Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Sunday confirmed that the Trump administration is making contingency plans for U.S. military intervention in Venezuela, but he refused to say whether the administration would seek congressional authorization first.
When asked directly on ABC’s “This Week” whether President Trump believes he has the power to intervene without seeking approval from Congress, Pompeo declined to answer.
“I don’t want to speak to that,” he said, pointing to the powers granted to the president as commander in chief under the Constitution. “The president has his full range of Article 2 authorities, and I’m very confident that any action we took in Venezuela would be lawful,” he said.
The Trump administration has long flirted with the idea of a military intervention to back the campaign by Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó, who tried but failed last week to oust President Nicolás Maduro.
But Pompeo’s evasion of a direct question about the role of Congress — which is the body empowered to declare war under the Constitution — could strike a nerve with several Republicans, who have chafed at other administrations pursuing military campaigns on what they see as flimsy or nonexistent legal grounds.
On Friday, Sen. Todd C. Young (R-Ind.) called on the leaders of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, of which he is a member, to hold a hearing on the use of military force in Venezuela, noting he was “concerned by reports of possible U.S. military intervention” without congressional authorization.
Young is also chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the GOP’s campaign arm for the Senate.
For years, lawmakers have been mired in battles with the executive branch — and across party lines — as they debate drafting new authorizations for the United States’ current military campaigns and demanding more deference from the commander in chief when it comes to launching fresh ones. Already this year, several Republicans — including some of Trump’s closest allies — broke with the White House in a vote to invoke the War Powers Resolution to end U.S. participation in the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen, arguing that Congress had never authorized it. The measure passed Congress, but Trump vetoed it, and lawmakers could not muster the votes to override him.
Recent efforts to pass a new authorization for the use of military force against extremist groups such as the Islamic State have perennially faltered over political divisions. But as a party, the GOP frequently criticized the Obama administration for arguing it didn’t need to seek congressional authorization before joining in the air bombardment of Libya. Pompeo’s hedging on Sunday risks exposing the Trump administration to similar criticism.
“Make no mistake, we have a full range of options that we’re preparing for,” Pompeo said. “Diplomatic options, political options, options with our allies, and then ultimately, a set of options that would involve use of U.S. military. We’re preparing those for him so that when the situation arises, we’re not flat-footed.”
Guaidó last week did not rule out accepting U.S. military assistance. But he told The Washington Post that he would put such an offer to the country’s National Assembly.
Pompeo, when asked why the Maduro regime wasn’t toppled last week by Guaidó and the opposition, as U.S. officials appear to have expected, said it would happen eventually.
“These things sometimes take time,” Pompeo said on Fox News in an interview with Chris Wallace. “We know it’s going to happen. Chris, I am not going to talk about all the various conversations that have taken place. We continue to work with leaders down there. . . . If you think about where this country was 90 days ago, the Venezuelan people should be very proud. They are much closer to having democracy restored.”
As a candidate, Trump questioned the logic of committing the U.S. military to more conflicts overseas. But his administration has adopted a more hawkish stance with the ascent of Pompeo and Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton.
Still, the president’s personal interactions with foreign leaders often muddle the messaging of his senior advisers.
Following a phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin last week, Trump said Putin “was not looking to get involved in Venezuela, other than he would like to see something positive happen in Venezuela.”
The comments were in stark contrast to statements by top administration officials in the preceding days, emphasizing what they described as malign Russian involvement in propping up the Maduro regime and advising the Venezuelan leader to hold his ground.
Speaking on CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday, Pompeo rejected the notion that Trump’s comments contradicted his own.
“No difference, no difference,” Pompeo said. “The president has said, I think he in fact tweeted, that the Russians must leave Venezuela. . . . The president’s been very clear, we want the Cubans out. There are Iranians on the ground there. We want the Russians — we want everyone out so that the Venezuelan people can get the democracy they deserve. That includes Mr. Maduro leaving.”
Pompeo declined to put a timeline on when the Venezuelan opposition might hope to achieve that outcome. But the top U.S. diplomat is on his way to Europe in the coming week, where he is scheduled to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov as well as other top European officials, in part to discuss the situation in Venezuela.
While abroad, Pompeo is also expected to discuss North Korea’s short-range missile test over the weekend, the significance of which Pompeo downplayed on ABC, pointing out that the projectiles didn’t cross international boundaries. He stressed that the administration was still engaging with Kim Jong Un’s regime and that it had heard back from the North Koreans since a failed February summit in Hanoi.
“We hope that this act that he took over the weekend won’t get in the way,” Pompeo said on ABC. “We want to get back at the table. We want to continue to have these conversations.”
When asked about reports that several members of Kim’s negotiating team had been executed after the Hanoi summit, Pompeo declined to comment but said “it does appear that the next time we have serious conversations that my counterpart will be someone else.”
“But we don’t know that for sure,” Pompeo added. “Just as President Trump gets to decide who his negotiators will be, Chairman Kim will get to make his own decisions about who we ask to have these conversations.”
As Pompeo heads overseas, negotiators from China — the country with the most influence over North Korea — are heading to Washington for the latest round of trade talks. Pompeo was asked on CBS whether the administration planned to impose sanctions on Beijing over the government’s mass imprisonment of “at least a million but likely closer to 3 million” Muslim minorities in what a senior Pentagon official last week called “concentration camps.”
Pompeo employed much softer language in his answer. He said the Trump administration had “pushed back” against China over the “up to a million people held in reeducation camps.” That echoes the terminology used by Chinese authorities to describe facilities that human rights activists have likened to those used in ethnic cleansings — and it downplays defense officials’ estimate of the number of Muslims affected.
When host Margaret Brennan challenged his choice of words and numbers, asking whether there was a dispute within the administration, Pompeo argued that “we can use lots of different terms to describe what’s taking place. This is an enormous human rights violations.”
“Don’t play ticky tack,” he added. “There’s no discrepancy.”