Trump backtracks on a meeting with Venezuela’s Maduro after chorus of criticism
Anne Gearan, John Wagner, Seung Min Kim
The economic collapse of Venezuela and erosion of democracy under two elected Socialist leaders is a 2020 election talking point for Republicans, especially in Florida, home to thousands of wealthy Venezuelan expatriates who detest the Cuban-backed Maduro. Cuban Americans have long been a power center for Republicans in Florida, a swing state Trump badly needs to win.
Trump and his allies have tried to portray Democrats as interested in advancing a Socialist agenda similar to what Maduro’s government has implemented.
After a backlash from Democrats and some Republicans, Trump tweeted Monday that he would meet with Maduro, who has clung to power since a disputed 2018 election, only to discuss “a peaceful exit.”
“Unlike the radical left, I will ALWAYS stand against socialism and with the people of Venezuela,” Trump wrote. “My Admin has always stood on the side of FREEDOM and LIBERTY and against the oppressive Maduro regime! I would only meet with Maduro to discuss one thing: a peaceful exit from power!”
That reversed comments Trump made over the weekend, in which he said he would consider a meeting even though the United States led the world last year in renouncing Maduro and declaring his political rival to be the legitimate leader of what was once one of the wealthiest countries in the hemisphere.
Maduro has sought a meeting with Trump despite heavy U.S. sanctions, a prospect with rough parallels to Trump’s outreach to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Trump allies including Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Rick Scott (R-Fla.) gently took issue with the president and reiterated support for opposition leader Juan Guaidó as the legitimate leader of Venezuela.
“I don’t have any doubts about what the policy is but . . . I sort of, you know, understood what they were getting at,” Rubio said in an interview. “It’s been the policy of the U.S. to facilitate a transition if it’s peaceful and possible. What’s not on the table, never has been and — I’m pretty confident, as long as Donald Trump is president, will not be — is a negotiation on Maduro . . . his regime staying in power.”
In a tweet, Rubio made clear that he thought granting Maduro a meeting would be a mistake.
A spokesman for Scott was more blunt.
“No, Senator Scott does not believe President Trump should meet with Maduro — a ruthless thug and dictator who is committing genocide against his people,” Scott spokesman Chris Hartline said.
In an interview with Axios published Sunday, Trump suggested that not only might he take Maduro up on that idea, but that he has had second thoughts about his decision to recognize Guaidó.
“I would maybe think about that,” Trump said during the interview conducted Friday.
Trump noted Maduro’s interest in meeting with him and added, “And I’m never opposed to meetings — you know, rarely opposed to meetings. I always say, you lose very little with meetings. But at this moment, I’ve turned them down.”
Trump had also expressed limited enthusiasm for following the advice of former national security adviser John Bolton to recognize Guaidó as the leader of Venezuela, a policy also enthusiastically pursued by Vice President Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Asked whether he regretted his decision to follow Bolton’s advice, Trump initially said “not particularly,” Axios reported. But then he went on to say: “I could have lived with it or without it, but I was very firmly against what’s going on in Venezuela.”
Of his decision, Trump said, “some people liked it, some people didn’t.”
“I was okay with it,” he added. “I don’t think it was — you know, I don’t think it was very meaningful one way or the other.”
Guaidó declared himself president of the country following the 2018 election, which was widely seen as tainted, but he has not been able to take control of the government from Maduro despite support from the United States and dozens of other countries.
A handful of Florida Republican lawmakers and their aides reached out to the White House following Trump’s interview with Axios, expressing their concerns about his openness to meeting with Maduro, according to two GOP officials familiar with the conversations who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the private discussions.
The Florida Republicans pressed the White House to clarify his message, noting that Trump’s favorable stance toward Maduro did not match the administration’s position on Venezuela, the officials said.
One Republican official in Florida had a succinct evaluation of the potential political impact of Trump’s appearing to welcome engagement with Maduro.
“Bad,” said the official, who like other Republicans interviewed spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly about the president. “He’s built up a lot of goodwill. That would have all been gone. And it would hurt him with both Venezuelan and Cuban voters.”
On Monday, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany underscored that Trump remains committed to Guaidó and the U.S. policy.
“Nothing has changed,” she said during a press briefing. “He continues to recognize Juan Guaidó as the leader of Venezuela.”
McEnany also said Trump denies that he once said it would be “cool” to invade Venezuela, as described by Bolton in a new memoir.
Former Florida Republican congressman Carlos Curbelo, however, said Trump’s interest in Maduro and in invasion have the ring of truth.
“Not surprising,” Curbelo tweeted Monday alongside a photo of him with Trump aboard Air Force One. “@POTUS has an admiration for ‘strongmen’ who are able to hold on to power. He expressed this to me on the AF1 flight documented here. On that same flight he expressed a strong interest in the military option for #Venezuela.”
In his book, Bolton portrays Trump as unenthusiastic about Guaidó from the outset.
Trump described Guaidó as ‘weak” and Maduro as “strong,” according to Bolton.
“By spring, Trump was calling Guaidó the ‘Beto O’Rourke of Venezuela,’ hardly the sort of compliment an ally of the United States should expect,” Bolton wrote, referring to the former Texas congressman whose Democratic presidential campaign never gained traction despite initial hype.
Guaidó was a surprise guest at the State of the Union address this year, although Trump had appeared reluctant to be seen alongside Guaidó or help him during a risky visit the Venezuelan leader made to South Florida just the week before. Trump declined to travel the short distance from his Mar-a-Lago home to the site of a Guaidó rally meant to urge Florida Latinos to keep the faith even though Maduro remained firmly in power.
A Fox News poll of Florida registered voters in mid-April, found that likely Democratic nominee Joe Biden led Trump by 53 percent to 35 percent among Hispanic voters in the state.
Trump’s approval rating was 42 percent among Hispanic voters, while 53 percent disapproved. Biden was seen mostly favorably — 59 percent favorable, 37 percent unfavorable.
“Trump talks tough on Venezuela, but admires thugs and dictators like Nicolas Maduro,” Biden said on Twitter in response to Trump’s comments in the interview.
“As President, I will stand with the Venezuelan people and for democracy.”
Rep. Donna Shalala (D-Fla.) offered a similar critique in a tweet, calling Trump’s comments “a sad day for the Venezuelan people, democracy, and American leadership” and reaffirming that she stands with “Juan Guaido and the people of Venezuela.”
In March, the Justice Department charged Maduro and 13 other Venezuelan officials with narcoterrorism. In the department’s news release, Maduro was described as the “Former President of Venezuela.”
Scott Clement contributed to this report.