension in the region."

 
 
 
 

Even lawmakers who support Trump have found his embrace of Saudi leaders disquieting - especially as his administration simultaneously flouts congressional powers.

The Trump administration's unspecified emergency declaration last month to facilitate 22 arms deals worth about US$8 billion (S$11 billion), most of them benefiting Saudi Arabia, was met with resistance from both Democrats and Republicans, but GOP leaders have yet to endorse a means to restrain the administration from proceeding on that front.

It similarly remains unclear if the GOP will seek to constrain Trump's ability to approve nuclear transfers without congressional approval.

The transfers are supposed to be fiercely regulated to prevent nuclear proliferation, and the process involves several agencies, including the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

But nuclear regulators said this spring that they were not included in the decision-making process.

Saudi Arabia is trying to build a nuclear power industry, including two US-designed plants, but has yet to agree to the anti-proliferation terms that the United States requires for such projects.

Republican Senators Marco Rubio and Todd Young cited concerns about that refusal this spring, when they, Kaine and fellow Democratic Senator Edward Markey, released a Bill requiring the government to let Congress review all such transfers - known as "Part 810 authorisations" - before they took place.

Kaine's request for details about the timing of the transfers went unanswered for months, until the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's James Risch promised at an open hearing in mid-May that he would personally intervene.

Two weeks later, the Department of Energy outlined the transfer schedule for Kaine.

A spokesman for the Department of Energy did not immediately return an emailed request for comment.