President Trump sees arms deals as jobs generators for firms like Raytheon, which has made billions in sales to the Saudi coalition. The Obama administration initially backed the Saudis too, but later regretted it as thousands died.
A Saudi-led bombing of a funeral hall in Sana, Yemen, in 2016 killed at least 140 people and injured another 500. A bomb shard was linked to the American company Raytheon. Credit...AP Photo/Hani Mohammed
Year after year, the bombs fell — on wedding tents, funeral halls, fishing boats and a school bus, killing thousands of civilians and helping turn Yemen into the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
Weapons supplied by American companies, approved by American officials, allowed Saudi Arabia to pursue the reckless campaign. But in June 2017, an influential Republican senator decided to cut them off, by withholding approval for new sales. It was a moment that might have stopped the slaughter.
Not under President Trump.
With billions at stake, one of the president’s favored aides, the combative trade adviser Peter Navarro, made it his mission to reverse the senator. Mr. Navarro, after consulting with American arms makers, wrote a memo to Jared Kushner and other top White House officials calling for an intervention, possibly by Mr. Trump himself. He titled it “Trump Mideast arms sales deal in extreme jeopardy, job losses imminent.”
Within weeks, the Saudis were once again free to buy American weapons.
The intervention, which has not been previously reported, underscores a fundamental change in American foreign policy under Mr. Trump that often elevates economic considerations over other ones. Where foreign arms sales in the past were mostly offered and withheld to achieve diplomatic goals, the Trump administration pursues them mainly for the profits they generate and the jobs they create, with little regard for how the weapons are used.
President Trump has charged his trade adviser Peter Navarro with growing American manufacturing, particularly in the arms industry.Credit...Doug Mills/The New York Times
Mr. Trump has tapped Mr. Navarro, a California economist best known for polemics against China, to be a conduit between the Oval Office and defense firms. His administration has also rewritten the rules for arms exports, speeding weapon sales to foreign militaries. The State Department, responsible for licensing arms deals, now is charged with more aggressively promoting them.
“This White House has been more open to defense industry executives than any other in living memory,” said Loren B. Thompson, a longtime analyst who consults for major arms manufacturers.
No foreign entanglement has revealed the trade-offs of this policy more than the war in Yemen. There, Mr. Trump’s embrace of arms sales has helped prolong a conflict that has killed more than 100,000 people in the Arab world’s poorest nation, further destabilizing an already volatile region, according to a review of thousands of pages of records and interviews with more than 50 people with knowledge of the policy or who participated in the decision-making.
American arms makers who sell to the Saudis say they are accountable to shareholders and are doing nothing wrong. And because weapon sales to foreign militaries must be approved by the State Department, the companies say they don’t make policy, only follow it.
“Our economic policy can be summed up in three very beautiful and simple words.” It’s a common refrain. “Jobs, jobs, jobs.” “You’re talking about jobs. What I’m doing here, we’ve created an incredible economy.” But when promises of jobs are tied to the arms trade, where do we draw the line? And what happens when this promise collides with the mistakes of a previous administration? “We found ourselves locked into this terrible situation, unable to wrap it up and handing it off to an administration that was going to handle it even worse than we did.” It’s a scenario that has plunged the U.S. deeper into one of the world’s most catastrophic conflicts. “These were not mistakes. These were deliberate and precise attacks, and everybody in Yemen knows that the bombs causing this suffering are made in the United States.”
But as the situation in Yemen worsened, at least one firm, Raytheon Company, did more than wait for decisions by American officials. It went to great lengths to influence them, even after members of Congress tried to upend sales to Saudi Arabia on humanitarian grounds.
Raytheon, a major supplier of weapons to the Saudis, including some implicated by human rights groups in the deaths of Yemeni civilians, has long viewed the kingdom as one of its most important foreign customers.
After the Yemen war began in 2015 and the Obama administration made a hasty decision to back the Saudis, Raytheon booked more than $3 billion in new bomb sales, according to an analysis of available U.S. government records.
Intent on pushing the deals through, Raytheon followed the industry playbook: It took advantage of federal loopholes by sending former State Department officials, who were not required to be registered as lobbyists, to press their former colleagues to approve the sales.
And though the company was already embedded in Washington — its chief lobbyist, Mark Esper, would become Army secretary and then defense secretary under Mr. Trump — Raytheon executives sought even closer ties.
They assiduously courted Mr. Navarro, who intervened with White House officials on Raytheon’s behalf and successfully pressured the State Department, diminished under Mr. Trump, to process the most contentious deals.
They also enlisted the help of David J. Urban, a lobbyist whose close ties to Mr. Esper and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo go back to the 1980s, when all three men were at West Point.
As the nation turned against the war, a range of American officials — Democratic and Republican — tried three times to halt the killing by blocking arms sales to the Saudis. Their efforts were undone by the White House, largely at the urging of Raytheon.
Approached a half-dozen times, Raytheon representatives declined to speak with reporters about foreign sales. “We believe further dialogue regarding foreign military sales is best directed to officials in the U.S. government,” Corinne Kovalsky, then a company spokeswoman, said in December.
Lawmakers from both parties have condemned the continued arms sales in the Yemen war, expressing both humanitarian and security concerns: Some of the weapons have wound up in the hands of militant Islamic groups in the country.
“We don’t know how these weapons are really being used or whether they may be turned against U.S. troops in the future,” said Senator Mike Lee, Republican of Utah, who has publicly criticized the administration’s approach to the conflict. “This war was never authorized by Congress.”
Others say the president’s arms sale policies diminish the United States.
“People look to us. We’re the only country in the world that is ever capable of using this immense power that we have in a way that’s more than just about our naked self-interest,” said Representative Tom Malinowski, a New Jersey Democrat who was born in Communist Poland and led the State Department’s human rights bureau under President Barack Obama.
“President Trump has proudly said that we should continue to sell weapons to Saudi Arabia because they pay us a lot of money,” Mr. Malinowski said. “He seems to see foreign policy in the way he viewed the real estate business — every country is like a company and our job is to make money.”
The Trump administration has defended arms sales to Saudi Arabia as being vital to job growth and the American economy.
“We’ve created an incredible economy,” Mr. Trump told Fox Business in October 2018, after the killing of the journalist and American resident Jamal Khashoggi sparked calls to stop selling to the Saudis. “I want Boeing and I want Lockheed and I want Raytheon to take those orders and to hire lots of people to make that incredible equipment.”
Raytheon hired former U.S. officials to press for approval of arms deals with Saudi Arabia, one of its most important clients. Credit...Pascal Rossignol/Reuters
Records show that foreign military sales, facilitated by the U.S. government, rose sharply after Mr. Trump became president. They averaged about $51 billion a year during Mr. Trump’s first three years, compared with $36 billion a year during the final term of Mr. Obama, who also oversaw a big increase.
Arms industry groups say defense jobs rose more than 3.5 percent to about 880,000 during Mr. Trump’s first two years, though the numbers, the most recent available, do not specify how many were in manufacturing.
The White House referred requests for comment to the National Security Council, where a spokesman said that “Iran and its Houthi proxies” had targeted Saudi Arabia and had endangered Americans. “We remain committed to supporting Saudi Arabia’s right to defend against those threats, while urging that all appropriate measures are taken to prevent civilian casualties,” said the spokesman, John Ullyot.
A State Department spokeswoman said that the administration had made clear that “economic security is national security,” and that the administration was “strengthening our advocacy for defense sales that are in our national interest.” She disputed the suggestion that human rights had taken a back seat to other considerations, insisting the new approach “actually increases focus on human rights” through military training and other programs with allies.
Anthony Wier, a former State Department official under Mr. Obama, said past administrations of both parties had sought to balance the economic benefits of arms sales with the realities on the ground.
“This is an important export industry with a lot of factory jobs, with a lot of states,” Mr. Wier said. “But there’s also a crater in Yemen where a school bus used to sit, and there’s a stack of children dead.”
Getting the President’s Ear
Mr. Trump won the presidency partly on promises to resuscitate American manufacturing.
“We’re going to bring back the jobs that have been stolen from you,” he told a packed arena in Raleigh, N.C., on Nov. 7, 2016, the day before the election. “We’re going to bring back the miners and the factory workers and the steelworkers. We’re going to put them back to work.”
But as the initial glow of victory faded, reality set in. Mr. Trump’s aides realized there were not many ways the executive branch, on its own, could affect manufacturing and trade, three former Trump administration officials said.
One campaign adviser, Mr. Navarro, thought he had a solution. A Harvard-educated economist, Mr. Navarro had published papers on management strategy and a book of investment advice, “If It’s Raining in Brazil, Buy Starbucks.”
He had not specialized in the American arms industry. Even so, he made the case to members of Mr. Trump’s transition team, including Stephen K. Bannon, then one of Mr. Trump’s most trusted [extremist nationalist] advisers, that invoking national security and promoting the defense industry were ways to impose tariffs, create manufacturing jobs and shrink the trade deficit. Mr. Bannon embraced the pitch, according to a person with knowledge of the conversations.
In December 2016, the president-elect named Mr. Navarro head of the newly created National Trade Council, an ill-defined position that seemed in conflict with other, more established roles in the White House. And though the organization apparently existed only on paper, the title afforded him access to Cabinet-level meetings, where he would forcefully argue his points as the principals looked on.
Mr. Trump gave him responsibility for stoking American defense manufacturing by growing foreign arms sales, among other things. Defense companies took notice.
After Mr. Trump’s inauguration, representatives of Raytheon and other firms streamed in to see Mr. Navarro, finding him ready to listen. Mr. Navarro’s hard-line stance toward China was well known, and they played it to their advantage, said Mr. Thompson, the analyst and consultant, who soon arranged a lunch meeting between Mr. Navarro and industry leaders, including Thomas A. Kennedy, then Raytheon’s chief executive and now its executive chairman.
Mr. Trump in the Oval Office with Mr. Navarro, an economist who previously worked on the 2016 campaign. Credit...Doug Mills/The New York Times
The defense firms presented themselves as the rare high-tech industry that had not recently lost ground to China, Mr. Thompson said.
During the first years of Mr. Trump’s presidency, as aides undermined one another and turned over on a regular basis, Mr. Navarro’s claim to an essential mission, and his new ties to arms executives, insulated him from the turbulence, according to the former administration officials.
In Mr. Navarro, they said, the companies had an advocate who was not shy about confronting senior leaders over matters he deemed important. And while the officials often bristled at his presumption, and worked to marginalize him, Mr. Navarro nevertheless retained influence with Mr. Kushner and Mr. Trump.
Mr. Trump relished having around him an Ivy League economist who agreed with his pronouncements on trade. The president, in turn, listened when Mr. Navarro repeatedly raised arms sales to Saudi Arabia and other countries, sometimes repeating talking points used by Raytheon and other arms makers, the former administration officials said.
In an interview, Mr. Navarro said that his focus has been on carrying out Mr. Trump’s economic policies, not on corporate cheerleading.
“I don’t advocate for companies,” Mr. Navarro said. “I advocate for the president and for American workers and for our men and women in uniform. That’s it. Period. Full stop.”
Mr. Trump’s aggressive arms sale policies were met with alarm by some in the State Department, in part because the administration did not seem concerned with human rights issues, according to several current and former State Department officials, who like others interviewed for this article were not authorized to speak publicly. Though past administrations had sometimes shown a willingness to achieve narrow goals by arming rough regimes, Mr. Trump seemed to view weapon sales as ends in themselves.
Worse, they said, were signs of how little the administration grasped the basics of arms deals, which can have profound foreign policy and national security consequences.
One episode in spring 2017 underscored those concerns. When Mr. Kushner and others wanted to line up military sales ahead of a visit by Mr. Trump to Saudi Arabia, they convened meetings at the White House but did not invite the State Department — the only agency by law that can authorize foreign deals.
Arms sale specialists in the State Department learned about the gathering only after a senior Pentagon official called and urged them to hurry over, current and former officials said.
A $5 Billion Turnaround
As war broke out five years ago in Yemen, Raytheon was a company on the rebound.
Based in Waltham, Mass., it had risen over the years to become the third-largest defense firm in the United States, bolstered by sales of its best-known system, the Patriot missile. But Raytheon had been battered by flagging profits and federal budget cuts, and Mr. Kennedy, the chief executive, was determined to turn things around, starting with international sales.
Raytheon earned more of its revenue from sales to foreign governments than Lockheed Martin and other American defense giants, and few foreign customers were more important than Saudi Arabia. Its ties with the Saudis dated to the 1960s, when the company became one of the first American defense firms to build a permanent base in the kingdom.
Since then, generations of Raytheon executives had sought to ingratiate the company with the Saudis, hiring members of the royal family as consultants, building schools and investing in projects favored by the royal court.
The close relationship was evident two days after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when three Saudi college students began their journey out of the country from Raytheon’s private terminal in Tampa, Fla., according to a report by the 9/11 Commission. (None of the men, including one who was a member of the Saudi royal family, was tied to the attacks, though Saudi nationals were among the hijackers.)
The longstanding ties helped Mr. Kennedy turn around the company. Since the Yemen war began, Raytheon has booked at least a dozen major sales to the kingdom and its partners worth more than $5 billion, U.S. government records show, helping lift the firm’s fortunes and position it to pursue a merger with another large defense company, United Technologies, that was completed in April.
Some of the deals, for defensive items, sailed through the government approval process. But sales of offensive weapons, including more than 120,000 precision bombs and bomb parts that the Saudis were using in Yemen, faced major hurdles. Those deals were among the most lucrative ones, worth more than $3 billion, the government records show.
Rescue workers at the funeral hall that was bombed in Sana. Credit...Mohammed Huwais/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Trouble for the company started on Oct. 8, 2016, when Saudi coalition planes repeatedly targeted a funeral hall in Sana, the Yemeni capital, where some 1,500 men, women and children had gathered to mourn the father of a government official.
The first bomb shattered the building, killing some instantly and sending others on a scramble to escape the smoldering rubble. A second landed as people poured in to help the survivors. A third fell as the newly injured and dying were clambering amid the splintered wood and broken concrete.
“People were on fire, and some people were burned alive,” one survivor, 42-year-old Hassan Jubran, told human rights workers.
“There were also many children,” he said. “There were three children whose bodies were completely torn apart and strewn all over the place.”
At least 140 people died and another 500 were wounded in the bombing, which the Saudis later said was a mistake. Soon after the attack, human rights workers discovered amid the wreckage a bomb shard bearing the identification number of an American company: Raytheon.