Freshman Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) apologized Monday amid a backlash — including from her own party — over tweets that included anti-Semitic tropes. But if you thought she’d lie low for a while, you were wrong.
Omar used her perch on the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday to press Elliott Abrams, the Trump administration’s new special envoy to Venezuela. After mistakenly referring to him as “Mr. Adams” at the start, Omar asked questions attacking his controversial past. Abrams eventually refused to answer.
For background, Abrams is a well-known neoconservative who served in the Reagan and George W. Bush administrations. In 1991, he pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor counts of withholding information from Congress related to U.S. efforts to arm rebels in Nicaragua. A lame-duck George H.W. Bush pardoned him in 1992, before leaving office. Abrams-led efforts in Latin America have long been decried by human rights activists, so he was a natural target for Democrats on Wednesday.
Omar wasted no time. She began by saying that in light of Abrams’s guilty pleas, “I fail to understand why members of this committee or the American people should find any testimony that you give today to be truthful.”
Abrams asked to respond, but Omar told him it wasn’t a question. “It was an attack,” Abrams shot back.
Omar then brought up the 1981 El Mozote massacre in El Salvador, in which 800 unarmed peasants were killed by troops that had been trained and armed by the United States to put down an uprising. Omar noted that Abrams at one point called the policy in El Salvador a “fabulous achievement.”
“Yes or no: Do you still think so?” she asked.
“From the day that President Duarte was elected in a free election,” Abrams said, referring to Jose Napoleon Duarte’s election as president in 1984, “to this day, El Salvador has been a democracy. That’s a fabulous achievement.”
Omar responded: “Yes or no: Do you think that massacre was a fabulous achievement that happened under our watch?"
Abrams: “That is a ridiculous question, and I will not respond to it. ... I’m sorry, Mr. Chairman, I am not going to respond to that kind of personal attack, which is not a question."
Omar proceeded to ask whether Abrams would support an armed insurrection in Venezuela that engaged in war crimes or genocide if it served U.S. interests, “as you did in Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua.”
Abrams again declined to respond to the questions, at which point Omar argued that it was fair given how important it was to uphold human rights in situations such as Venezuela. In that country, the United States has recognized a new president as legitimate and the Trump administration has even left open the idea of an intervention against Nicolás Maduro, who is clinging to power.
“I suppose there is a question in there,” Abrams said wryly, before assuring her that human rights are an important U.S. goal.
The clash was the kind of thing you rarely see in congressional hearings, even from the most liberal members. Abrams was uniquely susceptible to this kind of treatment given his past, yes, but Omar made clear she’s not cowed by what happened Monday.
As I argued, part of the reason Democratic leaders came down so hard on her was undoubtedly the fact that controversies have followed Omar throughout her first month-plus in Congress. (This was actually the second time she backed off what she herself labeled an “anti-Semitic trope.”) They seemed to be telling her to tone it down and be more careful. And the heat is still on; Republicans argued earlier Wednesday that she should either resign from Congress or be kicked off the Foreign Affairs Committee.
Through her response to President Trump and her questioning of Abrams on Wednesday, Omar seems to be going in another direction — one that suggests she’ll remain a provocative figure for months and years to come.