Elliott Abrams bristles at Rep. Ilhan Omar's 'attack' for his Iran-Contra role

William Cummings
Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., listens during a news conference on prescription drugs Jan. 10, 2019 at the Capitol in Washington.

WASHINGTON – Rep. Ilhan Omar sparked more controversy on Wednesday after getting into a heated exchange with the administration's newly appointed envoy to Venezuela during a House Foreign Affairs hearing. 

The Minnesota Democrat confronted Elliott Abrams over the former assistant secretary of state's role in the Iran-Contra affair and his support of Central American governments that committed human rights abuses during the Cold War. 

"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 told Abrams (whom she mistakenly referred to as "Mr. Adams"), referencing his 1991 guilty plea on two misdemeanor counts of withholding information from Congress. 

Abrams immediately asked for the chance to respond to her statement, but Omar refused. 

"It wasn't a question," she said. 

"It was an attack," Abrams said as he and Omar spoke over each other. "It is not right that members of this committee can attack a witness who is not permitted to reply." 

Omar then went after Abrams for his effort to downplay a massacre committed by the El Salvadoran military when he was serving under the Reagan administration. After hundreds of civilians were killed in the village of El Mozote in December 1981, including 131 children under the age of 12, Abrams and other administration officials dismissed reports of the massacre as exaggerations. The Atlacatl Battalion, which committed the massacre, was trained by U.S. advisers and two months after El Mozote, Abrams cited the battalion's "professionalism." 

"On Feb. 8, 1982, you testified before the Senate Foreign Relations committee about U.S. policy in El Salvador. In that hearing, you dismissed as communist propaganda the reports about the massacre at El Mozote," Omar told Abrams. 

"You later said the U.S. policy in El Salvador was a 'fabulous achievement.' Yes or no, do you still think so?" she asked Abrams. 

"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," a visibly agitated Abrams replied without hesitation. José Napoleón Duarte was elected in 1984. Prior to that, the country was governed by a joint civilian-military junta. 

"Do you think that massacre was a fabulous achievement that happened under our watch?" Omar asked. 

"That is a ridiculous question, and I will not respond to it," Abrams replied. "I am not going to respond to that kind of personal attack, which is not a question."

The Reagan administration regularly defended the El Salvador government's human rights record during the 1980s to justify the military aid being sent there to combat communist guerrillas, despite atrocities such as the El Mozote massacre and the December 1980 rape and murder of four American nuns.

The administration feared that if it did not support the El Salvadoran regime, the country could fall to the guerrillas and become a Soviet satellite state. Abrams has maintained that despite the El Salvadoran government's abuses and flaws, the people of that nation would have suffered far more if the country had fallen to communist rule. 

Officials in the Reagan administration funneled arms to anti-communist guerrillas, despite a congressional ban on such activity. Abrams was aware of the operation, but withheld that fact during congressional testimony. Independent Counsel Lawrence Walsh had been prepared to seek a "multi-count felony indictment" against Abrams for lying to Congress before Abrams agreed to plead guilty to two misdemeanors.

President George H.W. Bush pardoned him in 1992. 

On Friday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo appointed Abrams to act as a special envoy to Venezuela as that country wrestles with economic collapse under the administration of socialist President Nicolas Maduro. 

Omar asked Abrams if he would "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," Abrams said. "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's confrontation with Abrams came one day after President Donald Trump said the freshman congresswoman "should either resign from Congress or she should certainly resign from the House Foreign Affairs Committee" after she sent a tweet that both Democrats and Republicans said was anti-Semitic. 

Omar apologized for the tweet on Monday and on Wednesday she fired back at Trump's call for her to resign, tweeting, "You have trafficked in hate your whole life – against Jews, Muslims, Indigenous, immigrants, black people and more. I learned from people impacted by my words. When will you?"

Republicans have protested Omar's placement on the Foreign Affairs Committee since she was given the assignment last month because of a tweet she posted in 2012 in response to an Israeli military offensive against Hamas in the Gaza Strip. 

"Israel has hypnotized the world, may Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel," the tweet said. 

More: Rep. Omar starts furor with tweets on 'compromised' Sen. Graham, Israel 'evil doings'

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Elliott Abrams bristles at Rep. Ilhan Omar's 'attack' for his Iran-Contra role