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(NEWSWEEK) — President Donald Trump reportedly described Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro as a “tough cookie” and believes his administration underestimated the socialist leader, who held on to power in the face of an uprising against his regime in Caracas.
According to The Washington Post, citing administration officials, Trump was unhappy with National Security Adviser John Bolton’s handling of the Venezuela crisis, half-joking that the hawkish, interventionist former U.N. ambassador wanted to get him into a war.
Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó failed in his attempt to oust Maduro. Guaidó led a group of rebels from the military and protesters who had flooded the streets in Caracas in what he described as the final phase of Maduro’s overthrow.
But the senior military leadership remained loyal to Maduro, and Guaidó’s plot dissipated, with his allies facing recriminations for supposed treason. Maduro’s security forces clashed violently with anti-regime protesters in the aftermath of what he called a U.S.-backed coup.
Guaidó, who led Venezuela’s National Assembly, declared himself the country’s interim president in January. He said the elections won by Maduro were a sham, a position with which much of the international community agreed, and was pledging new elections if the regime fell. The U.S. and other Western powers recognized Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate president and urged Maduro to make way.
During Guaidó’s abortive attempt to topple Maduro, Bolton made it clear that U.S. military support for the uprising was an option on the table, though he said the administration wanted a peaceful transition of power led by defections from the regime to the opposition.
Bolton also claimed three senior officials in the regime—Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino, Supreme Court Chief Justice Maikel Moreno and Presidential Guard Commander Hernandez Dala—were ready to shun Maduro. But they remained publicly loyal to him.
Moreover, Bolton claimed Maduro was on the cusp of fleeing during the uprising, but he stayed put on the advice of Russia, which had sent troops and financial aid to the regime. Washington has sanctioned the regime and transferred control of its U.S. accounts to Guaidó.
The Post reported that, while Bolton’s job was safe, Trump felt boxed in by his adviser’s assertive stance on Venezuela, which included taunting Maduro on Twitter about “a long, quiet retirement, living on a nice beach somewhere far from Venezuela,” in January.
The president has pitched himself as a noninterventionist, preferring to focus on domestic issues over foreign adventurism unless absolutely necessary. But Bolton’s actions raised the stakes and expectations over crisis-stricken Venezuela.
Garrett Marquis, a National Security Council spokesman, said in a statement: “Amb. Bolton has repeatedly stated the President’s desire for a peaceful transition to democracy in Venezuela, while also ensuring that all options are on the table.”