President Trump on Friday seemed to adopt Vladimir Putin’s talking points, saying after a phone call with the Russian president that Russia was “not looking at all to get involved in Venezuela.” He said this even though his own secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, said Russia had “invaded” the South American country. Pompeo even said Russia persuaded embattled President Nicolás Maduro not to flee the country.
So in a series of appearances on the Sunday shows this weekend, Pompeo was tasked with some explaining. But his explanation doesn’t make much sense. And a closer look at the situation reinforces just how soft Trump has been on Russia — at least rhetorically.
Appearing on CBS, ABC and “Fox News Sunday,” Pompeo suggested he wasn’t familiar with the “context” of Trump’s Friday remarks but argued that they did not contradict anything.
“I didn’t see the full context of the quote there. I don’t know what context that was in,” Pompeo told CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “I do know this: The president has made clear, we want everyone out, and that includes the Russians.”
He added on “Fox News Sunday”: “President’s been very clear on this. He said — I think it was in a tweet several weeks back — the Russians have to get out. That remains our view.”
It’s a truism of politics that whenever a surrogate says their boss has been “very clear” about something, it usually means they haven’t. And that’s certainly the case here.
Trump has indeed said that Russia should get out of Venezuela, but it was hardly a proactive declaration. It came not in a tweet (as Pompeo thought), but in response to a question during a Q&A with reporters. And Trump seemed anxious to get past the question.
Here’s the exchange, from all the way back on March 27:
Q: Mr. President, what sort of complications does the Russian involvement now pose?
TRUMP: Russia has to get out. What’s your next question?
To date, that seems to be the only time Trump has explicitly called on Russia to get out of Venezuela or even acknowledged its involvement as a fact. And in the five weeks since then, as Russia has changed the very nature of the conflict according to Pompeo, Trump hasn’t exactly telegraphed a strong posture.
Even just later in that Q&A, Trump was asked about the comment and whether that message was being communicated to the Russians. He avoided the question and again quickly moved things along:
Q: Mr. President, have you -- you’ve just said Russia needs to get out. Have you in any way communicated that through [national security adviser John] Bolton or through your representative at the United Nations?
TRUMP: They know. They know very well. They know very well. Go ahead. Next question.
Last week, Trump gave an interview to Fox Business Network’s Trish Regan, in which Regan asked him about Pompeo’s claim that Russia had persuaded Maduro not to flee.
Rather than issue a forceful rebuke and echo Pompeo, though, Trump suggested this was a mere “rumor”:
Q: Secretary Pompeo told me, sir, yesterday, that Maduro was ready to leave. He was, like, you know, packed up, ready to go, on the tarmac, but the Russians stopped him. What does that say? What are the Russians doing down there, and how does that change things for us, or escalate, if you would, unfortunately --
TRUMP: Well, it’s not acceptable. If that’s the case, it’s not acceptable. You hear a lot of different rumors. You hear rumors that he was. You hear rumors that he was leaving a different way. I’m hearing rumors about Russia, and I’m hearing a lot about Cuba. And we’ll do a very, very strong embargo and sanction on Cuba.
I’ve bolded the key parts when it comes to Russia, but that last sentence about Cuba is also key. Trump has repeatedly talked tough when it comes to consequences for Cuba’s involvement, but he has notably not done the same when it comes to Russia’s.
In a March news conference with Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, Trump singled out Cuba but not Russia. “We call on members of the Venezuelan military to end their support for Maduro, who is really nothing more than a Cuban puppet, and finally set their people free.” Trump has repeatedly called Maduro a “puppet” of the Cubans or argued that Cuba is propping him up.
Trump also threatened Cuba with a “full and complete embargo” last week.
“If Cuban Troops and Militia do not immediately CEASE military and other operations for the purpose of causing death and destruction to the Constitution of Venezuela, a full and complete . . . embargo, together with highest-level sanctions, will be placed on the island of Cuba,” he tweeted.
So to date, we have essentially one example of Trump telling Russia to get out, and he did so only briefly and because he was asked about it. Since then, he has made major declarations about Cuba’s involvement and potential punishments, while at the same time calling into question his own secretary of state’s pronouncements about what Russia is up to in Venezuela.
Exactly why Trump has taken this posture — whether because he’s not informed or he simply doesn’t want to believe it — is the big question here. It’s also worth pointing out that his administration has taken significant steps to get tough on Russia.
But that toughness very rarely comes through in Trump’s own rhetoric. And this is certainly no exception. Trump has been about as clear as mud when it comes to Russia’s involvement in Venezuela. And yet again, he errs in Putin’s direction.