J Michael Waller / Center for Security Policy / February 13, 2019
President Trump’s point-man on Venezuela showed how to handle malicious Members of Congress during committee hearings.
The long-collegial House Foreign Affairs Committee predictably is turning into a circus since House Speaker Nancy Pelosi named Ilhan Omar (D-MN) to the prestigious panel last month.
At the February 13 hearing on Venezuela, Omar intended to rip up the bipartisan consensus to remove the Nicolas Maduro dictatorship from power and to support interim President Juan Guaidó.
Abrams, who has been grilled before congressional hearings since Omar was an infant, wouldn’t have it. One of President Reagan’s key people to defeat the Communists in Central America, Abrams stood up to a handful of lawmakers who supported the other side, and was convicted of two counts of “withholding information” from Congress.
So Abrams is a wise man to watch about how to handle Omar and others like her. Let’s go through the complete video of the Omar-Abrams exchange, as the Center transcribed it.
Omar’s setup and Abrams’ intercept
Omar began with a personal attack on Abrams from his role in the Iran-Contra affair under President Reagan, essentially calling him a liar. Abrams wouldn’t take it. He started out politely, then threw it back at her. Here’s the dialogue:
OMAR: “Mr. Adams [sic], in 1991, you pleaded guilty to two counts of withholding information from Congress regarding your involvement in the Iran-Cortra [sic] affair, for which you were later pardoned by President George H. W. Bush. I fail to understand, ah, why members of this committee or the American people should find any testimony that you give, ah, today, to be truthful.”
ABRAMS: “If I could respond to that – ”
OMAR: “Ah, em, it wasn’t a question.”
ABRAMS: “I would – ”
OMAR: “Ah, on February – ”
ABRAMS: “I’ve been attacked – ”
OMAR: “that was not a question. That was, I, I reserve the right to my time.”
ABRAMS: “It is not right – ”
OMAR: “That was not a question.”
ABRAMS: “– that this committee can attack a witness who is not permitted to reply.”
Omar tried a clumsy recovery. Abrams remained defiant.
Faced with an unflappable Abrams, Omar tried a clumsy, scripted recovery about a 1981 massacre in El Salvador against Communist FMLN guerrillas and local civilians. Omar continued, and, with Abrams constantly pushing back, she revealed that in her world, “no” means “yes.”
OMAR: “That was not a question. Thank you for your participation. On February 8, 1982, you testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about US policy in El Salvador. In that hearing, you dismissed as Communist propaganda report about the massacre of El Mozote, in which 800 civilians, including children as young as two years old, were brutally murdered by US-trained troops. During that massacre, some of those troops bragged about raping a 12 year-old girl before they killed them. Girls before they killed them. You later said that the US policy in El Salvador was a ‘fabulous achievement.’ Yes or no, do you still think so?”
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.”
OMAR: “Yes or no: Do you think that massacre was a ‘fabulous achievement’ that happened under our watch?”
ABRAMS: “That is a ridiculous question, and I – ”
OMAR: “Yes or no.”
OMAR: “I – ”
ABRAMS: “I’m sorry, Mr. Chairman – ”
OMAR: “I will take that as a yes.”
ABRAMS: “I am not going to respond to that kind of personal attack, which is not a question.”
OMAR: “Yes or no: Would you support an armed faction within Venezuela that engages in war crimes, crimes against humanity, or genocide, if you believe they were serving US interests, as you did in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaraguay [sic]?”
ABRAMS: “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 got Omar to contradict her position, then ended on a high note.
Abrams got Omar to contradict her own opposition to US policy in Venezuela. Then he maneuvered her to end her allotted time on a high note, on his terms.
This was vintage Abrams.
Omar staunchly opposes the Trump administration’s opposition to the Maduro regime. Abrams got Omar to admit that Trump’s policy has merit. In refusing to take her bait from the Central America wars of the 1980s, and in objecting to her personal attacks on him, Abrams forced Omar to burn up her question time, allowing himself to end her session on his own high note.
OMAR: “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, 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 farthered [sic]. That is my question. Will you make sure that human rights are not violated, and that we uphold international and human rights?”
ABRAMS: “I suppose there is a question in there, and the answer is that the entire thrust of American policy in Venezuela is to support the Venezuelan people’s effort to restore democracy to their country. That’s our policy.”
OMAR: “I don’t think anybody disputes that. The question I had for you is that, the interest – does the interest of the United States include protecting human rights and include protecting people against genocide?”
ABRAMS: “That is always the position of the United States.”
OMAR: “Thank you. I yield back my time.”
Omar revealed her hand early. In showboating for the cameras, Omar showed that she did not know her basic subject matter, and had to read from a script. This is not unusual for a Member of Congress, but it was good to see.
Despite the script, Omar revealed carelessness. She did not know Abrams’ name, calling him “Adams.” She mis-pronounced key words and country names, saying “cortra” instead of “contra,” pronouncing El Salvador as if it began with a “Z,” and apparently blending Nicaragua with Paraguay to get “Nicaraguay.”
Many witnesses tend to stammer, falter, or even cave under pressure.
Abrams remained cordial but stood up for himself. In pushing back and remaining true, Abrams denied Omar the ability to attack his credibility unscathed, and to dominate her time with her false narrative. By building his own narrative to push Omar to say, “I don’t think anybody disputes that,” Abrams put Omar in the absurd position of appearing to oppose her own stance and to support Trump’s policy.