Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy On The President in Saudi Arabia

Mr. President, while the Office of Management and Budget was putting the finishing touches on its Orwellian-themed “A New Foundation for American Greatness,” the President’s fiscal year 2018 budget, which proposes to eliminate or drastically reduce funding for a vast array of critical programs on which the American people -- including the most vulnerable among us -- depend, the Trump family was being feted by one of the world’s wealthiest and repressive regimes.

Not only has the Saudi family used its vast oil wealth to promote an extremist ideology, including in madrassas and mosques in South Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa, its grip on power is made possible through corruption and the systematic denial of fundamental rights, including the brutal oppression of women and girls, human trafficking, and the exploitation of foreign labor.

After criticizing the Saudis during the presidential campaign, earlier this week President Trump and his family basked in the opulent glow of Saudi family royalty.  According to press reports, just prior to their arrival the President’s son-in-law finalized a $110 billion sale of American weapons to the Saudis.  Yet neither the President nor his advisors, who danced with Saudi sheiks in a grand palace, voiced any concern that Saudi Arabia is a police state whose citizens have no opportunity to change their government, where criticism of the Royal family is not tolerated, and where arbitrary arrest and torture are common, nor with the Saudis’ repeated misuse of U.S. military equipment against innocent civilians in Yemen. 

In fact, standing next to the Saudi Foreign Minister at a joint press conference, Secretary Tillerson rightly called on the Iranian Government to restore freedom of speech and assembly for its people so they can “live the life that they deserve”.  But do the Saudi people not deserve such rights?  He made no such appeal to the Saudi monarchy.     

Secretary of State Tillerson has also made clear that the values and individual rights that Americans have long believed are what makes the United States the great country that it is, and which are in fact universal values enshrined not only in our Bill of Rights but also in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, will take a back seat to our “national security and economic interests.”  In that sense, the Administration is modeling itself after China and Russia, which given President Trump’s admiration for “strong” leaders like President Putin and Secretary Tillerson’s background as the head of the world’s largest oil company, should surprise no one.

According to a press report, Secretary of Commerce Ross found it “fascinating” that there were no protests during the President’s visit to Saudi Arabia.  “Not one guy with a bad placard,” he said, apparently oblivious to the fact that protests are prohibited and any protester would have been immediately arrested. 

I know I am not the only one here who finds it hard to fathom that a President who has condemned terrorism, as he should, says virtually nothing about the Saudi royal family’s own support for extremism that breeds terrorism, and nothing about the Saudi regime’s gross mistreatment of its own citizens.  In fact, the President’s daughter, who purports to speak on behalf of the White House, publicly praised the Saudi regime’s progress on women’s rights, ignoring the fact that every women she met with – none of whom were women’s rights activists – required the permission of a male relative to participate.

Mr. President, America’s values, including the defense of human rights, are a source of our strength, our durability, and our leadership in the world.  I have no qualms with a President of the United States visiting Saudi Arabia.  In fact I support it.  What I don’t support, however, is the President agreeing to a massive sale of weapons to a regime that, with the exception of its antipathy toward Iran, shares little in common with the United States.  Saudi Arabia has been a supporter of terrorism.  Its armed forces have committed war crimes in Yemen.  Saudi Arabia ranks among the world’s worse violators of human rights – even below Iran.  The message to the Saudi regime, and the Saudi people, from President Trump and his family is that these issues are no longer important enough to even mention. 

But those of us who have been working on protecting and promoting U.S. national security interests since long before this Administration took office know better.  It is not possible to effectively separate our values, like the protection of individual freedoms and other human rights, and our national security and economic interests.  They are inextricably linked, and we will all pay the price if we ignore that reality. 

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