President Trump's decision to suddenly announce a major change in U.S. policy toward Venezuela in February began with an unexpected Oval Office meeting with Lilian Tintori, wife of the country's most prominent political prisoner.
At the White House to meet Vice President Pence and press the administration to do more about human rights in her home country, Tintori was whisked in to see Trump, who seemed unfamiliar with her story but praised her past as a reality television star in Venezuela's version of "Survivor."
Later, as Tintori made her case during the 40-minute meeting, first lady Melania Trump, who was also in the room, said she sympathized with the conditions Tintori's husband, Leopoldo López, faced in jail back in Caracas because the White House often felt as confining as a prison, according to two people familiar with the meeting, a point on which the president agreed.
Finally, as the meeting ended, the president suggested a group photo, including Pence and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a Tintori ally who was at the White House for a scheduled dinner with the president. After a couple of attempts — Trump didn't like the first photo because he was smiling — the president was pleased enough with the final version, which showed him scowling and giving a thumbs-up sign under a portrait of Andrew Jackson. He promptly posted the photo on Twitter.
"Venezuela should allow Leopoldo Lopez, a political prisoner & husband of @liliantintori (just met w/@marcorubio) out of prison immediately," Trump wrote, typing out his tweet right there in the Oval Office.
With that, the president upended years of U.S. policy toward Venezuela and signaled that his administration would take a tougher stance with President Nicolás Maduro's repressive regime amid a deepening socioeconomic crisis in the South American nation.
But unlike when Trump has at times made impulsive comments or decisions about North Korea and Iran, his willingness to take on more risk with regard to Venezuela has been met with widespread support — from Latin American and European leaders and among key domestic constituencies, including Venezuelan expatriates in South Florida.
Tintori departed the White House that evening "on cloud nine," her lawyer Jared Genser recalled in an interview, and she thanked Trump and Pence in a tweet of her own. Another person who spoke with her that evening said Tintori was "in shock" after the president's personal attention.
She is not the only one. Human rights advocates said they are mystified that a president who has not been moved to denounce human rights abuses in other parts of the world has taken, in the case of Venezuela, a tougher stand than President Obama did. Tintori tried unsuccessfully for more than a year to get an audience with Obama, but she was rebuffed by aides who were concerned that such an endorsement would anger Maduro and derail attempts at diplomatic negotiations that had been led by the State Department.
Trump, however, despite the objection of some U.S. diplomats, showed no such concern, and he elected to meet with her without informing senior aides at the National Security Council who focus on the region .
As Venezuela has spiraled deeper into chaos amid a spate of violence, rapid inflation and food shortages, with hundreds of thousands protesting in the streets in the spring, Trump has gone so far as to frame Maduro's leftist regime as impinging on democracy, freedom and human rights.
"What I'm told is he has three top foreign policy interests — North Korea, Iran and Venezuela," said Mark Feierstein, who served as senior director of Western Hemisphere affairs at the NSC under Obama. "In terms of policy changes, they have done more than we had on sanctions and they're doing a good job. It's a smart thing. . . . The dialogue [with Maduro] failed last year because there was not sufficient pressure on the government."
The White House disputed some details of the president's meeting with Tintori. The first lady's spokeswoman, Stephanie Grisham, denied that she made the awkward remark about the White House feeling confining like a prison. "Mrs. Trump only offered words of encouragement and strength," Grisham said in a statement, adding that the first lady loves living in the White House.
Just two days before the meeting in the Oval Office, the Trump administration labeled Venezuela's vice president, Tareck El Aissami, a drug kingpin and froze his assets in the United States — a provocative step that the Obama administration had resisted. Since then, the president has followed up with additional economic sanctions on Venezuelan companies, a ban on travel to the United States for government officials and their families, and a blistering condemnation of Maduro in his address at the U.N. General Assembly last month.
"This corrupt regime destroyed a prosperous nation by imposing a failed ideology that has produced poverty and misery everywhere it has been tried," Trump said. "To make matters worse, Maduro has defied his own people, stealing power from their elected representatives to preserve his disastrous rule."
White House officials said Trump's focus on Venezuela is a natural outgrowth of his criticism of Maduro on the campaign trail, which some critics viewed as pandering to voters in South Florida. Since Trump has taken office, however, the situation in Venezuela has worsened considerably, and he watched the protests unfold on cable television, aides said.
"He talks about it all the time. He knows 130 individuals have died, mainly young citizens of Venezuela," said a senior administration official involved in Venezuela policy who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the president's thinking. "That's a real impact he sees on TV."
Others cite the influence of Rubio and U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, who enjoy a close relationship and have spoken passionately about the human rights abuses in Venezuela and Cuba. Trump has employed similar language.
Trump met during the campaign with Cuban American leaders in Miami, and Pence spoke at a Catholic church in Miami's Venezuelan enclave in August, shortly before the administration announced additional sanctions on Caracas.
Aides said Trump has raised Venezuela in most of his 17 calls with Latin American leaders. In a phone conversation with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, for instance, Trump interjected while Santos was describing the peace process in his country to ask how they could put more pressure on Maduro's regime, people familiar with the call said.
White House aides said Trump recognizes the strategic imperative of Venezuela, which has significant oil reserves and increasing debt controlled by Russia and China that could give those two U.S. rivals greater leverage over the Maduro government.
But Trump has also emphasized Venezuela's proximity to the United States and the deep trade ties between the countries.
"We happen to have a strong influence on the Venezuelan economy, and our moral responsibility to act is greater than other countries," the senior administration official said.
Trump's views have carried the day despite concerns voiced by the State Department, where Thomas A. Shannon Jr., the undersecretary of state for political affairs — and who led several rounds of direct talks with Maduro's government under Obama — has continued to advocate direct engagement.
Trump, however, refused to accept Maduro's call in August after the U.S. president had suggested he would not hesitate to use a "military option" to intervene if necessary. Even Trump's allies on Venezuela believe that remark went too far.
But otherwise, they said, the president has in general struck the right tone with the economic sanctions and the tougher rhetoric at the United Nations.
"The environment was pretty ripe for increasing pressure from Washington," said José Miguel Vivanco, director of Human Rights Watch's Americas division. "If Trump used that language and sanctions two or three years ago, it would have probably been rejected and backfired. But nobody is defending Venezuela now."