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Top Trump appointees promoted selling nuclear power plants to Saudi Arabia over objections from national security officials, House Democratic report says

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 2/20/2019 Tom Hamburger, Steven Mufson, Ellen Nakashima
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Key members of the Trump administration pushed a plan to sell nuclear power plants to Saudi Arabia in the months after the inauguration despite objections from members of the National Security Council and other senior White House officials, according to a new report from congressional Democrats.

The 24-page report from the House Oversight and Reform Committee is based on internal White House documents and the accounts of unnamed whistleblowers. It said the objectors — including White House lawyers and National Security Council officials — opposed the plan out of concern that it violated laws designed to prevent the transfer of nuclear technology that could be used to support a weapons program.

Of greater concern to some were potential conflicts of interest on the part of Michael Flynn, the retired Army lieutenant general who was President Trump’s first national security adviser and who had advised a firm pitching the nuclear plan. Yet the effort persisted even after Flynn resigned and left the White House, the report alleges. 

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The possible sale of nuclear power plants to Saudi Arabia was discussed in the Oval Office just last week. The meeting included Energy Secretary Rick Perry, representatives from the NSC and State Department, and a dozen nuclear industry chief executives, one of the people present told The Washington Post.

The Democrats’ report was released Tuesday morning by Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), the new chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, who has pledged multiple investigations into the Trump administration. Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said Tuesday that his panel would join the Oversight Committee in investigating the proposed nuclear sales.

“Multiple whistleblowers came forward to warn about efforts inside the White House to rush the transfer of highly sensitive U.S. nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia in potential violation” of federal law, the Oversight Committee report says.

The report, key elements of which were confirmed by people directly familiar with the matter, cites whistleblowers who said that the Trump appointees “ignored directives from top ethics advisers who repeatedly — but unsuccessfully — ordered senior White House officials to halt their efforts.”

Some Republicans on Capitol Hill bashed the report as inaccurate and politically motivated. Committee Republicans said Tuesday that they were not included in the drafting of the detailed report and had not had a chance to fully assess it.

"This is a delicate and nuanced issue that Chairman Cummings is approaching without bipartisan input and with far flung requests for information," Charli Huddleston, a spokeswoman for Republicans on the committee, said in a statement.

The White House did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday.

A person close to the Flynn legal team said that “this entire matter was thoroughly reviewed by the special counsel’s office a long time ago, and absolutely no charges were brought,” referring to Robert S. Mueller III’s inquiry into Russian efforts to influence the 2016 election. The person spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss such matters.

The report's release comes at a particularly difficult moment in Saudi-U.S. relations. In the aftermath of the killing of Washington Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi, Congress has expressed reluctance to continue with a business-as-usual relationship with Riyadh.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers has introduced legislation that would strengthen the power of Congress to stop a U.S.-Saudi nuclear deal.

The Trump White House has balked at endorsing intelligence reports suggesting that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was involved in the killing of Khashoggi, which was carried out Oct. 2 inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.

Many American experts on proliferation say it is in U.S. interests to sell American nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia to prevent rival Russian or Chinese companies from rushing in, potentially undermining the long geopolitical relationship between Washington and Riyadh.

Recently, the kingdom has been signaling an interest in forging greater ties with countries aside from the United States. It has been cooperating with Russia on oil policy, and a report Tuesday by the Russian news agency Interfax said the two countries were in talks on air defense missiles.

Saudi officials have said they would like to buy nuclear power plants so that their country is not totally reliant on oil, although it has the world's second-largest known petroleum reserves. The kingdom says it wants nuclear energy to displace oil burned to generate electricity, especially for air conditioning. That would boost Saudi Arabia's oil export capacity. Saudi electricity consumption doubled between 2005 and 2015.

But Saudi Arabia also sees nuclear energy as a way to compete with Iran, which has one reactor in addition to the uranium-enrichment program it concealed for years. The Saudi crown prince warned in an interview with CBS's "60 Minutes" last year that his country would develop nuclear weapons if Iran did. That added to concern among U.S. analysts that the Saudis want the atomic power project as a covert way to develop nuclear weapons.

The report released Tuesday notes that one of the power plant manufacturers that could benefit from a nuclear deal, Westinghouse Electric, is a subsidiary of Brookfield Asset Management, the company that has provided financial relief to the family of Jared Kushner , the president’s son-in-law and a senior White House adviser. Brookfield Asset Management took a 99-year lease on the Kushner family’s deeply indebted New York City property at 666 Fifth Ave.

Kushner is preparing for a trip to the Middle East to discuss the economic component of his Middle East peace initiative, according to the report. A lawyer for Kushner did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

The Democratic report singles out several top Trump associates at the time as key proponents of the sales, and identifies Flynn as the leader. A plan was initially floated by IP3, a firm led by several former high-ranking military officers, the report said. They called their plan a “Marshall Plan” for nuclear reactors in the Middle East. Flynn described himself in ethics filings as an adviser to a subsidiary of IP3. The company has denied that it hired him.

Jack Keane, a retired Army general and one of four founders of IP3, said the report created an erroneous impression.

“There’s a lot of inaccuracy in the suggestion that we were passing technology on to the Arabs and that would lead to weaponization,” said Keane, who was in last week’s Oval Office meeting. “If the United States is involved, we intend to prevent weaponization.”

He said his firm was devoted to bolstering the competitiveness of U.S. nuclear firms and preventing the spread of nuclear weapons in the Middle East.

Flynn resigned his position as national security adviser in February 2017, after it was revealed that he had lied about conversations he had with the former Russian ambassador to the United States.

Flynn was not the only White House official pushing for a U.S.-Saudi nuclear deal.

Derek Harvey, a senior director for Middle East and North Africa affairs at the National Security Council, was an advocate of the IP3 plan. In late January 2017, after meeting with IP3 leaders, Harvey sought to put together a briefing package about the nuclear sales for Trump ahead of a scheduled phone call with Saudi King Salman, according to the report, which cited an email from one of the IP3 founders to NSC officials.

Weeks after Flynn resigned, there were indications that he remained involved in pushing a nuclear deal. Harvey said during an internal meeting on March 2, 2017, that he spoke with Flynn every night. The report said his remarks came from separate accounts of five unnamed individuals.

“The attack on Mr. Harvey is a ridiculous conspiracy theory floated by media partisans and now, shamefully, championed by Democrats in Congress,” said Jack Langer, spokesman for the Republican minority on the House Intelligence Committee. “Members of Congress who defame staff members for political purposes will be reported to the [congressional] Ethics Committee.”

Harvey did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday. In July 2017, he became an adviser to Rep. Devin Nunes (Calif.), the ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee.

According to the Democratic report, Harvey’s NSC colleagues warned repeatedly that any plan to transfer nuclear technology had to comply with the Atomic Energy Act. The United States imposes limits on uranium enrichment and the reprocessing of spent fuel, both of which could be used to produce material for nuclear bombs. Saudi Arabia does not want to make those commitments.

On Jan. 30, 2017, the report says, NSC staffers, ethics counsel and lawyers alerted the top NSC legal adviser, John Eisenberg, who reports to the White House general counsel. Eisenberg instructed the NSC staffers to stop all work on the plan, according to the report.

The account was confirmed by a person familiar with the matter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the subject’s sensitivity.

H.R. McMaster, who succeeded Flynn as national security adviser, was concerned about the NSC’s potentially driving a policy that advocated or appeared to advocate for a commercial entity or individuals with commercial interests in that policy, according to people familiar with the matter, who spoke to The Post on the condition of anonymity to describe internal discussions.

McMaster and Eisenberg agreed that all work on the plan should cease, according to the report and two individuals familiar with the matter. Eisenberg was “confident” in his assessment that this was not an appropriate path to pursue — and that the NSC’s advocating a particular commercial solution was not appropriate, the people said.

The Oversight Committee report also focused on Thomas Barrack, Trump’s personal friend of several decades and chair of the presidential inaugural committee. Barrack is a leading advocate for the “Marshall Plan for the Middle East.” But Keane said that Barrack “was not heavily involved” in the nuclear plan.

In a statement Tuesday, a Barrack spokesman said that the businessman will cooperate with the House Oversight inquiry and noted that Barrack had no official position in the Trump administration. The spokesman said that Barrack’s “engagement in investment and business development throughout the Middle East for the purpose of better aligned Middle East and U.S. objectives are well known.”

tom.hamburger@washpost.com

steven.mufson@washpost.com

ellen.nakashima@washpost.com

Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.


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