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
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.
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.