Mr. Tillerson’s efforts seemed to put him at odds with President Trump about who is to blame. Mr. Trump has openly sided with the Saudis, first on Twitter, then at a news conference.
Coming a day after Mr. Tillerson’s latest statement, Mr. Corker’s letter seemed intended to bolster the secretary’s diplomatic efforts to settle the disagreement. Major arms sales are subject to preliminary approval by the chairman and ranking member of the Senate and House committees overseeing foreign affairs before a statutory, 30-day congressional review process begins.
The United States has billions of dollars in proposed sales of fighter jets, warships, precision-guided bombs and other arms now pending to gulf nations in various stages of development and approval. Holding up approval of such highly sought-after weapons amounts to a shot across the bow of the affected countries, particularly Saudi Arabia, which agreed in principle to $110 billion in arms sales during Mr. Trump’s visit to the kingdom in May.
The hold does not apply to pending sales that have already been formally notified to Congress, such as the sale of $510 million in precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia, an aide to Mr. Corker said. It also does not apply to defensive, nonlethal assistance, including training.
Mr. Tillerson and Mr. Corker have forged a strong working relationship in the secretary’s first few months on the job, and congressional and administration officials said the senator’s letter was a high-profile example of how Congress could use the arms-sales notification process to influence policy. Typically, though, lawmakers do not wield this leverage quite this publicly, particularly on such a highly charged issue.
Mr. Corker notified Mr. Tillerson in advance of his intentions to send him the letter and make it public, an aide to Mr. Corker said.
“Before we provide any further clearances during the informal review period on sales of…