WASHINGTON – Richard Grenell, a close Trump ally who has served a number of roles in the administration, quietly embarked on a pre-election mission last month that was supposed to at least partially persuade Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro to relinquish power.
Mr Grenell, a vocal and militant supporter of President Trump’s election campaign, met near Mexico City on Sept. 17 with Jorge Rodríguez, a former Venezuelan vice president and a close ally of Mr Maduro, to facilitate a peaceful transition of power, a White House official said.
Had Mr. Maduro agreed to step down, it could have been a big foreign policy victory for Mr Trump in the weeks before the election. But there is no evidence that Mr. Grenell’s trip had any effect, and it was not clear why Mr. Maduro, the socialist powerful who held power despite international opposition, would suddenly consider stepping down.
The journey that was reports Bloomberg News on Wednesday night caught the State Department and even some White House officials, and created confusion about its purpose.
A person involved in travel planning said it was at least in part intended to negotiate the release of U.S. detainees in Venezuela, but a White House official and Mr. Grenell denied it. Under current U.S. policy, officials can only negotiate with Mr. Maduro or his faithful to discuss the terms of his departure.
Mr Trump demanded last year that Mr Maduro resign, and the United States officially recognized Juan Guaid, a former parliamentary speaker who heads the popular opposition movement, as president of Venezuela.
Mr. Trump’s stance, which has been at the center of Mr Maduro’s condemnation by the international community, has brought him praise among American hardliners, including Latin voters in Florida, a key momentum of the state.
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But people close to Mr. Trump have questioned his commitment to a change of leadership; his former national security adviser, John R. Bolton, wrote in a book published this year that Mr Trump was impressed by Mr Maduro’s resilience, who retained the support of his country’s military.
Mr Trump was also suspicious of Mr Guaidó, Mr Bolton wrote, calling the opposition leader “weak” and calling him “Beto O’Rourke of Venezuela” – a reference to a former Texas congressman whose failed candidate for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination failed. the great expectations of some in his party.
In July, Mr. Trump traveled to Florida to confirm his opposition to Mr. Maduro and other socialist governments in Latin America. He accused his Democratic rival, former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., of supporting “pro-communist policies” across Latin America, in what was seen as an attempt to bolster his volatile support of Latin Americans in the state.
One senior administration official said Mr Grenell’s meeting with Mr Rodriguez bypassed established diplomatic channels to ensure the president’s foreign policy victory before the election. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal hearings.
In the final months of the presidential campaign, Mr. Trump tried to present his work on the international stage, including the release of US hostages in Yemen, the conclusion of a significant peace agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, and a promise to withdraw US troops from Iraq and Afghanistan. He also demanded a new nuclear weapons treaty with Russia.
Mr. Grenell, who served as Mr. Trump’s ambassador to Germany and acting director of national intelligence, was involved in another recent attempt to reach a major international agreement. Late last year, he was appointed special envoy for peace talks between Serbia and Kosovo, although the State Department already had a special envoy in the region.
His cheeky style and party background ruffled feathers among some he worked with in the roles.
Mr Grenell’s trip to Mexico City surprised several administration officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. At the State Department, officials rushed to find out the details of the trip after reporters asked them about it, with some worrying it could confuse Mr. Guaidó about U.S. diplomacy and fuel concerns that the Trump administration has not outlined its strategy.
He also revealed the split between the White House and the State Department, where officials have long denied that the Trump administration was increasingly frustrated by Mr Guaidó and the stalemate in Venezuela as Washington issued excessive economic sanctions against Mr Maduro’s government and its loyalists.
The White House did not immediately answer questions about who specifically approved the trip.
Mr Maduro defied demands to leave the popular uprising in Venezuela in January 2019 against his self-proclaimed victory in the widely contested 2018 presidential election.
Since then, however, Venezuela’s economy has disintegrated in broad isolation, forcing Mr. Maduro to rely on illegal trade and other aid from Cuba, Iran, Russia, Turkey and other countries that face fines or condemnation from the United States.
His government has arrested six Zitga executives – five naturalized U.S. citizens and a permanent U.S. legal resident – since the 2017 government consolidation. The Houston-based refinery is a subsidiary of the Venezuelan state oil company.
While securing their release could boost Mr Trump’s credibility among voters as an arranger who certainly brought American hostages and other detainees home, it could provoke the anger of stubborn people who are unwilling to negotiate with Mr Maduro’s government.
Mr Grenell declined to comment, except to deny that the trip was linked to negotiations with hostages.
A White House official also dismissed the idea that Mr. Grenell’s trip was the goal of negotiating the release of the detainee, instead of portraying it as an effort to facilitate Mr. Maduro’s resignation.
“We are extremely committed to watching Maduro leave power and Juan Guaidó is in position,” the official said.
The United States is not the only country that has tried and failed to persuade Mr. Maduro to step down. Over the years, negotiations in the Caribbean and Norway, as well as parties including Spain, the Vatican and the European Union, have worked to address the backlog.
Back in July, Bill Richardson, a senior Democratic diplomat, met with Mr. Maduro in Caracas, the capital of Venezuela, on a private humanitarian mission. He unsuccessfully demanded the release of the leader of Citg and two other Americans who are being held in Venezuela.
But Mr Grenell’s negotiations with Mr Maduro’s envoy will certainly irritate Mr Guaid’s opposing efforts. Mr Guaidó sat in Mr Trump’s guest corner in a speech on the state of the Union in January and was praised as “the true and legitimate president of Venezuela” amid speculation that the Trump administration had lost patience with the impasse.
Ambassador’s spokesman Mr. Guaida in Washington declined to comment Wednesday night.