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Trump Officials Tried To Rush Nuclear Technology To Saudis, House Panel Finds

Feb 19, 2019
Originally published on February 19, 2019 9:43 pm

The Trump administration sought to rush the transfer of American nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia in potential violation of the law, a new report from the House Oversight and Reform Committee alleges.

Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings' staff issued an "interim staff" report Tuesday, citing "multiple whistleblowers" who raised ethical and legal concerns about the process.

"They have warned about political appointees ignoring directives from top ethics advisers at the White House who repeatedly and unsuccessfully ordered senior Trump administration officials to halt their efforts," the report states. "They have also warned of conflicts of interest among top White House advisers that could implicate federal criminal statutes."

The committee's report alleges that the major drivers behind the effort to transfer U.S. nuclear technology were retired Gen. Michael Flynn, who served as the president's national security adviser, and Thomas Barrack, who chaired Trump's inauguration committee. Flynn was fired in February 2017 for lying about conversations with the Russian ambassador to Vice President Pence and the FBI.

For about seven months in 2016, including during the presidential transition, Flynn served as an adviser to IP3 International, a private company seeking to build nuclear plants in Saudi Arabia.

The whistleblowers told the committee that Flynn continued to advocate for IP3's plan even after he joined the White House as the president's national security adviser in 2017.

The Atomic Energy Act requires that Congress approve any transfer of nuclear technology to a foreign country. The committee's report states that a senior director at the National Security Council (NSC), Derek Harvey, "reportedly ignored ... warnings and insisted that the decision to transfer nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia had already been made."

The NSC's lawyers realized that Flynn had a possible conflict of interest that could violate the law, the whistleblowers said, and told NSC staff to stop working on the nuclear technology transfer plan. Despite Flynn's firing in February 2017, the plan appeared to continue to progress with Barrack's support.

The committee announced that it intends to launch an investigation into this matter "to determine whether the actions being pursued by the Trump administration are in the national security interests of the United States, or, rather, serve those who stand to gain financially as a result of this potential change in U.S. foreign policy."

Shortly after the release of the report, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., announced that his panel would be coordinating with Cummings' staff to explore these allegations.

Tuesday's disclosure of a plan to sell nuclear technology comes as the United States considers its relationship with the Saudi government in the wake of the killing of writer Jamal Khashoggi.

Following his death, the House and Senate have both passed resolutions to limit U.S. involvement in the Saudi-led coalition fighting in the Yemeni civil war. The Senate also passed a resolution by voice vote — reflecting unanimity — that was fashioned to "hold Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman responsible for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi."

The report also comes as President Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, is scheduled to travel next week for a trip to the Middle East that includes a stop in Riyadh, the Saudi capital.

The White House did not immediately respond to a request to comment on the committee's report.

NPR's Ayesha Rascoe contributed to this report.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Democrats on the House Oversight Committee are raising red flags about the Trump administration and a potentially illegal effort to transfer sensitive nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia. The committee released a report today based on federal whistleblower allegations. NPR's Tim Mak has read through the report. He joins us now. Welcome to the studio.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: Thank you.

CORNISH: What made the whistleblowers so concerned?

MAK: You know, the whistleblowers had ethical and legal concerns. But they thought they weren't being taken seriously enough. For example, the law states Congress must approve any transfer of nuclear technology to a foreign country. But the committee's report says that a senior director at the National Security Council, Derek Harvey, ignored warnings and insisted that the decision to transfer nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia had already been made.

There were also concerns about conflicts of interest among top White House advisers, which could have been against federal law. At one point, the National Security Council's lawyers asked White House staff to stop working on this project. But somehow the project continued.

CORNISH: The report also names names - right? - Michael Flynn, the president's former national security adviser, as one of the people behind this project. What is he alleged to have done?

MAK: So the report says that even before Trump was sworn in, the transition team began discussing a plan to push for a Saudi nuclear project. The report notes for about seven months in 2016, including during the presidential transition, Flynn also served as an adviser to IP3 International. That's a private company seeking to build nuclear plants in Saudi Arabia.

The whistleblowers we've been talking about said that Flynn continued to press for this company, advocate for this idea after he joined the White House, which presents a pretty substantial conflict of interest if that's true. Flynn, as you might recall, was fired in February 2017 for lying about his contacts with the Russian ambassador.

But even after Flynn left the White House, the nuclear project appears to have continued with Thomas Barrack, President Trump's longtime friend and inaugural committee chairman, taking a leading role. Barrack also has business ties with Saudi Arabia, which could pose additional conflict of interest problems.

CORNISH: All right, let's take a step back here. How does this fit into the larger picture of U.S.-Saudi relations, especially coming this time after the killing of Virginia resident and Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi?

MAK: So there's a close relationship between Jared Kushner, who's the president's son-in-law, and the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman. And you might remember that Trump's first foreign trip was to Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia. And that was meant to signal ambitions for a close relationship between the two countries.

But a lot has changed since Khashoggi's death in October. And that relationship has really been strained. In particular, the House and Senate have expressed their dissatisfaction with Saudi Arabia in different ways.

CORNISH: All right, the committee - what are they planning to do now, and what happens next? What's the order of business here?

MAK: So the House committee - the House Oversight Committee says it continues to investigate this matter and is demanding that the White House provide documents related to this issue by March 5. The House Intelligence Committee also thinks that it has a role to play. The chairman of that committee, Adam Schiff, has said he hopes to open an inquiry into the matter and will be cooperating with House Oversight.

Now, the report drops at a sensitive time for the White House. Not only is it still dealing with the fallout over Khashoggi's killing, but as the report written by the House Oversight Committee notes, Jared Kushner is planning to visit the Middle East next week. And he's stopping in Saudi Arabia.

CORNISH: All right, that's NPR's Tim Mak. Thank you for your reporting.

MAK: Thanks so much for your time. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.