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Trump administration met with, but rebuffed, Venezuelan officers who said they were plotting a coup, officials say

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and first lady Cilia Flores arrive at a military parade earlier this year in Caracas. (Ariana Cubillos/AP)

The Trump administration met several times last year and early this year with Venezuelan military officers purporting to be dissidents plotting a coup against President Nicolás Maduro, but ultimately rebuffed their requests for assistance, according to U.S. officials.

The operation was small and closely held, according to one senior official, who described the meetings as “all listening. We listen to anyone who wants to talk to us.”

President Trump, both publicly and privately, has raised the possibility of U.S. military action in Venezuela, although aides have repeatedly dissuaded him, according to a number of officials and people familiar with the episodes, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss foreign policy and intelligence matters.

Maduro has frequently accused the United States of plotting with his opponents, and of economic and actual warfare against him.

The outreach by the officers “highlighted the level of desperation” in Venezuela, and the Trump administration was eager to understand what was going on inside the armed forces, according to another person familiar with meetings.

But “we had very little confidence in the ability of these people to do anything, no idea at all about who they represented, and to what extent they had not exposed themselves already,” the person said.

The Venezuelan government did not publicly respond to a report about such meetings, which first appeared Saturday in the New York Times. A spokesman said that Maduro or other officials would comment “at the right moment, if they consider it necessary.”

White House National Security Council spokesman Garrett Marquis said in a statement that “the United States government hears daily the concerns of Venezuelans from all walks of life — be they members of the ruling party, the security services, elements of civil society or from among the millions of citizens forced by the regime to flee abroad.”

“U.S. policy preference for a peaceful, orderly return to democracy in Venezuela remains unchanged,” the statement said.

Venezuela is in the midst of hyperinflation and severe humanitarian and political crises that have sent millions fleeing to other countries in the hemisphere. In a televised address early this year, Maduro appealed to Pope Francis “to prevent Trump from sending his troops to invade Venezuela.”

Trump has denounced Maduro, who took over in 2013 following the death of revolutionary leader Hugo Chávez, as a “dictator.” Maduro has twice been elected president since then in votes widely seen as fraudulent, and has gradually taken over virtually all legislative and judicial power and jailed numerous political opponents.

In August 2017, Trump told reporters that “we have many options for Venezuela, including a possible military option if necessary.”

Just before those comments, he had raised the issue privately with senior advisers, asking then-national security adviser H.R. McMaster: “Why don’t we just invade? We’ve done it in other parts of the world,” according to current and former officials who said that McMaster recommended “other approaches.”

Trump also raised the possibility of an invasion with Latin American leaders at last year’s United Nations General Assembly, despite efforts by McMaster and others to steer him away from the subject.

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The administration has imposed sanctions on a number of Venezuelan officials, including senior military officers. Officials have long said further measures are under consideration, including an embargo on Venezuelan oil. Despite sharply falling oil exports in recent years, Venezuela is the fourth-largest foreign supplier to the United States, which remains the largest purchaser of Venezuelan crude. China and Russia have extended huge loans to prop up the government.

While some administration officials and outside advisers have pushed for more muscular U.S. involvement against Maduro, many have expressed dismay at the political opposition’s failure to mobilize a coordinated resistance, and at what appears to be fairly solid support for him within the military.

Adam Isacson, of the Washington Office on Latin America, said few U.S. administrations would pass up the opportunity to meet with alleged coup plotters at least once, given the opacity of the Venezuelan military.

“You’re trying to glean an understanding of a part of Venezuelan society, the military, that none of us knows very much about,” although the decision to meet several times posed a risk of becoming exposed and sparking a backlash in the hemisphere, he said.

“It makes no sense to support a military coup in Latin America. They always end badly, but it’s worth listening to these people,” Isacson said. “What is their level of discontent? Do they have broad-based support among the population or are they just a bunch of renegades? Do they have an honest plan to start elections? The military is a black box.”

A majority of Latin American governments have denounced Maduro, as has the secretary general of the Organization of American States. But all are aware of the unpopular history of U.S. military intervention in the hemisphere, and there is little appetite for a repeat.

Analysts in Caracas were unsurprised by the lack of official reaction there to the reports.

“If they talk about it, they’ll do it in the middle of talking about something else,” said Felix Seijas, political analyst and director of polling agency Delphos. But it will “give them another element to move against dissidents,” he said. “The hurricane will happen in the inside.”

John Hudson in Washington and Rachelle Krygier in Caracas contributed to this report.