For most of this week, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) has been under fire for comments she made on Sunday about Israel policy that had anti-Semitic undertones. Omar apologized on Monday, but Republicans, including President Donald Trump, are still calling on her to resign or be stripped of her position on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
In a Wednesday hearing, though, Omar showed that she has a quite a lot to offer the committee — grilling Trump’s special envoy to Venezuela, Elliott Abrams, in a way that very few lawmakers would be willing to do.
Abrams is a former Reagan administration official who focused on Latin America policy. Under his watch, the US supported a number of armed anti-Communist groups with truly brutal human rights records. Abrams also played a vital role in the Iran-Contra scandal, in which the Reagan administration secretly sold arms to Iran and used the money to fund Nicaraguan right-wing fighters called the Contras — even hiding information from Congress to cover up the situation, which is a federal crime.
Despite this dismal record, Abrams has somehow remained a member in good standing of the American conservative movement and foreign policy establishment. He advised President George W. Bush on Middle East issues and held a cushy job at the Council on Foreign Relations. Now, he’s Trump’s point man on Venezuela, yet again testifying before Congress as an authority.
Omar’s statement zeroed in on the painful absurdity of this situation.
“Mr. Abrams, in 1991 you pleaded guilty to two counts of withholding information from Congress regarding the Iran-Contra affair, for which you were later pardoned by President George H.W. Bush,” Omar begins. “I fail to understand why members of this committee or the American people should find any testimony you give today to be truthful.”
“If I could respond to that ...” Abrams says, before Omar cuts him off.
“It wasn’t a question,” the lawmaker says icily.
Abrams reacts angrily to this response, and only gets angrier from there. Omar pushes Abrams on Reagan-era policies in places like El Salvador and Nicaragua, and he flatly refuses to answer. Instead, he angrily dismisses the entire line of questioning as a “personal attack.”
Omar points out that it isn’t a personal attack at all, but rather quite relevant to his current job. Trump has contemplated intervening militarily in the Venezuela conflict before; it’s reasonable to ask, with Abrams in a key office, whether he has learned from the cruel and illegal positions he took in the Reagan years.
But more fundamentally, what’s striking about this video is how angry Abrams gets about being held to account for his past actions.
The United States has a culture of elite impunity, where the wealthy and powerful quite frequently get off scot-free after massive wrongdoing. No banker was arrested for the financial crisis. Neither were any of the architects of Bush’s torture policy, or the people responsible for cooking the books on the intelligence about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. Henry Kissinger, who committed or backed war crimes in a shockingly large number of countries, remains a Washington celebrity.
Establishment figures like Abrams aren’t used to being held accountable for their sins. That’s just not how things are done in Washington. But Omar, a left-wing critic of US foreign policy and something of a Washington outsider, has not accepted the standard Washington norm on this point. She can make the obvious moral point about Abrams that so many in the DC foreign policy community can’t or won’t.
This is a key perspective she brings to the Foreign Affairs Committee. And for all her flaws, it’s a valuable one.