In a tense exchange at a hearing on Wednesday, one of the newest members of Congress, Representative Ilhan Omar, confronted Elliott Abrams, a Trump administration official, over his role in foreign policy scandals decades ago, including the Iran-contra affair and the United States’ support of brutal leaders abroad.
Mr. Abrams, who served in top State Department positions under President Ronald Reagan and has remained part of the Washington foreign policy establishment, was appointed last month to be the Trump administration’s envoy to Venezuela, where a dispute is raging over control of the nation’s presidency. Last month, the United States weighed in, recognizing the opposition leader Juan Guaidó as part of a campaign by the Trump administration to oust President Nicolás Maduro.
What happened at Wednesday’s hearing?
Mr. Abrams was one of three people asked to appear before the House Foreign Affairs Committee for a hearing on Venezuela, an area of the world he knows well. Under Reagan, Mr. Abrams was an assistant secretary of state who fiercely advocated interventionism, including the covert arming of Nicaraguan rebels in the mid-1980s, a scandal that became known as the Iran-contra affair.
In the hearing on Wednesday, Ms. Omar, Democrat of Minnesota, confronted Mr. Abrams over his role in that scandal and his support for brutal Central American governments. In one tense exchange, Ms. Omar recalled testimony from Mr. Abrams about a massacre in which units of El Salvador’s military, trained and equipped by the United States, killed nearly 1,000 civilians in 1981 in the village of El Mozote.In 1982, Mr. Abrams dismissed news reports about the massacre as not credible and as leftist propaganda, and he later described the Reagan administration’s record in El Salvador as a “fabulous achievement.”
“Do you think that massacre was a ‘fabulous achievement’ that happened under our watch?” Ms. Omar asked him at Wednesday’s hearing.
“That is a ridiculous question, and I will not respond to it,” Mr. Abrams said. “I am not going to respond to that kind of personal attack, which is not a question.”
What is the Iran-contra affair?
The Iran-contra affair was a political scandal that dogged the second half of the Reagan presidency.It centered on two controversial, and linked, actions undertaken by his administration. One was the sale of weapons to Iran, despite an embargo, purportedly to secure the release of American hostages held in Lebanon. The second was the use of proceeds from those weapon sales to support the right-wing contra rebels in Nicaragua in their fight against the leftist Sandinista government.When first revealed publicly by a Lebanese magazine in 1986, the weapons sales were criticized for violating both the embargo and the United States’ refusal to negotiate with terrorists. The use of money from the sales to support the rebels in Nicaragua was also controversial because it violated a congressional ban restricting military aid to the group.
Reagan emerged largely unscathed by the scandal, leaving office with the highest approval rating of any president in decades. But more than a dozen others were charged with criminal offenses, primarily for withholding information from Congress. They included some who remain active in American politics to this day, such as Oliver L. North, now the president of the National Rifle Association, and Mr. Abrams.
While serving in the State Department under Reagan, Mr. Abrams was a fierce advocate of arming the rebels and, in 1991, he pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor counts of withholding information from Congress about those secret efforts. He was pardoned the next year by President George Bush.
What were Ms. Omar’s criticisms?
Ms. Omar devoted most of her time during the hearing to detailing Mr. Abrams’s role in events abroad during the Reagan administration, often cutting off his responses by telling him she had not asked a question.
She did, however, ask one question: whether Mr. Abrams would “support an armed faction within Venezuela that engages in war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide if you believed they were serving U.S. interests, as you did in Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua?”
The United States’ involvement in Guatemala is not as well known as the Iran-contra affair, but the country was crucial to the Reagan administration’s strategy in Central America, with Washington often looking the other way when presented with evidence of atrocities. In 1982, the Reagan administration started to cultivate Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt, who seized power that year in Guatemala, as an ally in the region in its fight against the Sandinista government and Salvadoran guerrillas.
Reagan praised General Ríos Montt even though American officials privately knew the Guatemalan military had killed its own people. The general was convicted of genocide in 2013.
El Salvador officially apologized for the El Mozote massacre in 2011.
What has Mr. Abrams been doing since the Reagan years?
Despite his role in the Iran-contra affair, Mr. Abrams has remained active in politics.
In the 1990s, he led a think tank dedicated to applying Judeo-Christian values to public policy. He later joined the administration of President George W. Bush as an adviser on Middle East affairs.
In 2017, President Trump blocked Mr. Abrams from serving as a deputy to Rex W. Tillerson, then the secretary of state. But last month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was able to appoint Mr. Abrams as a special envoy to lead the department’s efforts on Venezuela.
Only one person can save us from the dangerous belligerent in the White House.
And that person is Donald Trump.
How screwed up is that?
Will the president let himself be pushed into a parlous war by John Bolton, who once buoyed the phony case on W.M.D.s in Iraq? Or will Trump drag back his national security adviser and the other uber hawks from the precipice of their fondest, bloodiest desire — to attack Iran?
Can Cadet Bone Spurs, as Illinois senator and Iraq war vet Tammy Duckworth called Trump, set Tom Cotton straight that winning a war with Iran would not merely entail “two strikes, the first strike and the last strike”? Holy cakewalk.
Once, we counted on Trump’s advisers to pump the brakes on an out-of-control president. Now, we count on the president to pump the brakes on out-of-control advisers.
.. “On one side, you have a president who doesn’t want war, who simply wants to do with Iran what he has done with North Korea, to twist the arm of the Iranians to bring them to a negotiation on his terms,” said Gérard Araud, the recently departed French ambassador. “He thinks they will suffer and at the end, they will grovel in front of his power.”
But in a way, Araud said, the face-off with the Iranians is more “primitive and dangerous” because, besides Bolton, other factions in the Middle East are also “dreaming of going to war.”
“Even if Trump doesn’t personally want war, we are now at the mercy of any incident, because we are at maximum tension on both sides,” said Araud, recalling Candidate Trump’s bellicose Twitter ultimatumsin 2016 when Iran’s Revolutionary Guards held American sailors blindfolded at gunpoint for 15 hours.
Given their sour feelings about W. shattering the Middle East and their anger at Trump shredding the Iran nuclear deal, Europeans are inclined to see the U.S. as trying to provoke Iran into war. This time, the Europeans will not be coming along — and who can blame them?
I’m having an acid flashback to 2002, when an immature, insecure, ill-informed president was bamboozled by his war tutors.
In an echo of the hawks conspiring with Iraqi exiles to concoct a casus belli for Iraq, Bolton told members of an Iranian exile group in Paris in 2017 that the Trump administration should go for regime change in Tehran.
“And that’s why, before 2019, we here will celebrate in Tehran!” Bolton cheerily told the exiles.
When Bolton was the fifth column in the Bush 2 State Department — there to lurk around and report back on flower child Colin Powell — he complained that W.’s Axis of Evil (Iran, Iraq, North Korea) was too limited, adding three more of his own (Cuba, Libya, Syria). Then, last year, Bolton talked about “the Troika of Tyranny” (Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela). His flirtations with military intervention in Venezuela this month irritated Trump.
The 70-year-old with the Yeti mustache is an insatiable interventionist with an abiding faith in unilateralism and pre-emptive war. (The cost of our attenuated post-9/11 wars is now calculated at $5.9 trillion.)
W. and Trump are similar in some ways but also very different. As Trump biographer Michael D’Antonio notes: W. was interested in clarity. Trump wants chaos. W. wanted to trust his domineering advisers. Trump is always imagining betrayal. W. wanted to be a war hero, like his dad. Trump does not want to be trapped in an interminable war that will consume his presidency.
Certainly, the biographer says, Trump enjoys playing up the scary aspects of brown people with foreign names and ominous titles, like “mullah” and “ayatollah,” to stoke his base.
But Trump, unlike W., is driven by the drama of it. “It’s a game of revving up the excitement and making people afraid and then backing off on the fear in order to declare that he’s resolved the situation,” D’Antonio said. “Trump prefers threats and ultimatums to action because that allows him to look big and tough and get attention without doing something for which he will be held responsible. This is who he is at his core: an attention-seeking, action-averse propagandist who is terrified of accountability in the form of coffins arriving at Dover Air Force Base.”
David Axelrod, who had the military briefing about what a war with Iran would look like when he was in the Obama White House, said: “I’m telling you. It’s not a pretty picture.”
He says he is not sure which movie Bolton is starring in: “Dr. Strangelove” or “Wag the Dog.”
“If part of your brand is that you’re not going to get the U.S. into unnecessary wars,” he said, “why in the world would you hire John Bolton?”
Last week, Attorney General William P. Barr testified in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee on his apparent attempt to whitewash special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s findings, particularly those related to potential obstruction of justice by President Trump. In the course of his defense, Barr said, “We have to stop using the criminal justice process as a political weapon.”
His statement echoed language that President George H.W. Bush used when announcing a controversial pardon in the final weeks of his presidency — after consultation with Barr, who was serving his first stint as attorney general. These statements make plain Barr’s view that prosecutorial investigations of executive officials are inherently partisan and, therefore, illegitimate under the rule of law. But this idea calls into question one of the central principles of the American constitutional system: executive accountability.
In Federalist 70, Alexander Hamilton trumpets the advantages of a unitary executive, that is, the notion that all executive branch authority rests with the president, rather than being divided up among different executive officers, as states such as Texas and New York do.
One of Hamilton’s central arguments was that a unitary executive increases accountability: The buck stops with the president. In a divided executive, it could be unclear whether the president or another executive officer should be held to account for unpopular, unscrupulous or unlawful actions. By making the president accountable for all such action, the people will know how to vote in future elections.
Notably, Hamilton’s ideas on accountability extend beyond the president paying at the ballot box for unpopular action. In Federalist 65, he clearly states that a president impeached for misconduct is also “liable to prosecution and punishment in the ordinary course of law.” In other words, the presidency was not designed to be free from prosecutorial inquiry.
Holding the president and other, subordinate executive branch officials to account was central to our constitutional design and the rule of law, part of the delicate compromise between those at the constitutional convention who wanted a weak executive and those who wanted a strong one.
Hamilton’s reasoning on executive accountability has featured prominently in the development of the concept over time. For example, the United States Supreme Court ruled unanimously in Clinton v. Jones that the president is not immune from civil litigation due to the constitutional mandate of executive accountability. Indeed, such accountability was not only allowed, but may well have been necessary to protect the rule of law.
Barr, however, rejects this notion — and did so long before Donald Trump entered the political arena. On Christmas Eve 1992, Bush issued a pardon to former secretary of defense Caspar Weinberger for his role in the Iran-contra affair during the Reagan administration. In violation of U.S. law, Weinberger had allegedly facilitated the sale of American missiles to Iran to help fund the contras in Nicaragua. An independent counsel was appointed to investigate the scandal and a grand jury brought indictments on two counts of perjury and one count of obstructing justice. Weinberger protested the fairness of the indictments, but the evidence of wrongdoing was substantial. (Bush, who was vice president during the Iran-contra affair, was implicated but ultimately not indicted.)
When Bush explained his rationale for the pardon, he did not contest Weinberger’s likely guilt. Instead he praised Weinberger’s long record of service to the nation and his role in bringing down the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union.
Bush went further, though, not resting on Weinberger’s meritorious service alone. He pivoted to attack the prosecutions — 14 people associated with the Reagan administration were indicted, and 11 convicted — themselves as inconsistent with law’s necessary neutrality. Bush argued that the prosecutions represented “the criminalization of policy differences” and that “[t]hese differences should be addressed in the political arena, without the Damocles sword of criminality hanging over the heads of the combatants.” Reports at the time indicated that Bush worked closely on the pardon with Barr, which is unsurprising given the views Barr espoused last week.
Indeed, when reading this pardon in conjunction with Barr’s testimony, it’s clear that Barr holds a narrow understanding of executive accountability. In both the cases of Weinberger and Trump, prosecutors statutorily shielded from partisan influences found substantial evidence that the figure in question obstructed justice.
Yet because the targets of the investigations were political actors and, ostensibly, the opposition party would benefit from a successful prosecution of them, Barr considers any such prosecution inherently partisan and ill-suited for the courts. In other words, any attempt to investigate whether presidential action was unlawful must be partisan and, therefore, is inappropriate for nonpartisan legal institutions. Instead, as Bush identified in the Weinberger pardon, “the proper forum” for executive accountability was the “voting booth, not the courtroom.”
But this essentially gives the president (and other executive officials) a blank check: Unless misconduct rises to the level of impeachment, or if the partisan realities in Congress render impeachment an impossibility, the president is essentially immune from sanction for breaking the law, at least until leaving office.
This is not how Hamilton and his fellow Founders envisioned the system working. Worried about an out-of-control executive, they aimed to create checks and balances — and accountability. Checks and balances and the rule of law are not just formal institutional arrangements, they are norms of governance that invigorate principles central to the American system of government. Accountability is even more crucial in 2019 than it was in 1787, given how much more power the president wields today than in the 18th and 19th centuries.
When an ideology like Barr’s undermines those norms, the system of accountability carefully crafted by Hamilton and his fellow Founders and developed over two centuries threatens to become unbalanced. The result is a president unmoored from the norms that tether the executive to lawful behavior. That risks the entire American constitutional structure crashing down, as the president asserts himself with little to fear until at least the next election. While executive power has advanced steadily throughout the 20th century, what Barr envisions would be another leap, putting the United States on dangerous ground. It is not too much to ask our presidents not to violate the law. And when they fail to meet that standard, the consequences should be swift and assured.
More than words are at work. Last week the Bank of England blocked Mr. Maduro from withdrawing $1.2 billion in gold reserves. On Friday the U.S. gave Mr. Guaidó control of Venezuelan government accounts at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and other U.S.-insured banks... Venezuelans have made numerous attempts since 2002 to restore the liberties lost when Chávez used his majority backing to dissolve civil rights and a free press. But they were never able to persuade the military high command, infiltrated by Cuba, to break ranks with the dictator. If this time is different it’s because Mr. Maduro can no longer guarantee the interests of the top brass.
Mr. Guaidó is rumored to be backed by Venezuela’s military rank-and-file and midlevel officers. There are also reports that some commanders of detachments around the country no longer support Mr. Maduro.
The regime is unleashing repression and the international community wants to avoid more bloodshed. The U.S. has offered the military high command safe passage out of the country, and if international efforts to cut financial channels for the leadership are successful, many may find it an attractive option.
.. On Jan. 10 Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia FreelandwarnedMr. Maduro that he would not be recognized: “We call on him to immediately cede power to the democratically-elected National Assembly until new elections are held, which must include the participation of all political actors and follow the release of all political prisoners in Venezuela.”
.. Mr. Maduro says this is a U.S. conspiracy. But as a member of Canada’s Liberal Party and the lead negotiator of the bitter rewrite of the North American Free Trade Agreement, Ms. Freeland is hardly a Trump administration lackey.
The tyrant isn’t entirely alone. Russia, China, Iran, Cuba, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Hezbollah stand with him. Havana runs the counterintelligence network charged with controlling the Venezuelan armed forces and brownshirts. Reuters reported Friday that Russia has flown an unspecified number of paramilitary contractors into the country. A new asymmetric war can’t be ruled out.