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Trump says he’d meet with Maduro to discuss ‘a peaceful exit from power’ in Venezuela

President of Venezuela Nicolas Maduro speaks during a press conference at Miraflores Government Palace on March 12, 2020 in Caracas, Venezuela. (Photo by Carolina Cabral/Getty Images/TNS)

President Donald Trump said Monday that he would consider meeting with embattled Venezuelan ruler Nicolás Maduro, but administration officials say there’s no ongoing effort to secure a meeting with a foreign leader viewed by the U.S. as a narco-terrorist and illegitimate president.

“Unlike the radical left, I will ALWAYS stand against socialism and with the people of Venezuela,” Trump tweeted Monday morning. “My Admin has always stood on the side of FREEDOM and LIBERTY and against the oppressive Maduro regime! I would only meet with Maduro to discuss one thing: a peaceful exit from power!”

Trump’s tweet came after Axios published details Sunday from an interview with the president in which Trump was quoted as saying he would consider meeting with Maduro despite having declined previous invitations. The article comes as Trump’s former national security adviser, John Bolton, prepares to release a book Tuesday that includes details about Trump’s “waffling” on his decision to support Juan Guaidó — the Venezuelan opposition leader recognized by the U.S. early last year as Venezuela’s rightful elected president.

Trump has previously hinted at a willingness to meet with Maduro. In 2018, as Maduro flew to New York to attend the U.N. General Assembly, Trump said he was “willing to meet with anybody.” The Miami Herald reported last year that White House officials were willing to negotiate with Maduro his exit from power, but a meeting with Trump had not been publicly favored.

Two administration officials told McClatchy that a meeting is not an active goal for the Trump administration, and that the president’s tweet does not amount to a change in U.S. policy. On Monday, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said Trump “continues to recognize Juan Guaidó as the leader of Venezuela.”

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Still, Trump’s public statements that he would meet with Venezuela’s socialist ruler could have political ramifications in the U.S. and in Venezuela, a once thriving South American nation now racked by poverty and turmoil. It could also complicate Trump’s campaign for reelection, which has aggressively courted Hispanic voters in Florida, home to narrowly decided presidential elections and the largest community of Venezuelan exiles in the country.

“Trump talks tough on Venezuela, but admires thugs and dictators like Nicolás Maduro,” former Vice President Joe Biden, Trump’s likely opponent in November, tweeted Sunday night. “As President, I will stand with the Venezuelan people and for democracy.”

The Trump administration has spent months, if not years, pressuring Maduro to step down.

It backed Guaidó in January 2019 when the elected leader of Venezuela’s national assembly declared himself the rightfully elected president of Venezuela, and invited him to attend Trump’s State of the Union speech in February. The Trump administration has also increased sanctions against Venezuela and Cuba, which has helped support Maduro with intelligence and security services.

In March, the Justice Department indicted Maduro and 14 current and former Venezuelan officials and charged them in Miami, New York and Washington with narco-terrorism, drug trafficking and other charges.

Juan Cruz, former National Security Council director for Western Hemisphere Affairs under Trump, said in an interview Monday that Trump’s comments about meeting Maduro are not entirely surprising, but could be harmful to the Venezuelan opposition.

“The President can say that and still be supportive of the Venezuelan people and the opposition. It is entirely consistent with his belief that the big problems only need his personal involvement,” Cruz said. “But the comments risk potentially weakening Guaidó to a point the regime could mistakenly interpret the President’s words,” and even consider arresting the National Assembly leader.

“That,” Cruz said, “would be a huge miscalculation by the regime.”

Representatives for Guaidó — whose efforts to wrest control from Maduro have stalled — declined to comment.

Trump has also made his hard-line stance against Maduro — and by extension the socialist regime in Cuba — an integral part of his reelection campaign in South Florida. Trump gave an official speech about ending socialism in the Americas at Florida International University in February 2019, and sent Vice President Mike Pence to launch the Latinos for Trump coalition in Miami in June of last year during an event that touched heavily on the Trump administration’s fight against socialism.

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© 2020 Miami Herald

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.