Elliott Abrams — hired by President Donald Trump to run United States policy toward one of the several Latin American countries where he previously engineered coups, broke U.S. laws, and encouraged right-wing political violence in the name of anti-communism — isn’t having a particularly good week.
But though Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-MN), Joaquin Castro (D-TX), and Adriano Espaillat (D-NY) ensured on Wednesday that Abrams would not be able to swiftly sidestep his past career as an enabler and, at times, creator of right-wing dictatorships across the same region he is now supposed to help stabilize, the embattled war criminal can still cling to some bright spots as he returns to officialdom.
One such comfort came in the form of a trans-ideological cadre of national security experts who immediately ran interference for Abrams on social media, including senior staff members at the Center for American Progress, Georgetown Strategy Group, and Harvard’s Kennedy School. (ThinkProgress is an editorially independent news organization housed at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.) The outpouring of support for a man whose crimes against humanity are more voluminous than the crimes for which he was convicted and then pardoned under U.S. law has already been ably catalogued by Splinter.
The friendly tweets from colleagues might have helped Abrams’ mood. Thursday’s confirmation of William Barr as attorney general is a much more practical and tangible boon to him. As Abrams tackles the challenges of his new job – and gets blown up on C-SPAN by a newly emboldened group of progressive elected leaders who don’t cotton to the apologias his think-tank friends purvey – the pardoned criminal can at least know that the same guy who made sure he got pardoned the last time he did crimes for a president will be the attorney general this time around too.
Barr was intimately involved in securing pardons for Abrams and five other members of the Iran-Contra conspiracy back in 1992 — and speaks with pride of the achievement.
“I went over and told the President I thought he should not only pardon Caspar Weinberger, but while he was at it, he should pardon about five others,” Barr told historians from the University of Virginia’s Miller Center in 2001.
Then-Defense Secretary Weinberger and the “five others” for whom Barr successfully secured pardons — Abrams; then-CIA bigwigs Duane Clarridge, Alan Fiers, and Clair George; and former National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane — had intentionally subverted laws specifically designed to stop Reagan’s no-holds-barred approach to proxy wars against communist governments in Latin America. Abrams cut a deal with Lawrence Walsh, the special prosecutor who handled the affair until the pardons Barr helped engineer cut his work off at the knees, and was allowed to plead guilty to having lied to Congress in lieu of facing more serious charges.
Barr went on to detail his role in President George H. W. Bush’s decision to officially scrub out the criminal convictions of the men who engineered the illegal arms-for-cocaine scheme that circumvented federal laws intended to stop the Reagan-Bush administration from continuing to fund anti-communist guerillas who sought to depose the Nicaragua’s revolutionary government.
Barr, who was also attorney general when the pardons ended Walsh’s investigation, said, “I certainly did not oppose any of them. I favored the broadest—There were some people arguing just for Weinberger, and I said, ‘No, in for a penny, in for a pound.’”
The pardons Barr engineered not only killed Walsh’s investigation but obscured the moral realities of what the Iran-Contra gang had done — thus opening the door for the reputational rehab evident in the think-tank set’s defensiveness during Wednesday’s hearing.
In both the specific nature of his crimes and the way in which he navigated the criminal investigation of them, Abrams’ conduct in the Iran-Contra affair raises direct echoes of the still-unfolding probe of the present administration’s interactions with Russian interests in more recent history. With Barr now just an oath of office away from presiding once again over the Justice Department at a time when aides to a sitting president stand accused of lying to Congress, his views on the pardons of Abrams, Oliver North, and other key Iran-Contra criminals are chilling, CIA expert and Legacy of Ashes author Tim Weiner told ThinkProgress.
“Elliott Abrams was a willing member of a criminal conspiracy. And he confessed, and absolution is good for the soul, and I’m sure he loves his children. He was not the most morally reprehensible of this gang,” Weiner said. “But the pardons were the final chapter in a six-year attempted cover-up of a crime.”
Barr’s depiction of Abrams as particularly hard done by in the case is “transparently false, legally dubious, and morally suspect,” Weiner said.
“You plead guilty to a crime because you’re guilty. And the crime to which [Abrams] pleaded guilty was in furtherance of a massive attempt, that ran from the White House to the State Department to the Pentagon to the CIA, to hide pertinent facts from the American people,” he said. “The overwhelming evidence shows this was a criminal conspiracy in which Abrams pleaded guilty to participating.”
Barr – whose career in Washington began with a multi-year stint at the Central Intelligence Agency – did not expound specifically on his belief that Abrams’ individual convictions represented a particular injustice in the Iran-Contra affair in that interview.
This week, Barr was confirmed by the full Senate scarcely 24 hours after Abrams scrambled to field questions about a career littered with dead Latin American bodies. Many of the episodes from Abrams’ career that members highlighted Wednesday did not even directly involve Iran-Contra, but it is his direct role in that criminal conspiracy to violate federal law by funneling guns to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and money to Nicaraguan murderers that made him famous.
“The mindset was that the president of the United States can do anything he wants, screw the congress, screw the laws, and screw the consequences. That is not a reflection of the principles of American democracy,” Weiner said.
It does, however, reflect the legal thinking at times put forth by the lawyers who represent Trump today as he navigates his own legal entanglements. Roger Stone’s recent arrest specifically involves alleged lying to Congress, the same charges for which Barr insisted that Abrams be pardoned 30 years ago.
Abrams’ re-entry into public service comes roughly two years after he had a State Department job offer pulled because he had been too critical of Trump during the 2016 election. Abrams’ apparent rehabilitation in the president’s eyes is likely driven by the Iran-Contra middle-man’s vast experience with brutalist and undemocratic meddling in Latin America – a suddenly valuable skill set in an administration taking unusual and risky diplomatic actions toward Venezuela’s teetering political situation after years of stomach-turning privations.
Those who engage in apologetics for Reagan’s brutal and criminal policies in Latin America tend to do so in earnest, said Weiner, who has studied and reported on the intelligence community’s history and related matters for more than three decades. But the sincerity of their convictions about the moral questions that drove violent anti-communist coups and subversions across much of the developing world simply does not square with the law in the case for which Abrams was pardoned at Barr’s behest.
Abrams and his allies helped engineer decades of brutality, social decay, poverty, and imperialism-by-other-names in Latin America. Barr helped ensure they got away with it — leaving that region to be shaped by their lawlessness and the political forces they empowered.
“Those who supported the right-wing response to the Sandinista government probably are getting a lot of satisfaction out of the fact that more than 30 years later, Daniel Ortega has become a thug, that the Chavistas and Maduro in Venezuela are shockingly anti-democratic, and that the right wing throughout the western hemisphere is in ascendance,” Weiner said. “The wheel has come around.”