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Controversial Past Comes Back To Haunt Elliott Abrams At House Hearing


The Trump administration's point person on Venezuela has a long, controversial history in the region. And that came back to haunt him at a hearing on Capitol Hill. NPR's Michele Kelemen has more.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: The Trump administration's approach to the political standoff in Venezuela has had bipartisan support. But the man leading it, Elliott Abrams, found himself facing a lot of tough questions from Democrats at a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing. Joaquin Castro of Texas raised concerns about a recent report by McClatchy.


JOAQUIN CASTRO: My question is whether you're aware of any transfers of weapons or defense equipment by the United States government to groups in Venezuela opposed to Nicolas Maduro since you were appointed special representative for Venezuela.


KELEMEN: Abrams' answer was unequivocal. But Castro wondered out loud whether Congress should trust him.


CASTRO: I asked this question because you have a record of such actions. In Nicaragua, you were involved in the effort to covertly provide lethal aid to the Contras against the will of Congress. You ultimately pled guilty to two counts of withholding information from Congress in regard to your testimony during the Iran-Contra scandal.

KELEMEN: Abrams was later pardoned and went on to serve in the second Bush administration.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: All the civil war criminals...

CASTRO: All the time.


KELEMEN: Protesters disrupted Abrams several times during the hearing. And Congressman Adriano Espaillat, a New York Democrat, told Abrams that he brings too much baggage to the table.


ADRIANO ESPAILLAT: We should not dig our heads in the sand and make believe that this never happened because you did. And you were at the helm of that. And you...

ABRAMS: I was at the helm of promoting democracy in Latin America.

ESPAILLAT: You may want to characterize it that way, but I don't.

KELEMEN: Democratic lawmakers pressed him about his role in Central America, even bringing up past testimony he gave when he served in President Reagan's State Department. Michigan's Andy Levin says Abrams once told Congress, during a debate about deporting Salvadorans, that the U.S. government didn't believe they would face persecution or death if they were sent home.


ANDY LEVIN: And is it correct that when you testified at that hearing in 1984, death squads controlled by the Salvadoran government, which had the backing of the United States, were committing horrific acts of violence against the Salvadoran people?

KELEMEN: Abrams paused to jog his memory.


ABRAMS: The death squads were certainly active. Although if - I cannot remember the exact years. But the amount of death squad activity came down under President Duarte and under American pressure.

LEVIN: Well, just to remind you, as The Atlantic pointed out, more than 75,000 Salvadorans were killed in the fighting, most of them - most of them victims of the military and its death squads.

KELEMEN: While the hearing delved deep into Reagan-era interventions in Latin America, Abrams says his past is not getting in the way of his work on Venezuela today.


ABRAMS: Members of Congress have raised it. No Latin American of any nationality with whom I have dealt has raised it. And we've had lots and lots of discussions about how we're going to promote democracy in Venezuela.

KELEMEN: Elliott Abrams says he's not in favor of arming the opposition, calling that a terrible idea. And though he repeated the line that all options are on the table to pressure Nicolas Maduro to step aside, Abrams tried to reassure lawmakers the focus is on diplomacy. And he pointed out that dozens of countries have joined the U.S. in recognizing National Assembly leader Juan Guaido as interim president. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.