Trump’s push for win with Sudan amps up pressure on Congress 

The Trump administration is pushing forward on removing Sudan from the list of state sponsors of terrorism in a move that could set up the East African country to open relations with Israel and provide the president another foreign policy win ahead of the election.

But the breakneck pace at which the administration is hoping to secure a deal with the country has ramped up pressure on Congress, which is deadlocked over legislation that would see Sudan pay compensation to victims of terrorism in exchange for immunity from other terrorist-related claims.

And victims of terrorism — which include those injured and killed in the 1998 twin embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, along with 9/11 victims — are also split over whether the federal legislation will hurt or harm their cases. 

Yet the administration is pushing hard for Sudan to recognize Israel as part of Trump’s promise to deliver “five or six” more Arab or Muslim-majority countries establishing diplomatic ties with Jerusalem following signed agreements with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.

An agreement with Sudan would be a significant diplomatic achievement for Trump ahead of the election, given Khartoum’s history as the famed location of the “three no’s” resolution of the Arab League in 1967, which declared no peace, negotiations or recognition of Israel.

And Trump is looking to sell the breakthrough agreements in the Middle East ahead of the election, despite the international rejection of his proposed Peace to Prosperity plan as a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has said the administration plans to remove Sudan’s terrorism designation in mid-October, ending the country’s pariah status and allowing much-needed investment for Khartoum’s fragile civilian-military government, which was put in place a year ago after a grassroots revolution overthrew the 30-year dictatorship of Omar Al Bashir.

The move has bipartisan support in Congress, which sees bolstering Sudan’s fledgling democracy as a key national security interest of the United States as well as sending a strong signal of support for populations opposing oppressive dictatorships.

But legal discussions have caused a split among Democratic senators over how to craft legislation that would see Sudan fulfill its obligations to settle claims with victims of terrorism while providing Khartoum with immunity, referred to as “legal peace,” from terrorism-related cases.

That legislation was being worked on by Sens. Chris Coons (D-Del.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). Pompeo sent a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) last week pushing for it to be included in Congress’s stopgap spending bill to fund the government through the end of the year.

“As secretary of State, I am asking for your help to partner with the Department to seize these opportunities by including the bipartisan Sudan legal peace legislation drafted by Senator Chris Coons in the upcoming continuing resolution,” Pompeo wrote in his letter, first reported by Foreign Policy.

“This legislation needs to be enacted no later than mid-October in order to ensure that payment of compensation to victims can occur as soon as Sudan’ State Sponsor of Terrorism designation is rescinded.”

But the rare bipartisan agreement is facing pushback from Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), who oppose the immunity aspect of the deal over concerns of delivering justice for victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

“I cannot tolerate this slap in the face to the 9/11 community and will oppose legislation related to Sudan that does not treat 9/11 victims and family members with the respect and dignity that they deserve,” Mendendez said in the statement released on the anniversary of the attacks this September.

“Congress should not deny families of Sept. 11 victims their day in court,” Alex Nguyen, Schumer’s spokesman, told the New York Times.

The legislation was left off the spending bill passed by the House on Tuesday and is expected to remain largely unchanged when it goes for a vote in the Senate, expected to take place before Sept. 30.

This has alarmed congressional aides who view the legislation as one of the last chances to ensure compensation for the victims of the embassy bombings and preserve the path for 9/11 victims to pursue claims against Sudan.

The efforts by Congress and the State Department have the support of some victims. This includes Edith Bartley, who is a spokesperson for the families of the 12 Americans killed in the 1998 twin bombings, who urged in a Washington Post op-ed in June to support the Trump administration’s efforts, calling it “an important step.”

But it’s being opposed by a large number of victims of the attacks, over 500, many whom were foreign nationals but U.S. employees at the time of the bombings. They are expected to receive little of a $335 million settlement the State Department has negotiated for Sudan to pay as part of its obligations for the removal of the terrorism designation.

This sum would go into an escrow account for the families of victims and victims of the embassy bombings, Foreign Policy reported in August, but victims groups have raised objections over how the money is expected to be divided, with significantly higher payouts for American citizens over foreign nationals.

Families of U.S. citizens killed in the bombings are expected to receive about $10 million, while injured Americans receive $3 million. In contrast, families of foreign nationals killed in the bombings, many of whom have since become U.S. citizens, would receive about $800,000 while those who were injured are expected to receive around $400,000.

“If Sudan is allowed to settle these claims for less than a penny on the dollar, dictate terms that leave many of its victims with nothing, and continue to deny it did anything wrong, Congress will have denied U.S. embassy victims both justice and accountability,” said Joanne Oport, who was a child when her mother was badly injured in the attack in Nairobi.

Her lawyers have said that because Oport became a U.S. citizen after the attack, her claims are likely to be extinguished under the deal being proposed by Congress.

And lawyers for families of victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks are also split over Congress’s efforts, with some saying a deal to grant Sudan immunity would effectively kill their efforts to pursue claims they say Khartoum has ignored and defaulted on for 19 years.

“Some of the language [in the legislation] I’ve seen is horrendous, it really hurts the 9/11 plaintiffs,” said James Kreindler, an attorney representing an estimated 2,800 of families of victims of the 9/11 attacks.

On a different side of this argument is Dennis Pantazis, of the Wiggins Law Firm, and who represents several hundred 9/11 families. He said he agreed with the legislative efforts being proposed by Coons.

“I was satisfied with the language that was agreed upon through Sen. Coons’s efforts and I think the other senators were as well, at least that was the understanding we had,” he told The Hill.

“Politics, business and commercial interests need to yield to the interests of widows and children,” said Kristen Breitweiser, whose husband was killed in the attacks on the Twin Towers and is a client of Pantazis. “I watched my husband blow up on television. I want to hold the terrorists accountable and I don’t want anything standing in my way to do that.” 

Lawyers for the families of victims of the 1998 embassy bombing victims and the 9/11 victims contacted by The Hill expressed more alarm over Congress’s proposed legislation than Sudan’s removal from the state sponsor of terrorism list.

“From the beginning of this process, we have said that we have no objection to Sudan being removed from the terror list,” said Mike Miller, the lead lawyer for the majority of embassy bombing victims.

“We seek only equal treatment for all U.S. embassy victims without regard to national origin, color, or nationality. We hope that with Sudan’s rescission we can now move to a fair and equal satisfaction of all final and unappealable judgments which Sudan fought unsuccessfully for more than a decade all the way to the Supreme Court.” 

Tags Bob Menendez Chris Coons Chuck Schumer Donald Trump Foreign policy Lindsey Graham Mike Pompeo Mitch McConnell Sudan

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