Michael Swartz / May 10, 2019

Trump, Putin, and Venezuela

What’s the deal with the American and Russian presidents when it comes to Venezuela?

By and large, the American people don’t take foreign affairs too seriously. Aside from perhaps the Notre Dame Cathedral fire and the birth of the newest British royal, the proverbial American “man on the street” might have difficulty naming another recent news story of significance from overseas.

Yet less than 1,500 miles off our shores — half the distance of a cross-country flight — there’s an ongoing geopolitical conflict that provides the latest test of a nearly two-centuries-old American operating principle, the Monroe Doctrine. In layman’s terms, the foreign-policy approach of our fifth president told the rest of the world to lay off the nations of the Americas as they naturally fell under our sphere of influence.

In January, Venezuelan strongman Nicolas Maduro was again sworn in as president despite being selected last year in what Vice President Mike Pence called a “fake election with a fake outcome.” The highly irregular circumstances behind the 2018 election have led most Western nations to refuse to recognize Maduro as the country’s leader, contending that the presidency is vacant according to Venezuela’s constitution.

This scenario of a constitutionally mandated presidential vacancy means that leadership falls to the head of Venezuela’s National Assembly. That man is 35-year-old Juan Guaido, who was just chosen in December to lead the nation’s rightful legislative body. Rightful or not, however, the sole possessors of the nation’s guns form the basis of Maduro’s support. Aside from controlling most of the military, Maduro is also being propped up by three key nations still in his corner: Cuba, China, and Russia. In the latter case, therein lies the rub.

Our Thomas Gallatin touched on the issue last week, but the dictator who “was ready to leave this morning as we understand it,” according to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, was talked out of it: “The Russians indicated he should stay.”

Last Friday, President Donald Trump said he “had a very good talk with [Russian] President [Vladimir] Putin — probably over an hour.” As White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders breezily explained, “The president’s primary focus throughout the call was about helping the people of Venezuela, making clear that the United States stands with the people of Venezuela, and the importance of making sure those individuals are able to get the food and the water and the medical supplies needed.” But others had a different take on this chumminess, claiming it ran counter to American global interests — and to his own administration officials’ statements.

While there are times that President Trump confounds the so-called conventional wisdom by going against the grain, the long history of Russian involvement with Venezuela is troubling. A Wall Street Journal editorial provides a quick and handy guide to some recent developments, but Trump is apparently taking Putin at his word that he’s “not looking at all to get involved in Venezuela other than he’d like to see something positive happen for Venezuela.”

“I feel the same way,” Trump added. “We want to help on a humanitarian basis.”

But given the hypersensitivity of Democrats (and their media enablers) to all things Russian, the mere appearance of working together on anything with Putin creates a lot of bad optics, including the shrill prediction about National Security Advisor John Bolton resigning his post in frustration and giving the Democrats another excuse to pursue impeachment for collusion.

The U.S. has little interest in a military intervention, so perhaps this is an instance of Trump trying to kill the Russians with kindness. It was, after all, another Republican who once told the world to “speak softly and carry a big stick.”

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