“The Room Where It Happened,” John Bolton’s memoir of his time at the National Security Council, paints a portrait of President Donald J. Trump as unethical, careless, and deeply narcissistic. It confirms the worst suspicions about the president’s decision-making, while implicating the Oval Office once again in potentially impeachable conduct involving foreign leaders. But one of the book’s biggest reveals concerns the Trump administration’s policy aimed at unseating Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela—where Trump’s lack of resolve has undermined the country’s democratic opposition.
Trump has long insisted that “all options are on the table” in Venezuela. This tough rhetoric, combined with Trump’s impulsiveness, has given hope to some who see U.S. military action as the only way to oust Maduro’s repressive and criminal regime. However, according to Bolton’s tell-all, the president’s preferred option for Venezuela is the one that has actually extended Maduro’s tenure in office: vacillate, bluster, repeat.
According to the former National Security Adviser, President Trump dithered about whether to invade Venezuela because it seemed “cool” or work with Maduro’s opposition to unseat the illegitimate tyrant, who stole his re-election in 2018. What’s more, he then contemplated an all-out embrace of Maduro, pondering perhaps whether he’d have more luck in direct negotiations with Venezuela than he did in North Korea.
Indeed, Trump appears to prefer dealing with dictators over democrats. Trump purportedly described socialist Maduro as “smart” and “tough,” while expressing admiration for “all those good-looking generals” who stand behind him—and who are also responsible for the torture, murder, and disappearance of thousands of Venezuelans.
Meanwhile, Trump characterized Juan Guaidó, the leader of the democratically elected National Assembly, as “weak” when Guaidó was appointed by the legislature as interim president in January 2019. Posed with the choice of legitimizing Maduro’s electoral fraud or siding with Guaidó, President Trump hesitated, only to be talked off a ledge by his closest advisers. What tipped the scale in Guaidó’s favor likely had more to do with U.S. electoral politics than a commitment to democracy: Republicans see the battleground state of Florida, home to a large Venezuelan diaspora community that has latched onto Guaidó, as critical to Trump’s own re-election in November.
Yet even in recent weeks, Trump unwisely downplayed the interim president’s importance. In an interview with Axios, Trump remarked that U.S. support for Guaidó, who was Trump’s guest of honor at the 2020 State of the Union address, was “not very meaningful one way or another.”
Trump’s ambivalence about the struggle for democracy in Venezuela has harmed Maduro’s opposition. When anti-Maduro protests peaked in the early months of 2019, Trump, who tweets about everything from Diet Coke to Kim Jong-un’s height, refused to make a personalized declaration of support to Guaidó and his coalition. According to Bolton, Trump even went as far as to suggest a quid pro quo from the opposition in the form of preferential access to Venezuela’s vast oil resources. After all, Trump previously boasted that “Venezuela is really part of the United States.”
Not only is Trump an unreliable ally, but his rudderless strategy for Venezuela has amounted to “throwing Maduro a lifeline,” according to Bolton. Trump’s lack of commitment has only emboldened Maduro and his bankrollers in Russia, China, Turkey, and Iran. By sending military equipment and trading in oil, these countries have defied U.S. sanctions against the Venezuelan regime. Trump has even deferred to Russian President Vladimir Putin. In Bolton’s view, when Putin compared Guaidó to Hillary Clinton in a private conversation with Trump, the U.S. president soured on Guaidó. He then scaled back planned sanctions against Maduro—much to the delight of Moscow and to the detriment of U.S. interests.
A year and a half after Maduro and Guaidó initially made competing claims to the Venezuelan presidency, the country’s political stalemate drags on. The Trump administration’s strategy of equivocation and pontification has failed. When President Trump says that “all options are on the table,” we should take his words at face value, knowing full well that they prioritize those options that are politically expedient, ethically dubious, and wholly ineffective.
Paul J. Angelo, PhD, is a fellow for Latin America studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of the forthcoming Council Special Report entitled The Day After in Venezuela: Delivering Security and Dispensing Justice.
This article first appeared in Spanish in El Venezolano News, click here to view.