Pompeo taps Elliott Abrams as State Department Venezuela point person

Pompeo taps Elliott Abrams as State Department Venezuela point person
© Stefani Reynolds

Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoThe Hill's Morning Report — Presented by the American Academy of HIV Medicine — Trump, Congress prepare for new border wall fight Overnight Defense: Trump to sign funding deal, declare national emergency | Shanahan says allies will be consulted on Afghanistan | Dem demands Khashoggi documents Senate confirms Trump pick William Barr as new attorney general MORE tapped State Department veteran Elliott Abrams on Friday as the government’s point person to handle the escalating crisis in Venezuela. 

“Today, I am incredibly excited to announce that a seasoned, principled and tough-minded foreign policy veteran is joining our State Department team,” Pompeo said at a press conference. “Elliott’s passion for the rights and liberties for all peoples makes him a perfect fit and a valuable and timely addition.”

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“This crisis in Venezuela is deep and difficult and dangerous and I can’t wait to get to work on it,” said Abrams, who will travel Saturday with Pompeo to the U.N. Security Council for a session on Venezuela.

Tensions between the U.S. and Venezuela swelled in recent days as Washington recognized opposition leader and president of Venezuela's National Assembly, Juan Guaidó, as Venezuela’s interim president. Canada, the Organization of American States, Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Colombia all followed suit, but Mexico and Spain withheld their immediate support for Guaidó.

President Nicolás Maduro, who Washington has slammed as a dictator with policies that have fueled food and medicine shortages in the country, was sworn in for a second six-year term earlier this month. But most of the international community, including the U.S., declared his election illegitimate.

“This week the Venezuelan people have rejected President Maduro’s illegitimate rule. Consistent with Venezuela’s constitution and with support of the Venezuelan people and the national assembly, Juan Guaidó has declared himself the interim president of Venezuela. These are just the first steps on Venezuela’s road to liberty. Elliott will be a true asset to our mission to help the Venezuelan people fully restore democracy and prosperity to their country,” Pompeo said Friday. 

Abrams’s appointment could draw scrutiny over a checkered past in government. He served in various State Department roles during the Reagan and George W. Bush administrations, but is well-known for being convicted of withholding information from Congress about the infamous Iran-Contra affair. He was later pardoned by President George H.W. Bush.

Abrams has also drawn criticism for his role during the Reagan administration of trying to prop up friendly dictators in El Salvador and Nicaragua who assisted the White House’s foreign policy of keeping the Soviet Union’s influence in Latin America at bay.

Abrams’s rejoining of the State Department comes as friction between the State Department and Maduro reaches new heights.

Washington on Thursday ordered some diplomats to leave Caracas amid security concerns over the leadership struggle, and Maduro on Wednesday gave all U.S. diplomats 72 hours to leave the country.

“The United States does not consider former president Nicolás Maduro to have the legal authority to break diplomatic relations with the United States or to declare our diplomats persona non grata,” Pompeo responded.

The administration also said it intends to give Guaidó control over Venezuela's foreign assets, though it is unclear if it will be able to seize the money.

“The next step is going to be a bunch of tit-for-tat stuff, and how far it goes is the question,” Michael McCarthy, an expert on Venezuela at American University, told The Hill.