Bolton says Trump undermining Guaidó in Venezuela, soft on Russian support for Maduro

Francesca Chambers, Michael Wilner

President Donald Trump’s willingness to meet with embattled Venezuelan ruler Nicolás Maduro is harming the opposition and its leader, Juan Guaidó, former White House National Security Advisor John Bolton said Friday in an interview with McClatchy.

Trump had immediate doubts about Guaidó’s ability to lead a revolution that could oust Maduro, despite a U.S.-led charge in early 2019 to have the democratically elected opposition leader recognized as interim president, Bolton said.

Those conflicting policy statements from Trump on Venezuela, which continue to this day, have weakened the opposition movement, Bolton asserted.

“I’m afraid that he has,” Bolton said when asked whether Guaidó had been undermined by Trump’s openness to meeting with Maduro. “I think that one of the problems the president has – not just in the context of Venezuela, but others – is that he’s not persistent. He’s not seen as pursuing a long-term objective, through thick and thin, over a sustained period of time.”

He added, “It’s just a tragedy that Trump can be outstepped, in effect, with his own policy.”

Bolton, who wrote about Trump’s desire to meet with Maduro in his new memoir, “The Room Where It Happened,” told McClatchy that the opposition movement nearly toppled Maduro in 2019 and could still be successful, if the United States were to impose heavy and sustained sanctions.

“I wish we had tighter sanctions on the Maduro regime. I wish we had done more earlier. But it’s a difficult situation, and we’ve just got to keep at it. We’ve got to get this regime replaced,” he said.

Although he is at odds with Trump on how to support the uprising in Venezuela, Bolton said he does not blame the Republican president he served for seventeen months for the failure.

It was Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin who thwarted the effort to impose harsh new sanctions “over and over again,” said Bolton, who presented the Cabinet secretary in his book as caring more about credit card companies than the revolution that was taking place.

“There are a lot of things we could have done earlier and more strongly. There were voices in the administration who didn’t want to do that, and in some cases they persuaded Trump,” Bolton said Friday.

In particular, he said that Trump should have introduced more constricting sanctions on Russian entities that do business with Maduro’s regime. The administration has introduced several new sanctions designations on Russian entities – including its largest oil company, Rosneft – since Bolton left the White House.

“I thought on far too many occasions, he did not pursue sanctions as vigorously as we could have, particularly with respect to the Russians, which could have been important given Russian economic involvement in Venezuela,” Bolton said. “And I think when you add those up, it could have had an impact, and over the same period of time probably does have an impact.”

The challenges facing the opposition movement in January 2019 were “very difficult” when Guaidó and his supporters decided to make their move, said Bolton, who believed the moment “could well be their last chance to oust Maduro before the combined influence of his regime and the Cubans and the Russians and others made it impossible, as far as the eye could see, for the people to do something.”

In his memoir, Bolton describes Trump meeting with a group of Florida Republicans that month and telling them, including Sen. Marco Rubio, that he wanted a military option. The remark “stunned” members of the delegation, Bolton wrote, except for Rubio.

Bolton, however, told McClatchy that while he was ordered to say “all options” were on the table on Venezuela, in reality the Trump administration was focused on a policy of supporting the opposition.

“The president said and instructed me to say publicly during this whole period – and I did – that all options are on the table. I think that’s important for people to understand in the Maduro regime,” Bolton explained Friday. “But our hope, and our expectation, and our efforts were directed in supporting the Venezuelan opposition.”

Opposition leaders came “very, very close” to ousting Maduro in April 2019, “and it’s a tragedy for everybody, but especially the people there that they didn’t succeed. And the circumstances have only grown worse since then,” Bolton said.

Trump this week said in an Axios interview that he would consider meeting Maduro but backtracked after bipartisan backlash. Trump administration officials, and the president’s reelection campaign, later said any Maduro meeting would only be related to the socialist leader leaving office.

Bolton said Friday that the “outcry in the U.S.” prompted Trump’s about-face.

“If we want Maduro’s exit, there’s no need for the president of the United States to negotiate with him,” Bolton said.