Jim Mattis Privately Defends Trump's Biggest Arms Sale As Congressional Opposition Grows

Exclusive: The former secretary of defense is promoting the $23 billion package for the United Arab Emirates to senators ahead of a crucial vote, sources tell HuffPost.

Former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis is trying to save President Donald Trump’s massive weapons sale to the United Arab Emirates as skeptical senators worry about the country’s brutal track record across the Middle East, three people familiar with Mattis’ involvement in the sale told HuffPost.

The potential deal would be the largest weapons sale of Trump’s presidency. Mattis became involved in the congressional fight over the sale earlier this week ahead of a looming vote on bipartisan legislation to block the transfer, one of the sources said. The U.A.E.’s well-connected ambassador, Yousef Al Otaiba, has told more than one senator with concerns about the sale to call Mattis, another one of the sources said.

Mattis’ participation shows how the debate in Congress has quickly become a major national security flashpoint ― one that could cause a key defeat for Trump and for an influential U.S. partner that has so far escaped the kind of rebukes Capitol Hill has dished out to Saudi Arabia, despite the two countries’ close cooperation.

Mattis and a spokeswoman for the consulting firm where he works, the Cohen Group, did not immediately respond to HuffPost’s request for comment. The U.A.E. embassy also did not respond.

Mattis resigned from the Trump administration in 2018 over disagreements with the president and has since called him a threat to the Constitution. But he appears willing to align with Trump on the U.A.E., which he’s previously praised as a powerful U.S. partner he views as “little Sparta.” Prior to joining the Trump administration, Mattis advised the Emirati military in an unpaid capacity, CNN revealed.

For Mattis to become involved in the deal is striking. It casts the widely respected former Pentagon chief in the less savory role of an advocate for a repressive monarchy responsible for many human rights abuses and humanitarian crises, notably in Yemen and Libya. It threatens to sully the reputation Mattis cultivated just a few years ago when he pressured the Emirates and the Saudis to rein in their vicious military campaign in Yemen. And it underscores how former U.S. officials cultivate foreign relationships that can lead to post-administration opportunities and use their credibility to help whitewash alarming behavior internationally.

There is no indication that Mattis is being paid for his current work, but the Cohen Group, where he is a senior counselor, has an extensive business relationship with the defense industry, which stands to gain from the gigantic U.A.E. arms purchase. Mattis also sits on the board of directors of General Dynamics, a major defense firm with operations in the U.A.E.

Senators will vote this week, likely Wednesday or Thursday, on one or all of the resolutions to block the transfer to the Emirates. Critics of the sale cite a number of problems. They say the Trump administration is speeding it through, breaking with past practices of consultation, while risking sensitive technology. The sale would include F-35 fighter jets and armed Reaper drones, which lawmakers don’t want U.A.E. partners and U.S. adversaries China and Russia to learn more about.

Skeptics are also anxious about the possibility of the U.A.E. becoming stronger than Israel, which the U.S. is legally bound to keep militarily stronger than its neighbors, and using the weaponry, particularly bombs and missiles, in its ongoing interventions in regional civil wars.

Opponents of the arms deal have gained ground in recent days. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) told HuffPost late last week that he will vote against it, boosting the likelihood that the entire Senate Democratic Caucus will follow and rejecting the deal will only require a handful of Republican votes. One crucial GOP figure, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), seems willing to break with Trump and her party on the deal, an activist who spoke with her office on Monday told HuffPost.

Asked about the Mattis news, one human rights advocate rallying votes against the arms deal called it a sign that his coalition has been far more successful than Trump, the U.A.E. or their supporters expected.

“I’m not surprised. The U.A.E. can lose this vote, and they need help,” Philippe Nassif of Amnesty International said.

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