Elliott Abrams, the special envoy to Venezuela for President Donald Trump’s administration, had a meltdown when Representative Ilhan Omar highlighted his criminal conduct in the Iran-Contra scandal.
The meltdown occurred during a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing, “Venezuela at the Crossroads.”
“In 1991, you pleaded guilty to two counts of withholding information from Congress regarding your involvement in the Iran-Contra affair for which you were later pardoned by President George H.W. Bush,” Omar stated. “I fail to understand why members of this committee or the American people should find any testimony that you give today to be truthful.”
“If I could respond to that,” Abrams interjected. Omar replied, “That wasn’t a question.”
Abrams insisted he was under attack. He raised his voice and went into a tantrum. “It is not right [that] members of this committee can attack a witness who is not permitted to reply.”
Omar was not the first representative during the hearing to raise his role in the Iran-Contra scandal. But she was the first to pointedly raise the issue of his role in crimes against humanity in El Salvador in the 1980s.
“On February 8, 1982, you testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about U.S. policy in El Salvador,” Omar added. “In that hearing, you dismissed as communist propaganda [a] report about the massacre of El Mozote in which more than 800 civilians, including children as young as two-years-old, were brutally murdered by U.S.-trained troops.”
“During that massacre, some of those troops bragged about raping 12-year-old girls before they killed them. You later said that the U.S. policy in El Salvador was a fabulous achievement. Yes or no? Do you still think so?”
Abrams answered, “From the day that President Duarte was elected in a free election to this day, El Salvador has been a democracy. That’s a fabulous achievement.”
“Yes or no? Do you think that massacre was a fabulous achievement that happened under our watch?” Omar asked.
“That is a ridiculous question,” Abrams said.
When Omar insisted he answer, Abrams turned to Representative Eliot Engel, a Democrat who chairs the committee. “I am not going to respond to that kind of personal attack, which is not a question.”
Abrams wanted Engel to save him from the Muslim congresswoman who was asking him about his history as an official involved in backing right-wing militias in Latin America. Engel offered him no shelter from Omar’s line of questioning.
“Yes or no, would you support an armed faction within Venezuela that engages in war crimes, crimes against humanity, or genocide if you believed they were serving U.S. interests as you did in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua?”
“I am not going to respond to that question. I’m sorry. I don’t think this entire line of questioning is meant to be real questions. And so I will not reply,” Abrams grumbled.
Omar contended whether Abrams will look the other way if a genocide takes place because it advances American interests is a “fair question because the American people want to know that any time we engage a country that we think about what our actions could be and how we believe our values are being furthered.”
That led Abrams to maintain that American policy toward Venezuela is to “restore democracy” and to always protect people from human rights abuses or genocide.
In 1984, the New York Times reported the Central Intelligence Agency gave at least $1.4 million to the Christian Democratic Party to boost Jose Napoleon Duarte, who won the election in El Salvador, and to the National Conciliation Party to help their candidate, Francisco Jose Guerrero. The CIA provided “derogatory information” to European and Latin American journalists and “covertly subsidized” their visits to El Salvador.
The goal was to prevent Roberto d’Aubuisson, a far-right candidate from the National Republican Alliance, from winning because it would likely lead to Congress cutting off military aid since d’Aubuisson was connected to death squads.
As a United Nations Truth Commission detailed, “On 10 December 1981, in the village of El Mozote in the Department of Morazán, units of the Atlacatl Battalion detained, without resistance, all the men, women and children who were in the place. The following day, 11 December, after spending the night locked in their homes, they were deliberately and systematically executed in groups.”
“First, the men were tortured and executed, then the women were executed and, lastly, the children, in the place where they had been locked up,” according to the Commission.
As Brian D’Haeseleer wrote for the Washington Post, “Abrams denied this massacre in congressional testimony just as the allegations surfaced. He lied to secure continued funding for the Salvadoran government and to prevent the Salvadoran revolutionaries, the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), from overthrowing the government and establishing a supposed communist regime in Central America. Abrams and the White House viewed an FMLN government as a national security threat to the United States.”
“Abrams’s lies precipitated a deepening U.S. commitment to the Salvadoran government that continued until a 1989 massacre of Jesuit priests by the Atlacatl Battalion led Congress to question the nation’s support for such a brutal regime,” D’Haeseleer further recalled.
Such whitewashing makes Abrams truly abhorrent, and yet, Abrams clearly did not believe he should have to answer for his role in crimes against humanity.
Democratic Representative Joaquin Castro also expressed concern over Abrams’ past criminal conduct. Before Omar had her time, he asked if Abrams was aware of any transfers of weapons by the U.S. government to opposition groups. Abrams said no.
“I ask this question because you have a record of such actions,” Castro said. “In Nicaragua, you were involved in the effort to covertly provide lethal aid to the Contras against the will of Congress. You ultimately pled guilty to two counts of withholding information from Congress in regard to your testimony during the Iran-Contra scandal. So I ask you the question, can we trust your testimony today?”
Abrams was much calmer. “Well, you can make that decision for yourself, Mr. Castro. I can tell you that the answer to your question is no. It’s a simple and unequivocal no. There’s been no transfer of arms.”
Another Democratic representative, Adriano Espaillat, asked Abrams, “Do you feel that your past actions in Iran-Contra have permanently impaired your ability to fairly and transparently deal in the region, since we all know the outcome of what happened then? Do you feel that that’s a major problem, baggage that you bring to the table?”
This was also before Omar had her time, and Abrams replied, “I have been doing this job for two whole weeks, and I can tell you—Members of Congress have raised it. No Latin American of any nationality with whom I have dealt have raised it. We’ve had lots and lots of discussions about how we’re going to promote democracy in Venezuela.”
He continued, “I guess I should say, since I’ve been attacked now three times, in my own defense if you look at the Reagan record of eight years, when we came in, there were military dictatorships all over Latin America. And when we left, in country after country after country there had been transitions that we supported. Chile is a very good example. So I think it’s actually a record of promoting democracy.”
Espaillat insisted he was not attacking Abrams but rather stating a “fact of history.”
“We should not dig our heads in the sand and make believe that this never happened because it did. And you were at the helm of that,” Espaillat declared. “I think you were involved in the Iran-Contra deal, and I think that permanently damages you to be a fair and impartial arbiter in a conflict that is heading toward a humanitarian crisis of unprecedented levels.”
Espaillat asked Abrams if it would be “viable” to arm the opposition since there are individuals who have asked for arms from the U.S. government. Abrams said that’s a “terrible idea.”
However, Abrams’ past record looms over these statements. In 1987, “Robert Duemling, former head of the State Department’s Nicaraguan humanitarian assistance office, who said he had twice ordered planes to shuttle weapons for the contras on aid planes at Mr. Abrams’s direction in early 1986,” according to the Associated Press.