Foreign policy hawk Elliott Abrams joins Trump administration as Venezuela envoy

Deirdre Shesgreen

WASHINGTON – Elliott Abrams, a foreign policy hawk who worked in both the Reagan and Bush administrations, joined the Trump administration on Friday as a special envoy for Venezuela, as the U.S. ramps up pressure on embattled President Nicolas Maduro to step down. 

Earlier this week, Trump recognized Juan Guaido, head of Venezuela’s opposition-led National Assembly, as the country’s interim president – saying the incumbent leftist leader Maduro was not the country's legitimate leader.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the Trump administration had "multiple dimensions" to its Venezuela strategy, including efforts to support Guaido as he tries to wrest presidential power from Maduro. The State Department has pledged $20 million in humanitarian assistance to Venezuela as the country struggles with hyperinflation and food and medicine shortages.

"Elliott will have responsibility for all things related to our efforts to restore democracy in Venezuela," Pompeo told reporters at the State Department Friday. "Elliott's passions for the rights and liberties of all peoples makes him a perfect fit and a valuable and timely addition."

In brief remarks, Abrams said said he was thrilled to be rejoining the State Department after a 30-year hiatus.

"This crisis in Venezuela is deep and difficult and dangerous and I can’t wait to get to work on it," he said.

As an assistant secretary of State in the Reagan administration, Abrams was a fervent supporter of U.S. efforts to arm the Nicaraguan rebels. In 1991, Abrams pleaded guilty to withholding information from Congress about that covert operation.

Abrams later served as deputy national security adviser to then-President George W. Bush, where he shaped the administration's Middle East policy. Before Friday, Abrams was a senior fellow for Middle Eastern issues at the Council on Foreign Relations, a prominent think tank. 

Abrams was reportedly under consideration for a top State Department job earlier in Trump's presidency but the president nixed the idea because of Abram's his past criticisms of Trump. During the 2016 campaign, Abrams wrote an op-ed entitled "When You Can't Stand Your Candidate." In that piece, he said Trump couldn't win and "should not be president of the United States."

Pompeo said Abrams will travel to New York with him Saturday for a meeting of the United Nation's Security Council. The Trump administration asked for the U.N. meeting and will press other member countries to recognize Guaido as Venezuela's interim president.

Russia, a member of the Security Council, is likely to veto any resolution that undermines Maduro. President Vladimir Putin has reiterated his support for the Maduro regime and warned the U.S. against military intervention in Venezuela. 

Trump said earlier this week that "all options are on the table" when asked if the United States was considering military action. Other administration officials have echoed that but emphasized using economic sanctions, not military force.  

"What we’re focusing on today is disconnecting the illegitimate Maduro regime from the source of its revenues," Trump's national security adviser, John Bolton, said Thursday. 

Pompeo also addressed concerns about the safety of American embassy staff in Venezuela. Maduro demanded that all American diplomats leave the country; Pompeo initially rejected that mandate but the State Department has since started bringing non-emergency personnel back to the U.S. 

Asked what the Trump administration would do if the Maduro-controlled security forces tried to force the embassy staff to leave, Pompeo said he has been receiving regular risk assessments on the situation.

"It is literally a 24/7 moment-by-moment exercise" to evaluate their security, he said. "We will ... take all appropriate measures to ensure that they’re protected." 

Elliott Abrams, left, listens to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo talk about Venezuela at the State Department in Washington, Friday, Jan. 25, 2019.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Foreign policy hawk Elliott Abrams joins Trump administration as Venezuela envoy