President Donald Trump confirmed on Wednesday that National Security Advisor John Bolton’s departure from the White House was in part a result of his strategy on Venezuela.
While some mainstream media outlets attempted to interpret Trump’s statements as a sign Bolton was seeking war in the South American country, all of Bolton’s public advocacy on the subject appeared to indicate otherwise. Bolton publicly trusted Venezuelan President Juan Guaidó, a “democratic” socialist, and accepted Guaidó’s strategy of offering dictator Nicolás Maduro and his henchmen amnesty despite years of ordering and committing crimes against humanity. He trusted Guaidó to negotiate with high-ranking military leaders and successfully get them to defect.
Guaidó failed spectacularly, and Bolton is now paying the price.
Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, Trump said he had “a very good relationship” with Bolton, but that he had made “big mistakes.”
“I disagreed with John Bolton on his attitudes on Venezuela. I thought he was way out of line and I think I’ve proven to be right,” the president said. He did not elaborate on where he was “out of line.”
McClatchy took Trump’s comments to mean that Bolton had been advocating for military action against Maduro, citing the usual shadowy cabal of “current and former administration officials.”
“One senior administration official said Trump had grown weary of repeated vows from Bolton that Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro would be out of office in short order,” the outlet reported. “A second official said that they had clashed over Bolton’s efforts to advance planning for military intervention.”
The idea that Bolton was actively promoting a military attack on Caracas is wildly divergent from what Bolton was actually saying in his many public statements about the tragic situation in Venezuela. Save for one bizarre incident in which reporters gawked at a handwritten note Bolton was seen holding in January that read “5,000 troops to Colombia,” Bolton publicly urged Maduro to step aside and offered guarantees that he would be allowed to enjoy his life after bringing South America’s wealthiest nation to a state of total destitution.
The only person saying Bolton was urging Trump to kill Maduro was Maduro himself.
“Now, a year ago, it will be a year in August, there was the attempt. I can tell you that today I have proof that the assassination attempt was ordered by John Bolton in the White House,” Maduro alleged in August, making an accusation uncannily similar to one he once made against former Vice President Joe Biden. “And he waited for the results in the White House. If you dig deeper, you’ll see it someday. The proof will come out how John Bolton, in coordination with then Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos. And they gave the task to Julio Borges, a former legislator in Venezuela.”
Back in reality, Bolton used heavy-handed language to condemn Maduro and his criminal officials but made their exit his paramount interest, not justice for their victims.
“Under this administration, we will no longer appease dictators and despots near our shores in this Hemisphere. We will not reward firing squads, torturers, and murderers. We will champion the independence and liberty of our neighbors,” Bolton said in a speech in Miami, Florida, in November, announcing sanctions against the Venezuelan regime and warning its allies in Nicaragua and Cuba that they were next.
Bolton’s tune changed in January, when Juan Guaidó became president of Venezuela.
Venezuela’s constitution – the one put into place by its original socialist dictator, Hugo Chávez – allows the National Assembly to replace a president if he “disrupts the constitutional order” by refusing to step down when his term is over. After Maduro’s “inauguration” in January, following a blatantly fraudulent election in May 2018, the legislature did just that, inaugurating Guaidó, its president, as the chief executive of the country. He remains to this day the only legal head of state in Venezuela.
Shortly after Guaidó’s ascent, Bolton began urging Maduro to step down with the promise that he would face no human rights tribunal for the many atrocities he has committed during his rule.
“I wish Nicolás Maduro and his top advisors a long, quiet retirement,” Bolton said on Twitter.
I wish Nicolas Maduro and his top advisors a long, quiet retirement, living on a nice beach somewhere far from Venezuela. They should take advantage of President Guaido’s amnesty and move on. The sooner the better.
— John Bolton (@AmbJohnBolton) January 31, 2019
Bolton’s change of strategy – from “we will no longer appease dictators” to “living on a nice beach somewhere” – was clearly meant as a gesture of trust in Guaidó. The Venezuelan president took little to no time to begin offering Maduro legal amnesty upon taking office.
“[Maduro] is an official, a public official, a dictator responsible for the victims yesterday in Venezuela,” Guaidó said following his inauguration. “There is a very clear responsibility on this. [Yet] in transition periods, similar things have happened,” he said of amnesty.
Amnesty “is on the table for all who are willing to be on the right side of the constitution, to restore the constitutional order.”
Four months later, Guaidó dramatically declared that his offers to high-ranking Maduro officials of amnesty in exchange for abandoning Maduro had been accepted and that he was willing to trust some of the world’s most dangerous criminals when they said they were now on his side.
Standing next to Leopoldo López – Venezuela’s most famous political prisoner – Guaidó announced in the early morning hours of May 1 that “the people of Venezuela have initiated the end of the usurpation.”
“People of Venezuela, it is necessary that we go out to the street today, to back democratic forces and recover our freedom,” Guaidó declared. “Organized and together, move to the [country’s] main military units. People of Caracas, come to La Carlota [Airbase in Caracas].”
López, the head of Guaidó’s socialist Popular Will Party, said that soldiers had freed him from his house arrest and that the party had convinced a critical mass of soldiers and senior regime officials to turn on Maduro.
Bolton lent support to Guaidó’s movement, saying in an interview the following day that Maduro “and his regime were down in a bunker somewhere” while this was happening” because they had lost confidence in their senior officials and could rely only on elite Cuban forces to stay in power. He later claimed that three senior Maduro loyalists, including Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino López, had told him that they agreed with ousting Maduro.
Padrino openly mocked the plan.
“It makes one very indignant … that they would come over to buy me with a treacherous, stupid, ridiculous offer, with these offers they are making with their mouths only because they have nothing in their chests, in their hearts,” Padrino said on state television, pledging his loyalty to Maduro.
Maduro himself, meanwhile, was dancing on television, enabling his senior thugs – like United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) chief and drug kingpin Diosdado Cabello – to enact an internal purge of suspected traitors.
“All he needs is a little push” to leave power, Guaidó said of Maduro following his takeover declaration. He has been repeating the same claim ever since, shamefully agreeing to “negotiations” with a regime he insists is barely holding on to power.
The negotiations fly in the face of the overwhelming majority opinion among Venezuelans. Polls taken shortly after the May 1 “coup” found that 90 percent of Venezuelans believed Guaidó should authorize a foreign military to take out Maduro. Another 91 percent said they did not believe removing Maduro without military action was possible. Opposition activists in the country expressed outrage at the idea that Maduro may receive amnesty for the torture, rape, and murder of hundreds of political dissidents.
Bolton made no public acknowledgment of the majority opinion of the Venezuelan people, letting Guaidó lead his policy instead.
He also never raised concerns publicly about Guaidó’s plans for Venezuela after Maduro, detailed in a sprawling policy paper called the “Plan País” (“Country Plan”). Guaidó, whose Popular Will Party is a member of the Socialist International, has planned for massive government investment in the nation’s economy, keeping private enterprise out of its oil industry, imposing a universal healthcare plan, and creating new social programs to address famine, crime, and other problems created by socialism through more socialism.
Bolton called for more aid to Guaidó as recently as this week.
Venezuela will always be Bolton’s most overwhelming policy failure because he failed to be the John Bolton that liberals have warned us for decades that he is. When President Trump needed a voice advising against conciliatory gestures and alliances with socialists the most – when he needed someone willing to risk his reputation to echo the 90 percent of Venezuelans who want military intervention – he held Guaidó’s hand and offered Maduro a “beach somewhere.” The media’s revisionist interpretation of Trump’s comments to make Bolton look like too much of a warmonger, and not enough of one, cannot mask this reality.
**UPDATE** Donald Trump tweeted Thursday that John Bolton was “holding me back” regarding Venezuela:
In fact, my views on Venezuela, and especially Cuba, were far stronger than those of John Bolton. He was holding me back! https://t.co/FUGc02xiac
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 12, 2019