One of the more frustrating norms that has developed in our national politics is that elder statesmen should never be made uncomfortable. Even if they committed, or at least abided, monstrous crimes in the name of the American people while serving in government.
Someone did not give first-term Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) that memo. Or she has not been in Washington, D.C. long enough to learn that showing deference to people like Elliott Abrams, who was recently appointed by the Trump administration as a special envoy to Venezuela, is Simply Not Done. Which is why the video above, in which she aggressively questions Abrams in a way he was likely not expecting from a normally deferential Congress, is so refreshing. No one expects the nation’s capital to change overnight, but perhaps this is the beginning of a trend of newer congressional members rattling a few ancient and gilded cages.
For those unfamiliar with Elliott Abrams, he first became famous in the 1980s while serving as the Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs in the Reagan administration. In this position, he had a hand in steering policies that propped up the U.S.-backed governments of several Central American countries, along with the contras who were trying to overthrow the leftist government of Nicaragua. Propping up those governments meant looking the other way when they committed human-rights atrocities and then laughing when journalists confronted U.S. officials about it.
Specifically on Abrams’s watch, a U.S.-trained battalion from El Salvador’s military massacred 1,000 civilians in the rural village of El Mozote. It was the worst atrocity committed by a U.S.-backed government during that era in Central America, but far from the only one.
Abrams was later caught up in the Iran-contra affair and almost indicted on several felonies. He avoided that by cooperating with the special counsel investigating Iran-contra in return for pleading guilty to two misdemeanor charges of withholding information from Congress. He was later pardoned by President George H.W. Bush.
All of this is to say that perhaps there are better, more qualified people who could have been put in charge of running U.S. policy towards a country in South America that is headed by a leftist government. Abrams, a neocon who reportedly gave a wink and a nod to plotters who tried to overthrow Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez in 2002, would not seem to be a good choice.
Rep. Omar seems to agree. And while the House has no ability to fire Abrams, it can at least take a few pieces out of his hide.
Omar opened her few minutes of questioning by reminding Abrams that he had been found guilty of lying to Congress in the past, then shutting him down when he tried to defend himself. She then reminded him that he once dismissed reports of the El Mozote massacre as “Communist propganda.” (Spoiler alert: it was not.)
By this point, Abrams was saying he wasn’t going to answer any questions because he found them unfair. But he couldn’t help himself as Omar kept going with a litany of his offenses. She concluded by asking him if the nation’s interest “includes protecting human rights and include protecting people against genocide.”
Abrams, while looking huffy, managed to say that is “always the postion of the United States” while ignoring the laughter drifting up from Central America.
Elliott Abrams and his fellow Reagan veterans have never been fully held to account for their atrocious human-rights records in Central America. They have only been rewarded with more think-tank sinecures and well-paying government jobs. He should be grateful if a few minutes of tough questioning from a freshman member of the House is the worst of his punishment.