Pompeo taps Trump critic to lead Venezuela effort

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has hired a veteran foreign policy hand and fierce Trump critic to direct all aspects of the US campaign to replace Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro.

Describing Elliott Abrams as a “seasoned, principled and tough-minded foreign policy veteran,” Pompeo announced that the former deputy national security adviser to President George W. Bush will “lead our efforts on Venezuela.”

The job, Pompeo announced, will start immediately, as Abrams will accompany the secretary of state on Saturday at a United Nations Security Council meeting on the situation in Venezuela.

President Donald Trump’s decision Wednesday to recognize Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido as the country’s interim president and declare Maduro’s embattled regime “illegitimate” has set off a dramatic confrontation within Venezuela and geopolitical jostling outside the country.

A surprise pick

“It’s a global challenge,” Pompeo said at the State Department on Friday.

“Elliott will have responsibility for all things related to our efforts to restore democracy in Venezuela,” Pompeo continued. “There are multiple dimensions to how we hope to assist the Venezuelans in achieving democracy there, and he will be responsible for leading that effort.”

Abrams, who also served in President Ronald Reagan’s administration, noted he had left the State Department “30 years ago this week, last time I worked here. So it’s very nice to be back. This crisis in Venezuela is deep and difficult and dangerous, and I can’t wait to get to work on it.”

Abrams was a surprise pick, having been nixed by Trump for the number two job at the State Department under former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, after the President learned of Abrams’ scathingly critical remarks about him.

Scathing critic of Trump

Tillerson tried to convince Trump to make Abrams his deputy because he felt he needed Abrams’ foreign policy experience, according to multiple sources. Then-White House chief of staff Reince Priebus and senior adviser Jared Kushner also strongly supported Abrams and urged Trump to reconsider, the sources said.

Abrams penned an opinion piece in May 2016 in The Weekly Standard titled “When You Can’t Stand Your Candidate” after Trump clinched enough support to become the GOP’s presumptive nominee.

“The party has nominated someone who cannot win and should not be president of the United States,” Abrams wrote in the first line of the article.

Despite that critique, Abrams never signed any of the open letters that top GOP foreign policy officials penned opposing Trump’s nomination.

The criticism went both ways. Trump has lambasted policies advocated by Abrams. While in the White House, Abrams supported the Iraq War, which Trump backed in its early days but soon vigorously opposed — particularly on the 2016 campaign trail — as a “stupid” decision.

And Trump has frequently argued against other views embraced by neoconservatives like Abrams, including that the US has wasted too many resources abroad, particularly in trying to promote democracies in the Middle East.

Those criticisms seemed to have been set aside, as Pompeo welcomed Abrams warmly, saying his “passion for the rights and liberties of all peoples makes him a perfect fit and valuable and timely addition” to the State Department team.