Congressional staffers exploded at Trump administration briefers in an expletive-laden phone call on Monday morning after U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo moved to designate Yemen’s Houthi movement as a terrorist organization and moved forward with plans to relist Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism, according to sources briefed on the conversation.
The call, which included the State Department’s top official on Yemen, Timothy Lenderking, sparked protests from both Republican and Democratic staffers angered by the administration’s failure to engage Congress on the designations in advance. Aid groups working on the ground in Yemen said the designation is likely to cause significant disruptions to deliveries in the war-wracked country with dire humanitarian implications.
Staffers on the call said they’d “never heard staff drop f-bombs on an official call like this,” according to a source briefed on the call. At points, staff interjected and interrupted the briefers and accused the department of misleading Congress.
“You need to stop fucking lying to Congress,” one staffer snapped, according to two sources familiar with the call, when they pressed administration officials on why they hadn’t briefed Congress in the months leading up to the designation. Foreign Policy first reported that the designation was imminent in November 2020.
The statute for designating new terrorist organizations requires the White House to notify Congress of its intent to designate foreign terrorist organizations at least seven days in advance. Congressional aides noted that the department sent its notice on the briefing within hours of Pompeo issuing his announcement.
During the call, described to Foreign Policy by multiple Congressional sources, other staffers pointedly asked administration officials how many Yemeni children were going to die because of the designation, accusing the administration of using the designation to play politics.
“On Yemen no one could point to a single positive concrete action coming as a result of the designation,” said one aide.
Adding to the tensions were technical problems: Several congressional aides said it took State Department officials 25 minutes to set up the conference call line they provided for the briefing. As one aide put it: “The call was an absolute mess.” Another aide said: “It was a fucking disaster.”
Among the other briefers on the call were Christopher Harnisch, the State Department’s deputy counterterrorism coordinator; Carrie Filipetti, a deputy assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs; and Trey Hicks, an assistant to the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Experts and humanitarian groups have said that a far-reaching designation against the Houthis, who control 40 percent of Yemen’s territory and the bulk of the population, will be almost impossible for nongovernmental organizations to work around in the short term. Nearly 80 percent of Yemen’s population—some 24 million people—rely on humanitarian aid, and the United Nations considers Yemen to be the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
A senior diplomat familiar with the matter said that most of the assistance provided by the United Nations and aid groups touches national institutions now run by the Houthis, exposing them to possible sanctions and legal hoops to jump through to obtain exemptions to continue their work unhindered.
Proponents of the designation have cheered Pompeo’s decision, arguing the move will hold to account the Houthis for attacks that threaten the civilian population while working with Iran to undercut peace efforts in Yemen.
Critics, including Democratic lawmakers, said the move will further undermine the peace process between the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthi movement. Some U.S. and diplomatic officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, agree with that analysis.
“The Houthis will almost certainly now have nothing to do with a recognized peace process,” the senior diplomat said. “Everything becomes untransparent.”
‘Stop F—ing Lying’: Congress, Trump Officials in Heated Exchange Over Terrorism Designations The British Journal Editors and Wire Services/ Foreign Policy.