There has been a long-emerging pattern in Donald Trump’s presidency: He talks to an authoritarian leader, and then he says or does something they like. Sometimes, this has had far-reaching consequences for U.S. foreign policy, as it did when Trump announced a (later-aborted) quick withdrawal from Syria. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis resigned over that one.
On Friday, Trump did it again, this time with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
After he spoke to Putin on the phone for an hour, Trump held a news conference with the prime minister of the Slovak Republic. The first thing he emphasized was that Putin wasn’t going to get involved in the deteriorating situation in Venezuela.
“I had a very good talk with President Putin — probably over an hour,” Trump began. “And we talked about many things. Venezuela was one of the topics. And he 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."
Someone should tell Trump’s own secretary of state that.
In an interview Thursday, Mike Pompeo said that not only had Russia gotten involved in Venezuela, but that it had actually “invaded” it. Here’s his exchange with Ben Shapiro (key parts bolded):
SHAPIRO: Can you explain to folks how deep the intervention of the Russians and Cubans is in Venezuela right now?
POMPEO: Ben, I kind of laugh sometimes. You’ll hear people saying we need to make sure there’s not an invasion in Venezuela, and yet there’s been one. I mean, it took place. The Cubans invaded some time ago; the Russians have now followed suit. The numbers of Cubans in the security apparatus alone are in the thousands. The Russians have people working over there in the hundreds, if not more. These are the folks who are actually controlling the direction of travel for Venezuela. We’ve seen that failure even today. It’s largely Cuban security forces that are protecting Maduro in his hiding place. He talked yesterday about having nerves of steel. That’s easier to do when you’re surrounded by Cuban military people and you’re hiding in a bunker.
They are deep. They’ve controlled the economy; they have looted the nation. They’ve demanded that Venezuela provide to Cuba essentially discount oil for years and years, harming the Venezuelan people. The Cubans have been there and are deeply embedded, have been for years, and the Russians have been there as well, largely protecting their economic interests.
Here was Pompeo arguing that Russia’s involvement in Venezuela amounted to an invasion, something that had altered the course of the country. Yet Trump talked to Putin and promptly declared — not even citing Putin, but saying in his own words — that Russia was staying out except to help on a humanitarian basis.
It makes you wonder: Does Trump have any idea what’s going on in Venezuela? Does he talk to Pompeo about it? Trump’s comments are completely opposite to how the rest of the U.S. government has talked about Russia’s involvement in Venezuela. And yet Trump seemed to simply take Putin’s word for it and then align himself with Putin’s talking points. Even just from a public-relations standpoint, it was a coup for Putin.
For those who worry about that two-hour private meeting between Trump and Putin in Helsinki — a meeting in which basically nobody in the U.S. government knows what was discussed — it wasn’t a terribly great omen.
And even apart from that, it doesn’t suggest that Trump is very well tuned in to a conflict in which he and Pompeo have left open the possibility of military intervention.