It’s Wednesday afternoon. The House Foreign Affairs Committee is holding a hearing about possible U.S. intervention in Venezuela. Ilhan Omar, a Democratic freshman representative from Minnesota, has a question for Elliott Abrams, President Donald Trump’s new special envoy to the South American country.
Omar makes it clear almost immediately that she is not messing around.
“Mr. Abrams, 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,” she begins.
That’s true -- the Iran-Contra scandal involved high-ranking Reagan administration officials facilitating arms sales to Iran, which was, at the time, under an arms embargo. Those funds were later used to support right-wing military groups in Nicaragua. Abrams was sentenced to two years probation and 100 hours of community service for his involvement. George H.W. Bush pardoned him in 1992.
“I fail to understand why members of this committee or the American people should find any testimony that you give today to be truthful,” Omar says.
Abrams pauses for a beat and leans forward toward his microphone. “If I could respond to that-”
Omar cuts him off. “It wasn’t a question.”
There are a few garbled back-and-forths immediately following, as Abrams tries to talk over Omar, who insists that she reserves the right to her time. Finally, Omar breaks through and continues. She speaks of 1982, when Abrams dismissed “as propaganda” a report about the massacre in El Mozote, El Salvador the year before -- a massacre in which “more than 800 civilians” including “children as young as two” were killed by the U.S.-trained Salvadoran Army.
“During that massacre, some of those troops bragged about raping...12-year-old girls before they killed them,” Omar says. "You later said the U.S. policy in El Salvador was a fabulous achievement. Yes or no: Do you still think so?”
Abrams leans forward again. “From the day that President Duarte was elected in a free election, to this day…” He punctuates with a finger jabbing down at the table. “...El Salvador has been a democracy. That’s a fabulous achievement.” He leans back.
But Omar isn’t done.
“Yes or no: Do you think that massacre was a fabulous achievement that happened under our watch?”
“That is a ridiculous question, and I-”
“Yes or no?”
“No,” he says, throwing his arms wide. He goes on, “I am not going to respond to that kind of a personal attack, which is not the question.”
“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?”
Abrams pauses, his hands folded. “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.”
Omar stares unwaveringly at Abrams. “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,” she says. The American people, she says, would want to know as much.
“Will you make sure that human rights are not violated and that we uphold international and human rights?” she asks.
There’s a pause.
“I suppose there is a question in there,” Abrams says, “and the answer is that the entire thrust of American policy in Venezuela," he pauses to clear his throat, “...is to support the Venezuelan people’s effort to restore democracy to their country. That’s our policy.”
“I don’t think anybody disputes that,” Omar says. “The question I had for you is, does the interest of the United States include protecting human rights and include protecting people against genocide?”
Abrams hesitates, leans forward. “That is always the position of the United States,” he says. He leans back.
Omar’s place on the Foreign Relations Committee has recently been the subject of some discussion. Trump himself blithely suggested she resign after she apologized for some apparent anti-Semitic tropes in a series of tweets criticizing lobbying groups for Israel. Democratic Rep. Max Rose, who was among the first to call her out on the tweets to begin with, disagrees, and said it’s “time to move on” and prompted the “conservative caucus” not to be “chickenshit in the face of anti-Semitism, either.”