Last winter, the ouster of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro seemed a sure bet to President Trump, a quick foreign policy win at a time when other initiatives in Asia and the Middle East appeared stalled or headed in the wrong direction.
Then came spring, when Juan Guaidó, the opposition leader Trump had recognized as Venezuela’s legitimate president, called for the Venezuelan military to rise up and switch sides. But while the White House had received opposition assurances that many in the upper echelons of the security forces and government had pledged to flip, virtually none answered Guaidó’s call.
A frustrated Trump believed that national security adviser John Bolton and his director for Latin American policy, Mauricio Claver-Carone, “got played” by both the opposition and key Maduro officials, two senior administration officials said. As the president “chewed out the staff” in a meeting shortly after the April 30 failure, in the words of one former Trump official involved in Venezuela policy, he mused that he might need to get on the phone himself to get something done.
Summer arrives this week with Maduro still in place, and little indication that he is imminently on his way out, or that the Trump administration has a coherent strategy to remove him. The president, officials said, is losing both patience and interest in Venezuela.
Other officials disputed the report of a chewing-out. National Security Council spokesman Garrett Marquis said, "Not only is this patently false, but once more the Washington Post traffics in fairy tales rather than the truth."
“The United States never said that its effort in Venezuela would be limited to one round,” another senior official said. “The administration’s maximum-pressure policy relies upon consistency and discipline to achieve the ultimate goal.”
This official and others spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss administration policymaking.
As Venezuela becomes more ungovernable, with sanctions having cut off much of its income, some argue, the fatigue afflicting many Maduro opponents has also begun affecting the regime. That will theoretically encourage negotiations over elections in which Maduro does not participate, although it may not ensure his immediate departure, as the United States has advocated.
But Trump has clearly been frustrated about a foreign policy issue he “always thought of . . . as low-hanging fruit” on which he “could get a win and tout it as a major foreign policy victory,” the former official said. “Five or six months later . . . it’s not coming together.”
Since early last month, Trump has rarely spoken publicly about Venezuela or his “all options” promise to use military force if necessary to achieve U.S. goals there.
In a closed-door meeting Wednesday to campaign donors at his Doral golf club in key election state Florida — just miles from where he delivered a February speech to Venezuelan and Cuban expatriates warning that those who continued to support Maduro would “lose everything” — Trump did not mention Venezuela, one person in attendance said.
Trump’s Twitter account, which once provided regular saber-rattling on Venezuela, has largely gone silent on the subject.
In one exception, Trump tweeted early this month that “Russia has informed us that they have removed most of their people from Venezuela.” After Russia denied it, saying there had been no such action or communication with the administration, it was never mentioned again.
It was Russian President Vladimir Putin whom Trump had called in early May to tell him — leader to leader — that Moscow’s support for Maduro had to stop. Both Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had already put Russia on notice. But Trump, after the call, had said mildly that Putin assured him that Russia was “not looking at all to get involved in Venezuela, other than he’d like to see something positive happen.”
Early last week, responding to shouted questions as he prepared to board Marine One on the White House South Lawn, Trump blamed the ongoing Venezuela crisis on his predecessor and threw in a dig at his 2020 electoral competition. “It’s been brewing for many years,” he said. “It really started, in the worst form, during the Biden-Obama administration.”
Asked whether he would consider giving special immigration status to Venezuelans fleeing their country, something others in the administration have carefully avoided committing to, Trump said that “we’re looking at that very strongly.”
Later in the week, he met for more than two hours with top officials from Major League Baseball, who asked that he reconsider his cancellation of a deal they made with Cuba to bring its baseball players to the United States. In addition to Russia, the administration blames Cuba for supporting Maduro, and during the meeting Trump tried to enlist baseball executives to deliver two messages to leaders in Havana. He’s be happy to make a deal on Cuban baseball players, Trump said, if they would tell Cuba to get out of Venezuela.
Trump also suggested he would be willing to meet directly with Cuban officials under the right conditions. “The president gave MLB the same message he’s given to everyone — the Cubans need to change their behavior, in Venezuela and internally,” said one senior administration official.
While Trump appears to have withdrawn from the fray, Bolton tweets about Venezuela more than on any other foreign policy issue. “The United States will continue to stand firmly in support of ending Maduro’s repression,” he wrote Tuesday.
In Miami, as Trump was heading toward Florida, it was Vice President Pence who spoke to Venezuelan Americans to salute the embarkation of the U.S. Navy ship Comfort to Latin America, expecting to treat Venezuelan refugees.
Pence deflected questions about U.S. military intervention, saying that the administration’s objective was “to see democracy and the rule of law restored in Venezuela so Venezuelans can go home to a free nation.”
John Hudson contributed to this report.