AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Democrats on the House Oversight Committee are raising red flags about the Trump administration and a potentially illegal effort to transfer sensitive nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia. The committee released a report today based on federal whistleblower allegations. NPR's Tim Mak has read through the report. He joins us now. Welcome to the studio.
TIM MAK, BYLINE: Thank you.
CORNISH: What made the whistleblowers so concerned?
MAK: You know, the whistleblowers had ethical and legal concerns. But they thought they weren't being taken seriously enough. For example, the law states Congress must approve any transfer of nuclear technology to a foreign country. But the committee's report says that a senior director at the National Security Council, Derek Harvey, ignored warnings and insisted that the decision to transfer nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia had already been made.
There were also concerns about conflicts of interest among top White House advisers, which could have been against federal law. At one point, the National Security Council's lawyers asked White House staff to stop working on this project. But somehow the project continued.
CORNISH: The report also names names - right? - Michael Flynn, the president's former national security adviser, as one of the people behind this project. What is he alleged to have done?
MAK: So the report says that even before Trump was sworn in, the transition team began discussing a plan to push for a Saudi nuclear project. The report notes for about seven months in 2016, including during the presidential transition, Flynn also served as an adviser to IP3 International. That's a private company seeking to build nuclear plants in Saudi Arabia.
The whistleblowers we've been talking about said that Flynn continued to press for this company, advocate for this idea after he joined the White House, which presents a pretty substantial conflict of interest if that's true. Flynn, as you might recall, was fired in February 2017 for lying about his contacts with the Russian ambassador.
But even after Flynn left the White House, the nuclear project appears to have continued with Thomas Barrack, President Trump's longtime friend and inaugural committee chairman, taking a leading role. Barrack also has business ties with Saudi Arabia, which could pose additional conflict of interest problems.
CORNISH: All right, let's take a step back here. How does this fit into the larger picture of U.S.-Saudi relations, especially coming this time after the killing of Virginia resident and Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi?
MAK: So there's a close relationship between Jared Kushner, who's the president's son-in-law, and the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman. And you might remember that Trump's first foreign trip was to Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia. And that was meant to signal ambitions for a close relationship between the two countries.
But a lot has changed since Khashoggi's death in October. And that relationship has really been strained. In particular, the House and Senate have expressed their dissatisfaction with Saudi Arabia in different ways.
CORNISH: All right, the committee - what are they planning to do now, and what happens next? What's the order of business here?
MAK: So the House committee - the House Oversight Committee says it continues to investigate this matter and is demanding that the White House provide documents related to this issue by March 5. The House Intelligence Committee also thinks that it has a role to play. The chairman of that committee, Adam Schiff, has said he hopes to open an inquiry into the matter and will be cooperating with House Oversight.
Now, the report drops at a sensitive time for the White House. Not only is it still dealing with the fallout over Khashoggi's killing, but as the report written by the House Oversight Committee notes, Jared Kushner is planning to visit the Middle East next week. And he's stopping in Saudi Arabia.
CORNISH: All right, that's NPR's Tim Mak. Thank you for your reporting.
MAK: Thanks so much for your time.
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