Feb 24, 2019 - Politics & Policy

Inside Trump's Venezuela pivot

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Many observers see Trump's hawkish approach to Venezuela as a foreign policy aberration. In reality, though, it's pure Trump. Over a week of interviews, people with intimate knowledge of the president's thinking detailed to me why he's taken an unusually interventionist stance toward this country.

The key factors are instincts, personal relationships, aggressive advisers, and political opportunism.

Behind the scenes: A pivotal moment came in early 2017, when Lilian Tintori, the wife of political prisoner Leopoldo Lopez, met Trump in the Oval. The conversation wasn't planned, and the State Department didn't even know she was in the building; she had come for a meeting with Vice President Mike Pence that Sen. Marco Rubio arranged.

  • Toward the end of their conversation, Pence said to Tintori, "I want to introduce you to somebody. Come this way," according to a source with direct knowledge. Then he and Rubio walked her into the Oval.

Trump had no idea who she was. But he was taken by their conversation, some details of which The Washington Post first reported. After a short talk, Trump handed his iPhone to his social media guru, Dan Scavino.

  • "Take a picture, Dan," he ordered.

Scavino snapped a photo of Trump, Tintori, Rubio, and Pence. Then Trump drafted a caption to accompany the photo for Twitter.

  • "What do you think, Marco?" the president asked, handing the phone to Rubio. "You can edit it if you want."
  • Rubio eyeballed the tweet — sources dispute whether he changed anything — then handed the phone back to Trump, who hit send. And with that, the United States toughened its stance toward the Maduro regime.
  • "At the time, we were like, 'Wow, he just stuck it to Maduro!'" said a source with direct knowledge of the conversation.

Why this matters: Conversations like this one have shaped Trump's Venezuela approach. Privately, Trump often talks about his fondness for the Venezuelan expats who frequent his golf club in Doral.

  • "We have many Venezuelans living in the United States,” he said in a press conference last September. "Many of them live in the Doral area of Miami. I've gotten to know them well. They are great, great people. We are going to take care of those people."

Between the lines: That's not all, of course. His senior advisers universally support unseating Maduro. And people close to Trump say he takes a markedly different view of Venezuela than Middle Eastern war zones. He sees Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq as beyond help, a waste of American lives and money. Venezuela, in his view, is different: It's a neighbor, and a crisis there directly affects the U.S., via trade and migration. Trump thinks Venezuela should be rich and peaceful.

  • "Venezuela is not anything like the Middle East; it is a western country, with western institutions and western cultural leanings," said Rubio, a key player in Trump's Venezuela policy.
  • "The president sees this country with extraordinary economic potential, which has been run into the ground," Rubio told me. "I think he believes some of these issues in the Middle East are intractable and just can't be fixed. But he actually thinks Venezuela and the western hemisphere can [be fixed]."
  • "He also takes some of this stuff personally. The fact that Maduro and others have reacted the way they have [with their fiery rhetoric about Trump]... Ultimately there comes a point, for this president, where he become personally invested in it...he becomes an enemy and then he goes after you pretty hard."

Political opportunism also plays a big role. "It's a real-life example of the failure of socialism and there's an appeal in that," a senior White House official told me.

  • Trump and his advisors see their approach as a way to court Venezuelan expats, who may be friendly to the American right-wing because of the failure of Maduro's leftist government.
  • The fact that the bulk of those expats live and vote in Florida, of all states, is not lost on Trump and his political team.

The bottom line: Trump's instincts on Venezuela find daily reinforcement from the growing uprising on the ground there, the rare unity with other democratic Western governments, largely favorable media coverage, and bipartisan support on Capitol Hill.

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