We now know what Donald Trump's 90-minute phone call with Vladimir Putin was meant to accomplish: talking Trump out of regime change in Venezuela and oh yeah, giving Moscow a permanent Atlantic military presence in South America.
President Trump is questioning his administration’s aggressive strategy in Venezuela following the failure of a U.S.-backed effort to oust President Nicolás Maduro, complaining he was misled about how easy it would be to replace the socialist strongman with a young opposition figure, according to administration officials and White House advisers.
The president’s dissatisfaction has crystallized around national security adviser John Bolton and what Trump has groused is an interventionist stance at odds with his view that the United States should stay out of foreign quagmires.
Trump has said in recent days that Bolton wants to get him “into a war” — a comment that he has made in jest in the past but that now betrays his more serious concerns, one senior administration official said.
The administration’s policy is officially unchanged in the wake of a fizzled power play last week by U.S.-backed opposition leader Juan Guaidó. But U.S. officials have since been more cautious in their predictions of Maduro’s swift exit, while reassessing what one official described as the likelihood of a diplomatic “long haul.”
U.S. officials point to the president’s sustained commitment to the Venezuela issue, from the first weeks of his presidency as evidence that he holds a realistic view of the challenges there and does not think there is a quick fix.
But Trump has nonetheless complained over the past week that Bolton and others underestimated Maduro, according to three senior administration officials who like others interviewed for this story spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private deliberations.
Trump has said that Maduro is a “tough cookie” and that aides should not have led him to believe that the Venezuelan leader could be ousted last week, when Guaidó led mass street protests that turned deadly.
Instead, Maduro rejected an offer to leave the country and two key figures in his government backed out of what Bolton said had been a plan to defect. Maduro publicly mocked Trump in response and said he wasn’t going anywhere, saying the United States had attempted a “foolish” coup.
It's entirely possible that Maduro was on the way out. But he got a better offer from a smarter, stronger player in this game: Vladimir Putin. Expect to see a significant warming of the relationship between Caracas and Moscow in the coming weeks and months. Putin will try to stabilize the Venezuelan economy in exchange for oil and of course, maybe a military presence in-country.
Republicans are bound to be disappointed. Blowing up Maduro's regime was high on the Bolton neo-con board and in their minds would have been the perfect distraction from Mueller and impeachment in order to rally the country around the unpopular Trump and the flag.
That focus has shifted to Iran, as I said yesterday. And now it looks like the table's being set for the main course.
In a highly unusual move, National Security Adviser John Bolton convened a meeting at CIA headquarters last week with the Trump administration's top intelligence, diplomatic and military advisers to discuss Iran, according to six current U.S. officials.
The meeting was held at 7:00 a.m. on Monday, April 29, and included CIA Director Gina Haspel, Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joe Dunford, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, five of the officials said.
National security meetings are typically held in the White House Situation Room. The six current officials, as well as multiple former officials, said it is extremely rare for senior White House officials or cabinet members to attend a meeting at CIA headquarters.
The officials said the discussion was not about the intelligence that led to the decision in the following days to surge a carrier strike group and bomber task force to the Middle East, but did not describe what the meeting covered.
Five former CIA operations officers and military officials said that in the past, such meetings have been held at CIA headquarters to brief top officials on highly sensitive covert actions, either the results of existing operations or options for new ones.
Of course, this is all complete garbage.
On Sunday, the National Security Council announced that the U.S. was sending a carrier strike group and a bomber task force to the Persian Gulf in response to “troubling and escalatory” warnings from Iran—an eye-popping move that raised fears of a potential military confrontation with Tehran. Justifying the move, anonymous government officials cited intelligence indicating Iran had crafted plans to use proxies to strike U.S. forces, both off the coast of Yemen and stationed in Iraq. National Security Adviser John Bolton also discussed the intelligence on the record. A consensus appeared to be emerging: that Iran was gearing up for war.
But multiple sources close to the situation told The Daily Beast that the administration blew it out of proportion, characterizing the threat as more significant than it actually was.
“It’s not that the administration is mischaracterizing the intelligence, so much as overreacting to it,” said one U.S. government official briefed on it.
Another source familiar with the situation agreed that the Trump administration’s response was an “overreaction” but didn’t dispute that a threat exists. Gen. Qasem Soleimani—the head of the Quds Force, Iran’s covert action arm—has told proxy forces in Iraq that a conflict with the U.S. will come soon, this source noted.
“I would characterize the current situation as shaping operations on both sides to tilt the field in preparation for a possible coming conflict,” continued the second source, who is also a U.S. government official. “The risk is a low-level proxy unit miscalculating and escalating things. We’re sending a message with this reaction to the intelligence, even though the threat might not be as imminent as portrayed.”
But Moscow is friendly with Tehran, too. And Putin has already gotten total victory in Ukraine, Syria and now it appears Venezuela. Will Tehran follow?
Or will Trump's paranoia overcome his ego and lead us into a fatal miscalculation?