- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Mounting domestic and international pressure will soon force Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro out of power, President Trump’s point man on the crisis told a congressional hearing Wednesday.

“There is a storm brewing inside [Mr. Maduro’s] inner circle,” Elliott Abrams, U.S. special envoy for Venezuela, told the House Foreign Affairs Committee in his first Capitol Hill appearance since being tapped for the job two weeks ago.

“The current political and economic environment is unsustainable and [Mr. Maduro] will not be able to weather it much longer,” Mr. Abrams said in the hearing, which featured several pointed exchanges with Democratic lawmakers.

The Trump administration, joined by dozens of governments around the world, has thrown its support behind self-proclaimed “interim president” Juan Guaido, the head of the opposition-dominated National Assembly who says Mr. Maduro’s election last year was so riddled with fraud that he no longer can serve. Mr. Abrams on Wednesday issued another appeal for Venezuela’s military to abandon Mr. Maduro and side with the opposition.

But with the Venezuelan leader refusing to step down in the face of U.S. economic sanctions, committee Chairman Eliot Engel, New York Democrat, took strong exception to President Trump’s repeated claims that U.S. military action remained “on the table” in the crisis.

“Congress would not support military intervention in Venezuela,” Mr. Engel said at the opening of the hearing. “I do worry about the president’s saber-rattling, his hints that U.S. military intervention remains an option. I want to make clear to our witnesses and to anyone else watching: U.S. military intervention is not an option.”

Mr. Engel also expressed concerns that deepening U.S. economic sanctions, including on Venezuela’s critical oil exports, could hurt ordinary citizens if the crisis drags on.

But Mr. Abrams, a veteran diplomat with deep experience in the region, defended Mr. Trump’s determination to keep his options open in the face of the hemisphere’s most pressing economic and humanitarian crisis.

“When we say all options are on the table, that is because all options are on the table,” he said at one point, while added that military force “is not the preferred route and not the route we’re going down.”

Mr. Abrams clashed fiercely at one point with freshman Rep. Ilhan Omar, Minnesota Democrat, who brought up the witness’s role in the Reagan administration’s Iran-Contra affair and the vicious ideological conflicts in Nicaragua and El Salvador in the 1980s. President George H.W. Bush pardoned Mr. Abrams in 1992 after he pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor counts of withholding information from Congress.

Ms. Omar questioned Mr. Abrams trustworthiness and said his record suggested he would overlook a genocide in Venezuela if it furthered U.S. interests. Mr. Abrams quickly fired back at the freshman congresswoman, calling her questions “ridiculous.”

“I don’t believe this line of questioning is meant to be real questions and so I will not reply,” he told the congresswoman.

Steve Olive, acting regional assistant administrator for the U.S. Agency for International Development, told the committee that Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis is getting worse, causing sever shortages of food, power and health care services.

“The situation is deteriorating on a daily basis,” he said.

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