The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump meets with Venezuelan opposition leader, but his interest in the issue has waned

Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó joined President Trump at the White House Feb. 5. He was a surprise guest at the State of the Union the night before. (Video: The Washington Post)

President Trump met with Juan Guaidó on Wednesday for the first time, ending weeks of speculation that he would snub the man the United States and dozens of other countries recognize as the legitimate president of Venezuela.

As he arrived at the White House, Guaidó joined Trump in giving a thumbs up for the cameras before the two moved inside. Neither spoke, and a scheduled opportunity for reporters to ask questions as the two sat down in the Oval Office was canceled by Trump press officials without explanation.

The timing was awkward — moments after Republican Sen. Mitt Romney (Utah) announced he would vote to convict Trump of abuse of power, and just two hours before the Senate acquittal verdict almost entirely along party lines.

But the fact that the meeting took place, following Guaidó’s appearance as Trump’s guest at Tuesday night’s State of the Union address, may have been enough to serve their shared goal of demonstrating administration support for Guaidó’s interim government.

Guaidó received a standing ovation from House and Senate members during the highly partisan address, one of the few instances of bipartisan applause during the president’s speech. Pointing to him in the House gallery, where he was seated near first lady Melania Trump, the president called Guaidó “a very brave man” and “the true and legitimate president of Venezuela.”

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, Trump said, “is an illegitimate ruler, a tyrant who brutalizes his people. But Maduro’s grip on tyranny will be smashed and broken.”

The United States was the first country to recognize Guaidó, the elected leader of the country’s legislative assembly, as Venezuela’s legitimate president after accusing Maduro of corruption and electoral fraud.

Yet it has now been more than a year since Trump promised that he would “use the full weight of United States economic and diplomatic power” to drive Maduro from office. Despite U.S. efforts to starve his government of resources with sanctions and the recognition of Guaidó by about 60 countries, Maduro remains.

Trump’s public interest in the issue has waned, and he has mentioned the young opposition figure less and less frequently as the months have gone by. The president’s apparent ambivalence has hurt Guaidó’s credibility at home, where public dissatisfaction with the anti-Maduro opposition is rising.

A new flurry of fretting in pro-Guaidó circles in Venezuela and abroad arose with perceived brushoffs by Trump over the past two weeks. Trump and Guaidó both appeared at an economic forum in Davos, Switzerland, without a meeting, and Trump opted to play golf in Palm Beach on Saturday rather than attend Guaidó’s public rally in nearby Miami.

Had he returned to Venezuela without seeing Trump, “everyone would [have questioned] Guaidó’s leadership,” said Dimitris Pantoulas, a Caracas-based political analyst. The majority of the opposition are placing their hopes “primarily on the support the United States can give,” he said.

All sides sought to portray Guaidó’s red-carpet treatment in Washington as evidence that Trump had stepped up and offered him the full backing he needed to lessen fears of arrest, or worse, upon his return. His clandestine departure from Venezuela last month for support-seeking stops in Europe and North and South America violated a travel ban imposed by Maduro.

“Any harm that may be caused on Juan Guaidó . . . will have very significant consequences,” a senior administration official told reporters Wednesday, speaking on a government-imposed condition of anonymity. “So, therefore, they should tread very carefully in that regards.”

The official suggested that a stepped-up anti-Maduro message would be more than just words.

“We are dedicated to an acceleration of our policy to continue moving in the direction of maximum pressure,” the official said. “The president has given direction to his Cabinet to do so. . . . You will see some impactful measures within the next 30 days, which will be very important and further crippling on the [Maduro] regime.”

In remarks at a forum Wednesday, White House national security adviser Robert C. O’Brien suggested that the administration may seek additional sanctions against Russia and Rosneft, its state-controlled oil company, which have kept the Maduro government afloat amid sanctions.

“We’re letting the Russians and we’re letting the company know that their support . . . is not a good business decision but it’s also immoral,” O’Brien said. “So I think you’re going to see some action, either voluntarily from the company, or the U.S. will likely take action in the near future on that issue.”

In Caracas, Maduro responded to Guaidó’s appearances in Washington with vitriol.

“In Venezuela the president isn’t designated by the president of the United States — the people elect the president. Enough with your extreme obsession!” Maduro said on state television. “If today they would do a survey in the U.S., I am sure that 70% would support the Bolivarian Revolution,” Maduro said.

“Yesterday Donald Trump talked about crushing and breaking Venezuela. Never, nobody crushes Venezuela,” he said.

On the streets of the Venezuelan capital, however, where social media videos of the congressional applause during Trump’s speech went viral, there were clear signs of relief from Guaidó’s supporters.

“Many people have had to swallow their words and even erase their teasing tweets because they believed Guaidó couldn’t meet with Trump,” said Gynette Martinez, 55, a lawyer shopping for vegetables in a market in eastern Caracas. “And look, he accomplished much more than that. He got a standing ovation in front of the entire American capital. For me, that says a lot.”

Following the 45-minute White House meeting, Guaidó’s team posted a Twitter blitz of photos of him with Trump.

Yet Guaidó is returning to a complex situation that his international tour alone is unlikely to turn around. Although he met with European leaders in Davos, he has yet to receive the concrete pledges he needs from them to follow the United States in taking a tougher line on Maduro.

In recent weeks, Maduro’s government has also sought to unseat Guaidó as the legislative assembly chief — a position on which his recognition by the United States and others as the legitimate president is based.

Guaidó is also facing defectors within his own ranks, and a movement divided over the way forward, with some embracing Maduro’s call for new parliamentary elections but not the new presidential vote that Guaidó and the United States have demanded.

Faiola reported from Miami. Mariana Zuniga in Caracas contributed to this report.