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Trump and Guaidó. Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

In an Oval Office interview with Axios on Friday, President Trump suggested he's had second thoughts about his decision to recognize Juan Guaidó as the legitimate leader of Venezuela and said he is open to meeting with dictator Nicolás Maduro.

Driving the news: Asked whether he would meet with Maduro, Trump said, "I would maybe think about that. ... Maduro would like to meet. And I'm never opposed to meetings — you know, rarely opposed to meetings.

  • "I always say, you lose very little with meetings. But at this moment, I've turned them down."

The big picture: Trump also indicated he doesn't have much confidence in Guaidó, who has failed to wrest control of the Venezuelan government despite support from the U.S. and dozens of other countries.

  • Asked whether he regretted his decision to follow his former national security adviser John Bolton's advice on Guaidó, Trump initially said "not particularly," but then went on to say, "I could have lived with it or without it, but I was very firmly against what's going on in Venezuela."
  • Trump said that at the point he weighed in and recognized Guaidó, "Guaidó was elected. I think that I wasn't necessarily in favor, but I said — some people that liked it, some people didn't. I was OK with it. I don't think it was — you know, I don't think it was very meaningful one way or the other."

Why it matters: If Trump meets with Maduro, it would completely upend his administration's policy on Venezuela. Top administration officials, including Vice President Pence and Secretary of State Pompeo, have invested a huge amount of energy in supporting Guaidó.

  • And in March, Attorney General Bill Barr announced that the Justice Department was charging Maduro with narcoterrorism. The DOJ press release announcing the charges referred to him as the "Former President of Venezuela."

Behind the scenes: A former Trump administration official told me Trump's comments to Axios tracked with their firsthand experience of the first two and a half years of his presidency, when Venezuela policy was a hotter issue in the West Wing than it is now.

  • In 2017, the Venezuelan government reached out to the White House and the State Department at least twice to express Maduro's willingness to meet with Trump, the former official said.
  • In one of these instances, the Venezuelan Embassy called the White House switchboard. The other request came in a letter. Maduro also publicly expressed his desire to meet with Trump.
  • The former official said it was a "recurring concern" inside the administration during 2017 and 2018 that Trump would meet with Maduro. "It was really stop and go there for a while," he said. "And the Venezuelan opposition was beside themselves."
  • The president signaled a general openness to meeting Maduro in 2018, but also reiterated that "all options" were on the table — a signal he was considering military action against Venezuela.

In his book, "The Room Where It Happened," Bolton writes this of Trump's private feelings about Guaidó, after throwing the full diplomatic weight of the U.S. government behind him:

  • "He thought Guaidó was 'weak,' as opposed to Maduro, who was 'strong.'”
  • "By spring, Trump was calling Guaidó the 'Beto O'Rourke of Venezuela,' hardly the sort of compliment an ally of the United States should expect."
  • "It was far from helpful but typical of how Trump carelessly defamed those around him, as when he began blaming me for the opposition's failure to overthrow Maduro."
  • In Axios' interview, Trump described his former national security adviser as a "nutjob" who may be the "dumbest human being on Earth" for persistently supporting the Iraq War.

Go deeper

Scoop: Trump's post-election execution list

Photo illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios. Photo: David Becker/Getty Images

If President Trump wins re-election, he'll move to immediately fire FBI Director Christopher Wray and also expects to replace CIA Director Gina Haspel and Defense Secretary Mark Esper, two people who've discussed these officials' fates with the president tell Axios.

The big picture: The list of planned replacements is much longer, but these are Trump's priorities, starting with Wray.

10 hours ago - World

Maximum pressure campaign escalates with Fakhrizadeh killing

Photo: Fars News Agency via AP

The assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the architect of Iran’s military nuclear program, is a new height in the maximum pressure campaign led by the Trump administration and the Netanyahu government against Iran.

Why it matters: It exceeds the capture of the Iranian nuclear archives by the Mossad, and the sabotage in the advanced centrifuge facility in Natanz.

Scoop: Biden weighs retired General Lloyd Austin for Pentagon chief

Lloyd Austin testifying before Congress in 2015. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Joe Biden is considering retired four-star General Lloyd Austin as his nominee for defense secretary, adding him to a shortlist that includes Jeh Johnson, Tammy Duckworth and Michele Flournoy, two sources with direct knowledge of the decision-making tell Axios.

Why it matters: A nominee for Pentagon chief was noticeably absent when the president-elect rolled out his national security team Tuesday. Flournoy had been widely seen as the likely pick, but Axios is told other factors — race, experience, Biden's comfort level — have come into play.

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