(WASHINGTON) — After his administration has spent months calling on Russia to end its support of Nicolas Maduro, the embattled socialist president of Venezuela, and withdraw Russian troops from the country, President Donald Trump said on Friday that he and Russian President Vladimir Putin “feel the same way” on the country.
“He is not looking at all to get involved in Venezuela, other than he’d like to see something positive happen for Venezuela, and and I feel the same way,” Trump said of Putin after the two leaders spoke by phone on Friday.
In saying so, Trump not only contradicted himself but also his top advisers, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo who just days ago charged that Russia had blocked U.S. efforts to get Maduro out of the country, persuading him at the last-minute not to take a waiting plane to Cuba.
Russia has boosted Maduro, who has faced months of protests over Venezuela’s economic crisis and his seizure of power. Those protests are expected to continue on Saturday after opposition lawmaker Juan Guaido, who the U.S. and 53 countries have recognized as Venezuela’s legitimate leader, said he and his supporters “will mobilize the main military units throughout the country.” The opposition-controlled National Assembly declared Guaido interim president in January, but months of demonstrations and U.S. sanctions have not pushed Maduro from his grip on power — even after a major uprising Tuesday.
That’s in large part because of Russian support, according to the U.S. Russia sent at least 100 troops to rendezvous with Maduro’s security forces in March, has shielded him from sanctions or penalties at the United Nations Security Council, transferred his government’s assets to protect them from U.S. economic pressure, and reportedly even convinced Maduro to stay in power on Tuesday after Guaido and the U.S. said he’d won the allegiance of some top Maduro aides and a key portion of the military.
That activity had so far led to condemnation by the U.S., including Trump himself.
“Russia has to get out,” Trump said in March when those 100 Russian soldiers and two fighter jets arrived. Trump was meeting in the Oval Office with Fabiana Rosales, a Venezuelan activist and the wife of Juan Guaido, the opposition lawmaker who the U.S. and 53 countries recognize as Venezuela’s legitimate leader.
When asked if that message had been communicated to Moscow, Trump said only, “They know. They know very well.”
Pompeo spoke to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and reiterated that message. He stressed that Russia’s “intervention … is destabilizing for Venezuela” and “urged Russia to cease support for Nicolas Maduro.”
National Security Adviser John Bolton shared the same message on Twitter, just hours after the Trump-Putin call took place: “Maduro is only clinging to power because of the support of Russia and Cuba, the only foreign military forces in Venezuela. Without foreign interference, the democratic process in Venezuela would be underway today.”
That intervention included a call from Moscow on Tuesday, according to Pompeo. Maduro was prepared to depart the country for Cuba when the Russian government convinced him to stay, Pompeo and Bolton said. Maduro has denied that, calling it “a lack of seriousness.”
Beyond the contingent of troops Russia has confirmed it sent to Venezuela, Pompeo said Thursday there were Russian “people working over there in the hundreds, if not more.” He did not provide evidence for that statement, but he added it was critical for U.S. national security that “countries like Russia don’t continue to have the foothold that they have literally hundreds of miles from our shores.”
But Trump seemed to cast doubt on any Russian involvement by saying Putin was “not looking at all to get involved in Venezuela.”
In the face of Trump’s comments, his senior officials met at the Pentagon on Friday morning. Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan and Admiral Craig Faller, the head of U.S. Southern Command, met Pompeo and Bolton to make “decisions on our planning and some of the recommendations” and make “sure that we’re all in alignment,” according to Shanahan.
“We have a comprehensive set of options tailored to certain conditions,” Shanahan added — noting that the situation there could pose a national security threat to the U.S. that justifies military intervention.
“Depends on the conditions, right? I mean, you got the Russians there, you got the Iranians there, you got the Chinese. Those are all considerations,” he said.
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