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Senate Will Try To Override Trump Vetoes On Saudi Arms Deal

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Today, the Senate will try again to block President Trump's deal to sell more than $8 billion worth of arms to Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates. When the administration initiated this deal back in May, many lawmakers objected, citing Saudi Arabia's role in the killing of U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi and in the widespread killing of civilians in the war in Yemen. The president vetoed several congressional resolutions to block the arms deal last week, and tonight the Senate will try to override those vetoes.

Senator Chris Coons, a Democrat from Delaware, sits on the Foreign Relations Committee and is on the line with us this morning. Senator, thanks for being back on the show.

CHRIS COONS: Thank you, Rachel. Always good to be on with you.

MARTIN: So the Trump administration's argument as to why this Saudi deal is necessary all centers around Iran and the reason why it invoked an emergency provision to push the deal through. How do you respond to that, that investing in Saudi Arabia's military capacity is a necessary counterweight to Iran's aggression in the region?

COONS: Well, I agree that Iran is a dangerous and an aggressive power that we need to contain, that we need to push back on. But I also disagree. We cannot let our foreign policy be dictated solely by economic and security concerns. President Trump has talked about our strategic relationship with Saudi Arabia as if all we really care about is selling them arms, stabilizing energy markets and having a close ally in the potential fight or work against Iran.

But I think that our values are equally, if not more, important than our interests and that our values do not compel us to turn a blind eye to egregious violations of both human rights and international norms by the Saudi kingdom and in particular by Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince.

MARTIN: So you're not disputing the intelligence that the State Department says it has about Iran shooting down a U.S. drone or other escalations? You don't - you just don't believe that...

COONS: No, I do...

MARTIN: ...Empowering Saudi is the response.

COONS: Exactly. I think failing to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for their conduct in the war in Yemen, for their domestic conduct in terms of human rights violations and for the brutal and preplanned murder of Khashoggi, an American resident journalist, failing to hold them to account for those things I think will simply encourage more outrageous behavior by the Saudi kingdom. Iran is indeed a real threat, one of the biggest state supporters of terrorism, and we need the Saudis to be our partners in the work against Iran, but not at any price.

MARTIN: So there are some of your Republican colleagues who agree with you, but do you have the votes to override the president's vetoes?

COONS: I don't think we do. And this will be another moment where we'll see Republican colleagues, who have made clear and strong statements about the challenge of our relationship with the Saudis and the need for human rights to remain at the top of American concerns in foreign policy, will still fail to challenge the president.

There are so many bills that have come over from the House to the Senate that we have not taken up, we have not debated, we have not considered. There is a strong bill coming over from Congressman Malinowski about a way we could put some real costs on Saudi without severing the relationship, but I'm concerned it won't get a vote.

MARTIN: Before I let you go, I want to ask your reaction to the announcement of President Trump tweeting out that Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, is stepping down. What do you make of that?

COONS: I would - I mean, I understand that Senator Coats, Director of National Intelligence Coats, has chosen to step down. Everyone reaches their breaking point. He is a patriot. He has served this administration and his home state of Indiana well. I know Dan well, and I was impressed with his standing up for the intelligence community on a number of occasions, even when that meant disagreeing with the president. He will be replaced by Congressman John Ratcliffe, a blind loyalist to the president, and I'm concerned about how that may harm our intelligence interests.

MARTIN: Senator Chris Coons of Delaware. Thank you for your time, sir. As always, we appreciate it.

COONS: Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.