A frustrated Trump questions his administration’s Venezuela strategy
The president’s dissatisfaction has crystallized around national security adviser John Bolton and what Trump has groused is an interventionist stance at odds with his view that the United States should stay out of foreign quagmires.
Trump has said in recent days that Bolton wants to get him “into a war” — a comment that he has made in jest in the past but that now betrays his more serious concerns, one senior administration official said.
The administration’s policy is officially unchanged in the wake of a fizzled power play last week by U.S.-backed opposition leader Juan Guaidó. But U.S. officials have since been more cautious in their predictions of Maduro’s swift exit, while reassessing what one official described as the likelihood of a diplomatic “long haul.”
U.S. officials point to the president’s sustained commitment to the Venezuela issue, from the first weeks of his presidency as evidence that he holds a realistic view of the challenges there and does not think there is a quick fix.
But Trump has nonetheless complained over the past week that Bolton and others underestimated Maduro, according to three senior administration officials who like others interviewed for this story spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private deliberations.
Guaidó calls for 'all of Venezuela' to hit the streets day after clashes
Trump has said that Maduro is a “tough cookie” and that aides should not have led him to believe that the Venezuelan leader could be ousted last week, when Guaidó led mass street protests that turned deadly.
Instead, Maduro rejected an offer to leave the country and two key figures in his government backed out of what Bolton said had been a plan to defect. Maduro publicly mocked Trump in response and said he wasn’t going anywhere, saying the United States had attempted a “foolish” coup.
Late Wednesday, masked Venezuelan intelligence police detained National Assembly Vice President Edgar Zambrano in a dramatic operation in Caracas, marking the first senior opposition official taken into custody by the socialist government in retaliation for the failed effort to incite a military uprising. Zambrano is one of 10 opposition officials charged with treason, conspiracy and rebellion by the pro-Maduro Supreme Court in connection to the plot.
Bolton publicly revealed the defection plan to apply pressure to Maduro, which U.S. officials said has worked. They claim Maduro is sleeping in a bunker, paranoid that close aides will turn on him.
But Trump has expressed concern that Bolton has boxed him into a corner and gone beyond where he is comfortable, said a U.S. official familiar with U.S.-Venezuela policy.
Bolton’s tweets egging on Maduro to begin an “early retirement” on a “nice beach” and calling for mass defections have been widely viewed as cavalier, raising unrealistic expectation for how quickly his ouster can be engineered, the U.S. official said.
Despite Trump’s grumbling that Bolton had gotten him out on a limb on Venezuela, Bolton’s job is safe, two senior administration officials said, and Trump has told his national security adviser to keep focusing on Venezuela.
Garrett Marquis, spokesman for the National Security Council, said in a statement that Bolton “has repeatedly stated the President’s desire for a peaceful transition to democracy in Venezuela, while also ensuring that all options are on the table.”
“America stands with the GREAT PEOPLE of Venezuela for however long it takes!” Trump tweeted Wednesday as he returned from a campaign rally in Florida, where some Venezuelans fleeing Maduro have settled.
The open threat of U.S. military involvement in Venezuela has grown alongside the administration’s increasingly confrontational approach to Iran, with Bolton announcing last weekend that a U.S. aircraft carrier battle group would be deployed to counter Iranian plots to harm U.S. forces in the Middle East.
In both cases, the administration has adopted a get-tough policy that appeals to Trump’s instincts to project American power abroad but that also echoes the kind of military adventurism he has long ridiculed.
Trump appears to be more comfortable with the Iran policy, which is grounded in his own strong belief that President Barack Obama miscalculated in striking a nuclear bargain with Tehran. He is less comfortable with the escalating rhetoric on Venezuela, which does not pose a direct military threat to the United States. Any U.S. military involvement there risks a proxy fight with Russia, which backs Maduro and has sold him arms.
Trump spoke approvingly of Russian actions in Venezuela following a lengthy phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday, saying that Putin “is not looking at all to get involved in Venezuela other than he’d like to see something positive happen for Venezuela. And I feel the same way. We want to get some humanitarian aid.”
His comments stood in contrast to earlier statements from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Bolton, who accused Russia of propping up Maduro with money and military equipment.
During the Putin call, Trump expressed his concern about the security and humanitarian situation in Venezuela, a person briefed on the call said. Putin agreed with Trump’s assessment but said that the U.S. position has solidified Maduro’s grip on power in Venezuela.
Putin also told Trump that Moscow was not selling new weapons to Venezuela but maintaining existing contracts, and he played down Russia’s financial investments in the country.
The events of April 30 have effectively shelved serious discussion of a heavy U.S. military response, current and former officials as well as outside advisers said. Rather, U.S. officials think that time is on their side and that Maduro will fall of his own weight. That waiting game poses its own risk, however, if Guaidó asks for U.S. military assistance.
Pompeo brushed off criticism from British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn about U.S. “interference” in Venezuela during an interview Wednesday in London.
“Providing food to starving children isn’t interference. It’s support; it’s what we do,” Pompeo said. “It’s in our deepest traditions of humanitarian assistance. The interference has taken place; the Cubans are there. They’ve interfered. So I hope Mr. Corbyn will ask the Cubans to cease their interference in Venezuela.”
Vice President Pence was measured in his threats to Maduro during remarks at a gathering of Latin American leaders in Washington on Tuesday, saying, that “Maduro must go,” but also signaling that it might not happen quickly.
Pence announced the pending deployment of a Navy hospital ship to the region in June and said the United States would lift sanctions on one senior Maduro aide who had switched sides. That was a shift from previous rhetoric about the tightening yoke of sanctions and was meant to emphasize that there are carrots in the U.S. policy as well as sticks, one senior official said.
The famously hawkish Bolton has been the loudest voice within the administration in support of a potential military response to the political and humanitarian crisis in Venezuela, where escalating U.S. sanctions have not forced Maduro to cede power. He was not the first, however. Trump mused about invading or bombing Venezuela in 2017, comments that were at first dismissed as fanciful.
Trump is now not inclined to order any sort of military intervention in Venezuela, two officials and an outside adviser said.
Trump has, in Oval Office meetings and phone calls with advisers, questioned his administration providing such strong support of Guaidó. Some White House officials said Trump likes the charismatic leader, whom he has called courageous, but has wondered aloud whether he is ready to take over and about how much the administration really knows about him.
Guaidó’s many supporters within the administration say he has proved himself as the first Venezuelan opposition leader to unite factions and pose a credible threat to Maduro. His standing within the country is borne out by the fact that Maduro has not seized or harmed him, fearing a backlash, some officials said.
Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said he has no concern that the United States is making a bad bet on Guaidó.
“Oh God, no. Smart money,” Graham said. “I think he’s the future of Venezuela. He’s young, he’s the solution — not the problem.”
Graham also said Trump has been well served by his advisers, including Bolton.
Pompeo was also bullish about Maduro’s ouster last week, saying after the plan faltered that Maduro had been heading to the airport before Russian advisers talked him out of leaving. Maduro denied it.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who has been influential in shaping the administration’s Venezuela response, said Trump and Bolton are on the same page. Rubio, who said he spoke to Trump about Venezuela on Tuesday evening, backs the policy of waiting out Maduro.
“He’s in the same mind-set that I’m in, and that is that we’ve got to stay the course, it’s working,” Rubio said in an interview.
Rubio said some of the harshest U.S. sanctions are only now having full effect, including sowing dissension among Maduro aides: “Only now are you starting to see it burn, and I think that’s what’s causing some of this internal friction in the regime.”
U.S. defense leaders regard any military scenario involving boots on the ground in Venezuela as a quagmire and warn that standoff weapons such as Tomahawk missiles run a major risk of killing civilians. The White House has repeatedly asked for military planning short of an invasion, however.
Officials said the options under discussion while Maduro is still in power include sending additional military assets to the region, increasing aid to neighboring countries such as Colombia and other steps to provide humanitarian assistance to displaced Venezuelans outside of Venezuela. More forward-leaning options include sending Navy ships to waters off Venezuela as a show of force.
Other steps under discussion are intended for after Maduro is gone, when U.S. military personnel might be permitted inside Venezuela to help with humanitarian responses.
John D. Feeley, a former U.S. ambassador and Univision political analyst, said there is another reason that military intervention is unlikely.
“It runs counter to Donald Trump’s 2020 reelection narrative,” Feeley said. “At a time when you’re pulling people back from Syria, back from Iraq, back from Afghanistan, how do you say we’re going to commit 50-, 100-, 150,000 of our blood and treasure to a country where you can’t tell the bad guys from the good guys?”
Missy Ryan in Washington and Anthony Faiola in Panama City contributed to this report.
Anne Gearan y Josh Dawsey