WASHINGTON — The Trump administration approved the transfer of sensitive nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia twice after the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, according to information shared with members of Congress.
Citing records provided by the Department of Energy, Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., said Tuesday that the Trump administration had given the green light to U.S. energy firms to export technology and know-how to Saudi Arabia on Oct. 18, 2018 — only 16 days after Khashoggi was killed at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. The administration then approved another transfer on Feb. 18.
Congressional staffers from both parties told NBC News that Kaine's account was accurate. An Energy Department official confirmed the timing of the two approvals.
Kaine is a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which had requested details on seven transfers of nuclear expertise to Saudi Arabia, including the timing of the approvals in each case.
"It has taken the Trump Administration more than two months to answer a simple question — when did you approve transfers of nuclear expertise from American companies to Saudi Arabia? And the answer is shocking," Kaine said in a statement.
Khashoggi was a U.S. legal resident living in Virginia, which Kaine represents, and the columnist's killing sparked outrage around the world and prompted demands in Congress for the administration to punish Riyadh over the case.
Kaine said the approvals represented a "disturbing pattern of behavior" by the Trump administration that he said included bypassing Congress to push through an arms sale to Saudi Arabia, keeping up its support of the Saudi-led war in Yemen, overlooking the detention of women's rights activists and failing to comply with a law that requires the administration to reach a determination about the Saudi government's role in the killing of Khashoggi.
"President Trump's eagerness to give the Saudis anything they want, over bipartisan Congressional objection, harms American national security interests and is one of many steps the administration is taking that is fueling a dangerous escalation of tension in the region," Kaine said.
Henry Sokolski, the executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center and a former senior U.S. official who oversaw arms control issues, said the Trump administration has clearly been in violation of the Atomic Energy Act, which requires the president to keep lawmakers informed about nuclear cooperation negotiations.
"We've had people in the administration who have negotiated with the Saudis without informing Congress," he said. Kaine's statement indicates that "Congress is finally getting woke on this subject. "
The Trump administration's reluctance to pressure Saudi Arabia or publicly criticize the kingdom over a range of issues — including the Khashoggi case — has prompted pushback from lawmakers from both parties. But the administration has defended its dealings with Riyadh, saying the country remains a vital ally in the Middle East against Iran.
Saudi Arabia plans to build nuclear power plants with help from U.S. companies, but so far it has refused to agree to safeguards to ensure it does not develop nuclear weapons, including a prohibition on uranium enrichment and reprocessing spent nuclear fuel.
Republican Sens. Todd Young of Indiana and Marco Rubio of Florida and Democrats Edward Markey of Massachusetts and Kaine have introduced a bill demanding the government allow Congress to review all transfers of nuclear technology and expertise in advance.
Separately, the Government Accountability Office is reviewing the Trump administration's negotiations with Saudi Arabia, as well as any negotiation by the executive branch since December 2009, regarding a civil nuclear cooperation agreement. Rubio and Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., requested the review in March.
Kaine had demanded details about the timing of the transfers for months. But after the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. James E. Risch, R-Idaho, vowed to personally intervene on the issue at an open hearing last month, the Energy Department provided the information.