WASHINGTON — Senior White House officials pushed a project to share nuclear power technology with Saudi Arabia despite the objections of ethics and national security officials, according to a new congressional report citing whistleblowers within the Trump administration.
Lawmakers from both parties have expressed concerns that Saudi Arabia could develop nuclear weapons if the U.S. technology were transferred without proper safeguards.
The Democratic-led House oversight committee opened an investigation Tuesday into the claims by several unnamed whistleblowers who said they witnessed "abnormal acts" in the White House regarding the proposal to build dozens of nuclear reactors across the Middle Eastern kingdom.
The report raises concerns about whether some in a White House marked by "chaos, dysfunction and backbiting" sought to circumvent national security procedures to push a Saudi deal that could financially benefit close supporters of the president.
The report comes at a time when lawmakers are increasingly uneasy with the close relationship between the Trump administration and Saudi Arabia, which has raised alarms even among members of the president's party in Congress. President Donald Trump has made the kingdom a centerpiece of his foreign policy in the Middle East as he tries to further isolate Iran. In the process, he has brushed off criticism over the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi and the Saudis' role in the war in Yemen.
At the same time, Trump son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner is developing a Middle East peace plan that could include economic proposals for Saudi Arabia.
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
According to the report, the nuclear effort was pushed by former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, who was fired in early 2017. Derek Harvey, a National Security Council official brought in by Flynn, continued work on the proposal, which has remained under consideration by the Trump administration.
Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, announced the investigation Tuesday.
Relying on the whistleblower accounts, email communications and other documents , the committee's report details how NSC and ethics officials repeatedly warned that the actions of Flynn and a senior aide could run afoul of federal conflicts of interest law and statutes governing the transfer of nuclear technology to foreign powers.
Flynn is awaiting sentencing for lying to the FBI in the Russia investigation.
On Tuesday, a person close to Flynn's legal team said that Russia special counsel Robert Mueller's team thoroughly reviewed the matters raised in the congressional report and no charges related to it were filed. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to publicly discuss the ongoing investigation.
Congressional investigators are also probing the role of Tom Barrack, a proponent of the nuclear proposal who ran Trump's presidential inaugural committee, which is under separate investigation by federal prosecutors in New York. Rick Gates, a former Barrack employee and cooperator in Mueller's investigation, was also involved in advocating for the nuclear proposal.
A spokesman for Barrack said in a statement that he will cooperate with the House probe.
"Mr. 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, as are his more than four decades of respected relationships throughout the region," the statement said, noting that Barrack never joined the Trump administration.
Harvey did not immediately return a request for comment.
According to the report, the whistleblowers came to the committee because they had concerns "about efforts inside the White House to rush the transfer of highly sensitive U.S. nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia in potential violation of the Atomic Energy Act and without review by Congress as required by law — efforts that may be ongoing to this day."
A 2017 article by the nonprofit news outlet ProPublica detailed some of the concerns raised inside the National Security Council about the nuclear proposal — known as the "Marshall Plan for the Middle East" — advocated by a company called IP3 International.
IP3 is led by a group of retired U.S. military officers and national security officials, including retired Rear Adm. Michael Hewitt, retired Army Gen. Jack Keane and former Reagan National Security Adviser Bud McFarlane.
IP3 and other proponents of nuclear power in the Middle East argue that the U.S. needs to be involved because otherwise it will lose out to Russia, China and others on billions of dollars in business. They also say that U.S. involvement — and the limits on nuclear fuel that come with it— are essential to stem an arms race in the region.
"The only way to address concerns over development of weapons of mass destruction is for the U.S. to participate in the introduction and secure operation of international nuclear power plants," the company said in a statement Tuesday. It also said it "looks forward to sharing what we know" with the House committee.
Up until the month before he joined the Trump administration, Flynn listed himself on public documents as an adviser to an iteration of Hewitt's company advocating for the nuclear power proposal.
Last year, IP3 told The Washington Post that Flynn was offered a role in the company but never formally came aboard. On Tuesday, the company said Flynn "was never an advisor to IP3 or its affiliate, he had no stake in the company and was never compensated or reimbursed for expenses by IP3."
Still, according to the report, Flynn served as a conduit for IP3 inside the White House.
Just days after Trump's inauguration, the company sent Flynn a draft memo for the president's signature that would have appointed Barrack as a "special representative" in charge of carrying out the nuclear power proposal and called on the director of the CIA and the secretaries of State, Energy, Treasury and Defense to lend him support. The report also quotes former Deputy National Security Adviser K.T. McFarland as saying Trump personally told Barrack he could lead the plan's implementation.
The report also catalogs the actions of Harvey, the Flynn confidant who was put in charge of the NSC's Middle East and North African affairs.
According to the report, upon entering the White House in January 2017, Harvey saw his mission as getting Trump to adopt the nuclear proposal despite the objections of ethics and national security officials.
Even when H.R. McMaster, who replaced Flynn as national security adviser, and NSC lawyer John Eisenberg directed that work stop on the proposal because of concerns about its legality, Harvey continued pursuing the proposal, according to the report.
Harvey was fired from the NSC in July 2017. He then joined the staff of GOP Rep. Devin Nunes of California, a Trump ally and the former Republican chairman of the House intelligence committee.