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America’s #1 Weapons Salesman: Trump Promotes U.S. Arms Manufacturers & Weakens Export Rules

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A new exposé by Reuters reveals how the Trump administration plans to make the U.S. an even larger weapons exporter by loosening restrictions on the sale of equipment ranging from fighter jets and drones to warships and artillery. Reuters reveals that the new initiative will provide guidelines that could allow more countries to be granted faster deal approvals, and will call on Cabinet officials to help close deals between foreign governments and U.S. defense contractors. In one example, Reuters reveals President Trump himself urged the emir of Kuwait, in a telephone call, to finalize a $10 billion fighter jet deal with Boeing, the country’s second-largest defense contractor. The exposé details the role U.S. Cabinet officials may be asked to play in pushing arms exports abroad as part of the new initiative, which will call for a “whole of government” approach—from the president and his Cabinet to military attachés and diplomats—to help draw in billions of dollars more in arms business overseas. The Trump administration is expected to announce the new rules as early as Thursday. We speak to Mike Stone of Reuters and William Hartung, director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We turn now to a new exposé that reveals how the Trump administration plans to make the U.S. an even larger weapons exporter by loosening restrictions on the sale of equipment ranging from fighter jets and drones to warships and artillery. Reuters reveals that the new initiative will provide guidelines that could allow more countries to be granted faster deal approvals, and will call on Cabinet officials to help close deals between foreign governments and U.S. defense contractors. In one example, Reuters reveals President Trump himself urged the emir of Kuwait, in a telephone call, to finalize a $10 billion fighter jet deal with Boeing, the country’s second-largest defense contractor. The exposé details the role U.S. Cabinet officials may be asked to play in pushing arms exports abroad as part of the new initiative, which will call for a, quote, “whole of government” approach—from the president and his Cabinet to military attachés and diplomats—to help draw in billions of dollars more in arms business overseas. The Trump administration is expected to announce the new rules as early as Thursday.

AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about the Trump administration’s arms sales initiative, we’re joined now by two guests. In Washington, Mike Stone is a reporter on the arms industry for Reuters, co-author of the Reuters exposéexposé, headlined “Arming the world: Inside Trump’s 'Buy American' drive to expand weapons exports.” And William Hartung is with us, director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy, his recent piece for The Nation headlined “Donald Trump Is America’s Number-One Weapon Salesman.”

We go first, though, to Mike Stone. Mike, lay out what you found.

MIKE STONE: The Boeing signal to the embassy in Kuwait that it wanted to get this transaction through, when it occurred was in November of 2016, right around the time of the election. The State Department approved this arms transfer. It’s 40 F-18s for a total potential cost of $10 billion. What was occurring was, Kuwait was slow to finish the contract negotiations, slow to send the check, as it were. And so, over the course of the year, Boeing pressed, and then this pressure moved up the chain of command through the White House, through various offices at the White House, until it finally reached the Oval Office.

And then, in a January 17th telephone call between the president and the emir, the president pressed on a few different issues. And in a way that’s been explained to me by my sources, he really likes—the president really likes to talk about specific arms deals on calls and have that feeling of just the touch, just getting it over the line. So that’s exactly what happened in this case. A month later, Rex Tillerson—well, a month later, Rex Tillerson said that the deal was finalized, but only a few days after the call between the emir and the president, local media were reporting that the deal had come to completion, after being, let’s say, stalled for more than a year.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Mike Stone, in terms of the changes in policy now, could you talk about the significance of possibly moving the approval or oversight of arms sales from the State Department to the Commerce Department?

MIKE STONE: So, there’s a variety of things that are going to come out in what’s anticipated to be a Thursday rollout. It’s going to be a conventional arms transfer policy that gets signed. There are several aspects of that. Some items will go to Commerce eventually from the State Department, but oversight for foreign military sales will remain at the State Department. And those sales, in years past, have been $42 billion, just for the FMS part. This is separate from direct commercial sales, which are when an arms manufacturer goes straight to a close ally, like a Britain or a France. But not many things in this rollout will go from the State Department over to Commerce. That’s really a different thing that will happen later.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Mike Stone, how different is President Trump from, well, President Obama, for example?

MIKE STONE: So, what’s actually quite interesting about this specific presidency is, Obama would go and push foreign leaders to buy commercial things more, but President Trump is very much interested in having a role in expanding the reach of the lethal weapons, having foreign leaders really dig in and buy those from U.S. manufacturers. And that’s the great big difference.

AMY GOODMAN: That picture of him with the Saudi prince with the weapon sales—talk about Trump meeting with the Saudi Arabian Crown Prince MBS, Mohammed bin Salman, at the White House, the two leaders finalizing this $12.5 billion weapons deal, during the meeting Trump holding up posters of recent Saudi weapons purchases from the U.S. and saying, “We make the best equipment in the world.” Let’s go to that clip.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Saudi Arabia has been a very great friend and a big purchaser of equipment and lots of other things. … Some of the things that we are now working on—thanks—and that have been ordered and will shortly be started in construction and delivered: THAAD system, $13 billion; the C-130 heli—airplanes, the Hercules, great plane, $3.8 billion; the Bradley vehicles, that’s the tanks, $1.2 billion; and the P-8 Poseidons, $1.4 billion. … So, we make the best equipment in the world. There’s nobody even close. And Saudi Arabia is buying a lot of this equipment.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was President Trump talking in terms of sales to Saudi Arabia. But, Bill Hartung, you’ve written in your Nation piece recently that 25 of the past 26 years, the United States has been a leading arms dealer in the world. And you say that the arms race isn’t really between the United States and other countries, it’s between various U.S. presidents, as to who will sell the most arms to the rest of the world.

WILLIAM HARTUNG: That’s correct. And Trump is really racing with Obama at this point. We did a report for the Security Assistance Monitor, my office, and we found that in his first year Trump approved $82 billion in arms offers, versus $76 billion in the last year of Obama, so not that much more. And Obama set a record of $102 billion during his administration. So, actually, to outdo Obama, Trump is going to have to hustle. And, of course, that is what he’s doing.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what, again—the same question to Mike Stone—makes him different?

WILLIM HARTUNG: Well, he’s much more blatant about it. He’s shouting it from the rooftops. He’s playing a very personal role. I don’t know if you noticed—it wasn’t made clear in that clip—but he held up a chart that showed 40,000 jobs from Saudi arms sales, and it showed the states, and they were all the swing states—Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Florida. So, among other things, not only is this a business proposition for Trump, but it’s a blatant political move to shore up his base.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, of course, there’s a former Lockheed Martin executive, John Rood, who is now Trump’s—the undersecretary of defense for policy. So, clearly, the arms manufacturers are even more deeply rooted in the new administration.

WILLIM HARTUNG: Well, yes. A lot of people talk about Trump’s generals. He had McMaster. He’s got Kelly. He’s got Mattis. But he’s actually got even more arms executives—the top three at the Pentagon, National Security Council. And Rood actually refused, in his confirmation hearings, to say whether he would recuse himself from arms deals relating to Lockheed Martin, which led to pushback from Elizabeth Warren and others. But nonetheless, he was approved 81 to 7. So Congress really hasn’t played its oversight role in terms of the arms industry infiltrating our government.

AMY GOODMAN: Mike Stone, I wanted to ask you about what is happening in these next few days, the Trump administration unveiling plans to loosen the restrictions even further on U.S. arms exports. Explain what is proposed.

MIKE STONE: So, it will be a couple different signings. One will be a national security policy memorandum. Many presidents sign these. That will be an overarching document. Then there will be a thing called the conventional arms transfer policy. Now, what this is, is it is the lens through which all foreign military sales are observed. So, the current lens is the Obama lens. It has several bullet points to it. Human rights has been a very important part of that. My sources tell me that human rights will remain a very important part of the Trump-era CAT policy. But we’re also hearing that business will have a much more substantial role in the evaluation of a policy. So, if it’s good for—if a sale is good for jobs, if a sale is good for the trade deficit, those things will have a greater weight than under the Obama policy. And if you look around the table and say, “Oh, how does a human rights person here at the State Department feel about this? How does the business person feel about it?” those two power structures are going to now struggle in the evaluation of each deal.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Mike, one of the points that the Trump administration makes is that the loosening of these restrictions will make the United States more competitive against Chinese and Russian manufacturers of weapons. Your response to that?

MIKE STONE: So, it’s actually an interesting dynamic that the State Department has to wrestle with. Under the Obama administration, as Bill rightly pointed out, weapons sales went up. Secretary Clinton used weapons sales as an instrument of soft power. There is a greater relationship that happens with a U.S. ally when that ally purchases that weaponry. This is only going to expand, and so, therefore, if you think of the world as a zero-sum game, Russian and Chinese influence, through its—through their weapons sales, would therefore shrink.

AMY GOODMAN: Bill, I wanted to ask you—in your article, you write, “selling weapons to dictatorships and repressive regimes often fuels instability, war, and terrorism, as the American war on terror has vividly demonstrated for the last [nearly] 17 years.”

WILLIAM HARTUNG: Well, there’s a couple examples. If you look at all the equipment that was given and sold to Iraq, much of that ended up with ISIS, because the Iraqi military basically collapsed when ISIS invaded the north of Iraq. If you look at Yemen, Saudi Arabia is using U.S. fighter planes, U.S. bombs, U.S. missiles to commit horrendous war crimes, bombing civilians indiscriminately, blockading the country, which is resulting in a famine and major disease outbreaks.

So there are cases where Obama shouldn’t have sold, where Trump certainly shouldn’t sell. In the case of Yemen, Obama finally held back on a sale of precision-guided munitions, bombs, and Trump immediately reversed that. And there was resistance in Congress. Forty-seven senators voted to block the deal. But nonetheless Trump is moving full speed ahead. And, of course, he and Jared Kushner have a very tight relationship with the Saudi crown prince.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And didn’t the Obama administration restrict sales to Bahrain, as well, but the Trump administration is loosening that now?

WILLIAM HARTUNG: Yes, there were a number of cases—Bahrain, Nigeria—where Obama held back on human rights grounds, and Trump immediately waived those and moved forward with big sales.

AMY GOODMAN: And restricted weapons in Saudi Arabia.

WILLIAM HARTUNG: Yes, exactly. So, basically, anything that Obama had done to rein in any kind of weapons sale, Trump immediately reversed.

AMY GOODMAN: There was, just a month ago—after his election in 2016, Trump took to Twitter and criticized the country’s largest defense contractor—I want to put this question to Mike Stone—Lockheed Martin. He tweeted, “Based on the tremendous cost and cost overruns of the Lockheed Martin F-35, I have asked Boeing to price-out a comparable F-18 Super Hornet!” Talk about Trump’s relationship now with Lockheed Martin and Boeing, Mike.

MIKE STONE: So, there were several tweets that were very surprising to the business community. Everyone didn’t know what to do at the time. However, here we are a year out, and what those tweets were—criticizing Carrier for moving jobs to Mexico, criticizing Boeing for the cost of Air Force One, criticizing Lockheed Martin for the cost of the F-35—these tweets became straw men. And now these CEOs have surmounted that—you know, the false criticism of the president and have been given this victory over that straw man. So, the relationship looked very difficult at the time, but here we are a year on, and he’s about to—he’s literally picking up the telephone and closing deals and becoming the high-touch salesperson that the “art of the deal” president wants to be.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both for being with us, Bill Hartung of the Center for International Policy and Mike Stone with Reuters. Your piece, “Arming the world: Inside Trump’s 'Buy American' drive to expand weapons exports,” at Reuters, we’ll link to that. And, William Hartung, we’ll link to your piece, as well, the piece you did for The Nation, “Donald Trump Is America’s Number-One Weapon Salesman.” William Hartung’s latest book, Prophets of War: Lockheed Martin and the Making of the Military-Industrial Complex. This is Democracy Now! Stay with us.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: “Come Ye” by Nina Simone. Nina Simone was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this weekend, 15 years after she died.

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