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The Trump administration's new special envoy for Venezuela, Elliott Abrams, clashed Wednesday with freshman Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., during a House hearing on the Caracas crisis after the congresswoman tried to turn focus to Abrams' history in Latin America while asking him point-blank whether he'd support "genocide" if it served American interests.
Abrams fired back, calling the line of questioning "ridiculous" and refusing to respond to the personal "attack."
The questioning was the latest moment in the spotlight for Omar, who earlier this week apologized for tweets considered anti-Semitic — and who previously criticized what she described as a "US backed coup" in Venezuela, though many countries beyond the U.S. have recognized Juan Guaido, the opposition head of the National Assembly, as the interim president over Nicolás Maduro.
On Wednesday, Omar began her questioning of Abrams with his connection to the Iran-Contra scandal during the Reagan administration, U.S. support of the right-wing government of José Napoleón Duarte during the Salvadoran Civil War and Washington’s broader involvement in Latin America’s civil conflicts during the 1970s and 1980s.
“In 1991, you pleaded guilty to two counts of withholding information to Congress regarding your involvement [in] the Iran-Contra affair for which you were later pardoned by George H.W. Bush,” Omar said. “I fail to understand why members of this committee or the American people should find any testimony that you give today to be truthful.”
The Iran-Contra affair involved senior Reagan administration officials secretly facilitating the sale of arms to Iran, which was the subject of an arms embargo, in the hopes of using those funds to support right-wing paramilitaries attempting to overthrow Nicaragua’s Sandinista government.
Abrams attempted to respond, but Omar said she was not asking a question and went on to criticize him for his 1982 testimony before the Senate in which he dismissed as “communist propaganda” reports about the El Mozote Massacre, where the Salvadoran army killed more than 800 civilians in 1981. The soldiers responsible for the massacre, the Atlacatl Battalion, had recently been trained by U.S. forces.
“That is a ridiculous question,” Abrams responded when Omar asked him if he thought the massacre was a “fabulous achievement.” “I am sorry, but I am not going to respond to that kind of an attack.”
Omar then asked if he would “support crimes against humanity or genocide if you believe they were serving U.S. interests as you did in Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua.” Abrams in the past had defended Guatemalan dictator Efraín Ríos Montt, who oversaw a campaign in which thousands of Guatemalans were either massacred or disappeared and who was later convicted of genocide. Omar, though, has also faced criticism for challenging the U.S. policy in Venezuela, and her questions appeared to suggest active U.S. opposition to Maduro, who has overseen a complete economic collapse in Venezuela, could spiral into "genocide."
Abrams responded: “I don’t believe this line of questioning is meant to be real questions and so I will not reply.”
Omar then said she wanted to know whether "a genocide will take place and you will look the other way because American interests were being upheld." Abrams said the American policy in Venezuela is to support the Venezuelan people's effort to restore democracy.
During less-contentious points during the House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing, Abrams — who was recently named by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to handle U.S. policy in Venezuela — told members of the committee that while the administration prefers to use economic, humanitarian and diplomatic channels to deal with the regime of disputed Venezuelan President Maduro, the use of military force is not being ruled out.
“When we say all options are on the table, that is because all options are on the table,” Abrams said, adding that military force “is not the preferred route and not the route we’re going down.”
The comments on Capitol Hill by Abrams came as President Trump met in the Oval Office with Colombian President Ivan Duque. The two leaders discussed, among other issues, the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela that has sent an estimated 1.14 million refugees into neighboring Colombia.
Following the meeting, Trump remained coy about the possibility of sending troops to Venezuela – only noting a number of options are available if Maduro does not step down from power.
“I always have a plan B, and C, and D, and E and F,” Trump said. “A lot of things are happening in Venezuela that people don't know about, there's a lot of support for what we're doing, tremendous support.”
Despite having the world's largest oil reserves, Venezuela is gripped by widespread malnutrition, disease and violence after 20 years of socialist rule launched by the late President Hugo Chavez. Critics accuse Maduro, Chavez's hand-picked successor, of unfairly winning an election last year for a second six-year term by banning his popular rivals from running and jailing others.
The U.S. and other nations want Maduro to step down and have recognized National Assembly leader Guaido as Venezuela's rightful leader. Venezuelans have also staged large protests to pressure Maduro to leave.
Venezuela's opposition has called its supporters into the streets across the country in a campaign to break the military's support of Maduro, while Maduro is rallying supporters to demonstrations following more than a month of pressure led by Guaido.
"Right now, I'm going to give this order to the armed forces: Allow in the humanitarian aid. That's an order," Guaido told the mass of people gathered in Caracas.
The struggle now centers on emergency food and medicine from the United States warehoused on the Colombian border town of Cucuta.
Guaido said this week that he will try to run caravans of badly needed food and medicine into Venezuela but won't start for nearly two weeks. Maduro has blocked aid shipments for his crisis-torn country, calling the aid part of a U.S.-led coup to topple him.
On Capitol Hill, Abrams did not predict when Maduro would step down, but noted that "a storm is brewing" inside his government and the Venezuelan leader "will not be able to weather it much longer."
Abrams noted that U.S. oil sanctions are starting to bite the economically devastated country and are expected to cause oil production to be cut in half by the end of the year. He also urged the armed forces in Venezuela to abandon their support of Maduro and join Guaido’s camp.
“There are off ramps if they support the people of Venezuela,” Abrams said of the Venezuelan military brass.
Fox News Virginia Nicolaidis and The Associated Press contributed to this report.