Trump Quietly Overrides What Little Civilian Protections Remain in Yemen War

Ignoring Congress, Trump says he doesn’t have to obey limited protections included in the defense bill.

Sarah Lazare and Shireen Al-Adeimi August 20, 2018

U.S. President Donald Trump pictured at the Trump National Golf Club August 9, 2018 in Bedminster, New Jersey. (BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

With lit­tle pub­lic atten­tion, Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump used his August 13 sign­ing state­ment for the $716 bil­lion Nation­al Defense Autho­riza­tion Act (NDAA) to over­ride restric­tions aimed at min­i­miz­ing civil­ian deaths in the U.S.-Saudi war on Yemen. The move came just days after the Sau­di-led coali­tion struck a school bus in Yemen’s north­ern Saa­da province with a U.S.-supplied and man­u­fac­tured bomb, killing 54 peo­ple, 44 of them chil­dren. The sign­ing state­ment is the lat­est evi­dence that, after three years and tens of thou­sands killed, the Trump admin­is­tra­tion has no inten­tion of curb­ing its role in the bloody war it inher­it­ed from Oba­ma. The Unit­ed States sup­plies arms, intel­li­gence and aer­i­al refu­el­ing of Sau­di and Unit­ed Arab Emi­rates (UAE) war­planes — and gives polit­i­cal cov­er to the war.

Meanwhile, there is no question that the U.S.-backed coalition is exacerbating the humanitarian crisis with its new attack on the port city of Hodeidah, a conduit for as much as 80 percent of Yemen’s food and medicine imports, despite warnings that such an offensive would be catastrophic.

As In These Times pre­vi­ous­ly report­ed, the 2019 NDAA’s restric­tions on the war were already insuf­fi­cient when it reached Trump’s desk, mere­ly requir­ing increased trans­paren­cy and vague­ly defined ver­i­fi­ca­tion that the coali­tion is attempt­ing to min­i­mize harm to civil­ians — rather than end­ing the U.S. role in the Sau­di-led war alto­geth­er. Yet the mea­sures were bet­ter than noth­ing, giv­en the fail­ure of Con­gress to end three years of U.S. par­tic­i­pa­tion in the war.

But in one fell swoop, Trump dis­missed rough­ly 50 statutes includ­ed in the NDAA, claim­ing that the pro­vi­sions uncon­sti­tu­tion­al­ly tread on his exec­u­tive author­i­ty. Sign­ing state­ments out­line pres­i­dents’ inter­pre­ta­tions of laws, often with heavy input from White House and Depart­ment of Jus­tice legal teams. For­mer Pres­i­dent George W. Bush infa­mous­ly used a sign­ing state­ment to over­ride a 2005 ban on torture.

Among Trump’s tar­gets is sec­tion 1290, which stip­u­lates that, before green­light­ing the refu­el­ing of war­planes, the Sec­re­tary of State must cer­ti­fy that Sau­di Ara­bia and the UAE are min­i­miz­ing harm to civil­ians, mit­i­gat­ing Yemen’s human­i­tar­i­an cri­sis and try­ing to end the civ­il war. That pro­vi­sion was already weak, offer­ing a waiv­er in cas­es of U.S. nation­al secu­ri­ty inter­ests,” which are are often invoked by U.S. offi­cials who mis­lead­ing­ly over­state Iran’s influ­ence in Yemen to jus­ti­fy inter­ven­tion. Fur­ther­more, the mea­sure relied on Mike Pom­peo to tell the truth, when the U.S.-backed coali­tion already claims to be mit­i­gat­ing the human­i­tar­i­an cri­sis and try­ing to end the war, despite over­whelm­ing evi­dence otherwise.

As lim­it­ed as this pro­vi­sion is, Trump claims he doesn’t have to com­ply. In his sign­ing state­ment he cites the president’s exclu­sive con­sti­tu­tion­al author­i­ties as com­man­der in chief and as the sole rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the nation in for­eign affairs.”

Mean­while, there is no ques­tion that the U.S.-backed coali­tion is exac­er­bat­ing the human­i­tar­i­an cri­sis with its new attack on the port city of Hodei­dah, a con­duit for as much as 80 per­cent of Yemen’s food and med­i­cine imports, despite warn­ings that such an offen­sive would be cat­a­stroph­ic. Since it began on June 13, the U.S.-Saudi coalition’s assault on Hodei­dah has dis­placed more than 300,000 peo­ple, and has killed res­i­dents with airstrikes such as an August 2 attack on a fish mar­ket and hos­pi­tal that took at least 40 civil­ian lives.

Trump also side­steps sec­tion 1274, which requires the Defense Depart­ment to review the actions of the Unit­ed States and Sau­di-led coali­tion in Yemen for ille­gal con­duct. But Trump declares in his sign­ing state­ment that he reserves the right to with­hold infor­ma­tion that he deter­mines could impair nation­al secu­ri­ty, for­eign rela­tions, law enforce­ment, or the per­for­mance of the president’s con­sti­tu­tion­al duties.”

In issu­ing these carve-outs, Trump effec­tive­ly asserts the right to dis­re­gard all sec­tions in the NDAA aimed at restrict­ing the war on Yemen. These restric­tions, how­ev­er lim­it­ed, were the work of a hand­ful of sen­a­tors and rep­re­sen­ta­tives — includ­ing Sens. Todd Young (R‑Ind.) and Jeanne Sha­heen (D‑N.H.), and Reps. Adam Smith (D‑Wash.), Ro Khan­na (D‑Calif.), Bar­bara Lee (D‑Calif.), Beto O’Rourke (D‑Texas) and Mark Pocan (D‑Wis.) — who oppose U.S. involve­ment in the war. Trump’s sign­ing state­ment fol­lows the nar­row fail­ure in March of a bill that would have forced the Sen­ate to vote on with­draw­ing the Unit­ed States from par­tic­i­pa­tion in the Sau­di-led war.

The Yemen pro­vi­sions are not the only NDAA mea­sures Trump claims he can over­ride: In his sign­ing state­ment, he also retains the right to ignore mea­sures aimed at improv­ing report­ing on civil­ian casu­al­ties in con­nec­tion with Unit­ed States mil­i­tary oper­a­tions.” And he says he has pow­ers to ignore mea­sures to trans­fer peo­ple out of the infa­mous Guan­tanamo Bay mil­i­tary prison, stat­ing, I ful­ly intend to keep open that deten­tion facil­i­ty and to use it, as nec­es­sary or appro­pri­ate, for deten­tion operations.”

Even before it reached Trump’s desk, the NDAA was a give­away to the pres­i­dent, hand­ing him a his­tor­i­cal­ly high mil­i­tary bud­get, which ear­marks $21.9 bil­lion for nuclear weapons, despite the president’s proven will­ing­ness to threat­en nuclear anni­hi­la­tion on a whim. The bill sailed through Con­gress with over­whelm­ing bipar­ti­san sup­port, backed by key Democ­rats pur­port­ed­ly lead­ing the #Resis­tance — even as they claim the pres­i­dent is unhinged and dan­ger­ous, and pub­licly crit­i­cize the war in Yemen. Among the yes votes was Ted Lieu, a vocal Trump crit­ic who — when news of the school bus bomb­ing hit—expressed con­cern that the U.S. role in Yemen could qual­i­fy as aid­ing and abet­ting these poten­tial war crimes.”

Sen. Eliz­a­beth War­ren (D.-Mass.), one of 10 sen­a­tors who vot­ed no on the NDAA, wrote a let­ter to U.S. Cen­tral Command’s Gen. Joseph Votel in the after­math of the school bus bomb­ing ques­tion­ing whether the Unit­ed States is able to track the ori­gins, pur­pose and results of U.S.-supported airstrikes” in Yemen. And on August 17, Sen. Chris Mur­phy (D‑Conn.) announced an amend­ment to the 2019 Defense Appro­pri­a­tions bill that would defund the U.S. sup­port for the Sau­di-led war until the Sec­re­tary of Defense cer­ti­fied that the coalition’s air cam­paign is not vio­lat­ing inter­na­tion­al law and US pol­i­cy relat­ed to the pro­tec­tion of civil­ians.” As Yemeni fam­i­lies bury their loved ones, it remains to be seen whether law­mak­ers will go beyond mere­ly ask­ing ques­tions and demand that the war be shut down — and that Trump’s war-mak­ing pow­er be mean­ing­ful­ly opposed.

Sarah Lazare is web edi­tor at In These Times. She comes from a back­ground in inde­pen­dent jour­nal­ism for pub­li­ca­tions includ­ing The Inter­cept, The Nation, and Tom Dis­patch. She tweets at @sarahlazare. Shireen Al-Adei­mi is an assis­tant pro­fes­sor of edu­ca­tion at Michi­gan State Uni­ver­si­ty. Hav­ing lived through two civ­il wars in her coun­try of birth, Yemen, she has played an active role in rais­ing aware­ness about the U.S.-supported, Sau­di-led war on Yemen since 2015. Through her work, she aims to encour­age polit­i­cal action among fel­low Amer­i­cans to bring about an end to U.S. inter­ven­tion in Yemen.
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