On Venezuela, Trump sides with Putin over his own team

The Rachel Maddow Show, 5/3/19, 11:31 PM ET

Trump contradicts top aides with reversal after Putin phone call

Rachel Maddow reports on a Friday phone call between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, first reported by Russian media, and Trump’s declaration of Russia’s benign intentions toward Venezuela contradicting the significantly more antagonistic perspectives
Rachel Maddow reports on a Friday phone call between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, first reported by Russian media, and Trump’s declaration of Russia’s benign intentions toward Venezuela contradicting the significantly more antagonistic perspectives
A few months ago, Axios had an interesting report on Donald Trump’s perspective on Venezuela, which had been shaped in part on the president’s interactions with “the Venezuelan expats who frequent his golf club” in south Florida. As crises in the South American country mounted, this did not inspire confidence in the future of the administration’s policy.

Late last week, however, anxieties grew more acute. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made the case that Russia had effectively “invaded” Venezuela, and as a consequence, Moscow was exerting undo control over developments in the country. It was a message Pompeo – the United States’ chief diplomat and the man responsible for executing the American president’s foreign policy – had pushed repeatedly in a variety of forums.

Similarly, White House National Security Advisor Michael Bolton thought it was his job to push back against Russian interference in Venezuelan affairs. All of which made this Oval Office exchange between a reporter and Donald Trump on Friday afternoon that much more notable.

Q: Mr. President, you spoke with Vladimir Putin earlier today.

TRUMP: Yes, I did.

Q: What options are you looking at to get humanitarian assistance to Venezuela?

TRUMP: Yeah, I had a very good talk with President Putin – probably over an hour. And we talked about many things. Venezuela was one of the topics. And he is not looking at all to get involved in Venezuela other than he’d like to see something positive happen for Venezuela.

So, on the one hand, Trump has heard from top members of his team – powerful officials whom the American president personally chose for the posts – who’ve left no doubt about Russian involvement in Venezuela. On the other hand, Trump spoke to Putin, who told the Republican he’s not involved in Venezuela.

Trump, naturally, simply took the Russian president’s word for it.

And what, pray tell, did the American president’s team have to say in response?

On “This Week” yesterday, ABC News’ Jon Karl showed Mike Pompeo the clip of Trump’s comments and asked for some kind of explanation.

KARL: What does he mean the Russians – that Putin does not want to get involved in Venezuela? Aren’t they already deeply involved in supporting Maduro?

POMPEO: The president has said that the Russians must get out. I’m going to meet with Foreign Minister Lavrov in a couple of days. We’ll have more conversations about this. The objective is very clear; we want the Iranians out, we want the Russians out, we want the Cubans out. That’s ultimately what has to take place in order for Venezuelan democracy to be restored. It’s very clear. I don’t think anything the president said is inconsistent with that.

KARL: But wait a minute, you said that Maduro was on the plane ready to leave and to flee for Cuba and it was the Russians that told him to stay. And the president is saying that Putin told him that he’s not looking to get involved in Venezuela. Does the president not realize what you have said publicly and what is obvious, that Putin is deeply involved in Venezuela? I mean, what does he mean when he’s saying he’s not looking to get involved?

POMPEO: Yeah, I didn’t see the full context of the quote there. I don’t know what context that was in.

Look, I don’t mean to put too fine a point on this, but consider how the circumstances unfolded. On Thursday, the U.S. secretary of state used aggressive rhetoric about Russian interference in Venezuela. On Friday, Donald Trump said the exact opposite, humiliating his chief diplomat in the process.

We’re supposed to believe that Mike Pompeo made no effort to learn what his own boss said about the crisis that he and his State Department are working so diligently to address? Pompeo couldn’t go to the transcript of Trump’s comments – which, conveniently, the White House published to its website – and Ctrl-F for the word “Venezuela”?

Pompeo “didn’t see the full context of the quote.” Why not? Wasn’t he at all curious? Shouldn’t he have taken a look sometime before doing three Sunday-show interviews?

If I send him a copy of the transcript, and give him a chance to read the full context – a task that would take roughly 10 seconds – perhaps the cabinet secretary could get back to me as to why he and his boss seem to have two very different views about the ongoing crisis?