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‘Someone is not being honest’: Elliott Abrams, Trump’s Venezuela envoy, trailed by mistrust

A demonstrator sits behind Elliott Abrams, the U.S. special representative for Venezuela, as he testifies during the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee hearing on Venezuela on Wednesday. (Jose Luis Magana/AP)

The diplomat came before Congress and was told that he could not be trusted.

“I have to say to you, and I’m sorry to say this, that as one who feels very strongly that we must begin from this point forward to rebuild a bipartisan foreign policy,” his questioner said, “that I’m afraid there’s too much in the record at this point for you to be able to effectively play that role.”

The diplomat, Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams, answered, “I’m sorry you feel that way.”

The exchange occurred in 1987 during congressional hearings on the Iran-contra affair, as lawmakers probed secret efforts by the Reagan administration to aid the Nicaraguan rebels. “Someone is not being honest with us,” Abrams was warned.

The dialogue was replayed Wednesday — more than three decades later — in a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing, when Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) told Abrams, who is now President Trump’s special envoy to Venezuela, that his word was no good.

“I fail to understand why members of this committee or the American people should find any testimony that you give today to be truthful,” said Omar, a freshman Democrat who has been engulfed in controversy this week over her claim that members of Congress support Israel because they are beholden financially to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

The confrontation with Omar proved the truism attributed to Mark Twain that “history doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes.” The back-and-forth refocused a spotlight on controversies that have trailed Abrams, 71, during a half-century in public life. And it revealed the moral trade-offs involved in the hawkish role that he has advanced for the United States — a global posture that Trump once purported to reject but has increasingly embraced, including by maintaining that military intervention in Venezuela is “an option.”

With his return to government, Abrams offers a case study in how neoconservatives have warmed to “Trumpism,” which the diplomat once warned, in a 2016 Weekly Standard column, should not go “unchallenged.” Shortly after Trump’s inauguration, Abrams was considered for the No. 2 position at the State Department. Six months into the administration, he judged Trump a “traditionalist,” remarking on his “conventional” foreign policy.

Abrams was untrustworthy, Omar said, because of his admission in 1991 that he had withheld information from Congress about clandestine efforts to aid the contra rebels. For the misdemeanors, he was sentenced to two years’ probation and 100 hours of community service. He was later pardoned by President George H.W. Bush and went on to serve President George W. Bush as a deputy national security adviser.

When Abrams sought to defend himself, the congresswoman cut him off, saying, “That was not a question.” The diplomat thundered, “It was an attack!”

In an email to The Washington Post on Thursday, Abrams defended his role in the Reagan administration.

“It’s a remarkable record of support for Latin democracy, of which Rep. Omar is obviously unaware and in which she is uninterested,” said the emissary, who is on leave from his role as a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations to assist in the diplomatic response to the escalating crisis in Venezuela. “That was clear from her conduct, which constituted attacking rather than questioning a witness.”

Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) grills U.S. Special Representative for Venezuela Elliott Abrams over the Iran-contra affair and a 1981 massacre in El Salvador. (Video: The Washington Post)

Abrams, under siege, had no shortage of defenders. “Anti-Semitic Congresswoman Defames Jewish-American Hero,” blared the headline in the Washington Free Beacon, the conservative website funded in large part by the billionaire hedge fund manager Paul Singer.

It wasn’t only partisans who took offense at the questioning by Omar, whose family fled the civil war in Somalia in 1991 and spent four years in a refugee camp in Kenya before they found safe haven in the United States. Abrams also found support from those who count themselves as critics of the president, including Nicholas Burns, a former undersecretary of state for political affairs and ambassador to NATO, who tweeted: “Elliott Abrams is a devoted public servant who has contributed much of his professional life to our country. It’s time to build bridges in America and not tear people down.”

Critics of interventionism saw the rush to defend Abrams as an illustration of the failures of the foreign policy establishment.

“I was struck by the closing of ranks of people who you might regard as foreign policy insiders, who argued that Elliott Abrams ought to be respected as a devoted public servant and as a good person,” Patrick Porter, a professor of international security and strategy at the University of Birmingham in Britain, said in an interview with The Washington Post. “I think that’s odd because here we have an elected representative of the people scrutinizing an appointee about his record.”

The diplomat’s record started out with a blue tint, as is common for neoconservatives.

“I was raised as a Democrat in New York City, and I was a Democrat and I would say a hard-line Democrat,” he said in a 2013 conversation with Bill Kristol, the founder of the now-defunct Weekly Standard.

In New York, Abrams attended the elite, liberal Little Red School House, whose graduates include Kathy Boudin, a member of the antiwar Weather Underground; and the activist and scholar Angela Davis. In college, he led Harvard’s chapter of Americans for Democratic Action, a liberal organizing group, and supported Hubert H. Humphrey for president. He practiced law and worked in Democratic politics, including as chief of staff to former senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York.

But he became disillusioned with his party’s foreign policy under President Jimmy Carter, as the Cold War intensified following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. He and other members of a centrist faction called the Coalition for a Democratic Majority were asked to meet with Carter during his 1980 reelection campaign, and, “by the end of the meeting, everybody in the room was for Reagan, including me.” He stumped for the Republican candidate, pitching his foreign policy to Jewish groups.

When Abrams took a job in 1981 as Reagan’s assistant secretary of state for human rights and humanitarian affairs, advocacy groups hoped that he would be a “liberal mole,” as he acknowledged in a New York Times interview in 1982.

He came to disappoint them, emerging as a hard-nosed critic of left-wing governments and an ally of regimes accused of violating human rights, such as South Africa and Taiwan, which portrayed themselves as anti-communist. He called himself a “gladiator” of the Reagan Doctrine — a gladiator who tried to leave his office at the State Department, where his portfolio burst with more than two dozen countries, by 6:30 p.m. to make it home to his two small children.

“I just can’t abide the fact that the left sits on its high horse and think they have a morally superior position on human rights because they are on the left,” Abrams said in the 1982 interview.

In testimony that year before Congress, he dismissed as “not credible” reports of the El Mozote massacre, in which members of the Salvadoran army who had been trained in the United States killed more than 800 civilians in December 1981. Omar referred to those comments in asking the envoy whether he still believed that U.S. policy in the Central American country was a “fabulous achievement.”

“From the day that President [José Napoleón] Duarte was elected in a free election to this day, El Salvador has been a democracy,” he replied, referring to the former president’s victory in 1984. “That’s a fabulous achievement.”

She pressed him to say whether the violence committed by the U.S.-trained battalion was “a fabulous achievement that happened under our watch.” He called the question “ridiculous,” at which point she said she would “take that as a yes.”

Omar then asked whether the envoy would support an armed uprising in Venezuela involving war crimes and genocide if he believed insurgents “were serving U.S. interests, as you did in Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua.”

In 1983, Abrams defended Guatemala’s dictator, Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt, as the Reagan administration moved to lift an embargo on military aid to the country, which was locked in a civil war. The killing of innocent civilians, the diplomat claimed, was “being reduced step by step” under the general, who had been installed in a military coup in 1982. That year, however, accounted for nearly half of all human rights violations during the 36-year conflict, a United Nations-sponsored truth commission later found. Ríos Montt, who was deposed in 1983 and later elected to Guatemala’s Congress, was found guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity in 2013.

Abrams declined to respond to what he said were not “meant to be real questions.”

“Whether under your watch a genocide will take place, and you will look the other way because American interests were being upheld, is a fair question,” Omar continued. “Because the American people want to know that anytime we engage a country, that we think about what our actions could be and how we believe our values are being furthered.”

He conceded that “there was a question in there” and answered that U.S. policy in Venezuela is intended to “support the Venezuelan people’s effort to restore democracy to their country.”

Protesters at the Wednesday hearing waved signs and wore shirts accusing the diplomat of complicity in grievous acts. Some used the term “war criminal,” a charge that has been leveled by Eric Alterman, a professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College at the City University of New York.

Porter, the international security professor, said he was “ambivalent” about the label. Lawmakers should nonetheless be concerned about being misled again, he said. “That’s a question about how the republic goes about making its foreign policy.”