The best thing you can say about President Donald Trump’s changing his mind about meeting with Nicolas Maduro, Venezuela’s strongman, is that it’s not surprising.
In an interview with Axios, Trump said he had turned down Maduro’s envoys before. But now, he said, "Maduro would like to meet. And I'm never opposed to meetings — you know, rarely opposed to meetings."
This has been a pattern.
Before his 2018 summit with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, Trump threatened him with fire and fury if he continued to test his missiles. As his administration increased sanctions on Iran’s economy, Trump tried to meet Iran’s president. The U.S. president likes making deals.
In Venezuela’s case, however, Trump has gone further than his predecessors against the ruler. He has recognized the international legitimacy of Juan Guaido, the leader of the country’s legislature, and supported his claim that he is interim president.
It has been one of his administration’s most significant foreign policy accomplishments to persuade most of Latin America and Europe to recognize Guaido as well.
This was the correct call a year and a half ago; the 2018 "election" that Maduro won was not legitimate. Venezuela’s constitution says the president of the legislature is the interim leader of the country until free and fair elections can be held.
By recognizing Guaido, Trump recognized Venezuela’s constitution.
But he is frustrated that Guaido has not yet taken power.
When asked whether he regretted following the advice of John Bolton, his former national security adviser, who shepherded the policy to recognize Guaido, Trump told Axios, "I could have lived with it or without it, but I was very firmly against what’s going on in Venezuela."
Trump’s frustrations are understandable.
Ever since military forces loyal to Guaido failed to take over the presidential palace because one of the plotters betrayed the plan, Maduro and his opposition have been locked in a stalemate.
That said, it’s potentially lethal to Guaido to have the American president voice doubts about him in public. Maduro’s henchmen have been targeting Guaido and his closest aides for more than a year. One factor that has deterred the regime from arresting Guaido is that he has enjoyed strong and open support from the U.S.
Juan Cruz, who served on the National Security Council (NSC) in Trump’s first year coordinating western hemisphere policy, told me, "There has been an ongoing argument inside of Maduro’s regime on whether to arrest Guaido or not. They have not done it in part because they fear U.S. reprisals. Trump’s comments have made it more likely that Maduro will act against Guaido."
Trump may or may not understand this.
He tried to mitigate some of the damage on Monday, tweeting, "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’s all well and good.
But notice here that Trump did not mention Guaido by name.
The sad truth is that Trump’s reckless outburst over the weekend about Venezuela was driven mainly by his rage at Bolton, whose new memoir paints a merciless portrait of the president as a craven ignoramus.
In order to score points against a former ally who spurned him, Trump sabotaged his own Venezuela policy and endangered that country’s opposition leader.
Unfortunately, that’s not surprising either.
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun, and UPI. Read Eli Lake's Reports — More Here.
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