White House

Trump congratulates Juan Guaidó on assuming power, amid unrest in Venezuela

The call comes amid some criticism regarding the timing of recognizing the new interim president

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence (L) shakes hands with Carlos Vecchio (3rd L), a representative of Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido, outside the West Wing of the White House after a meeting January 29, 2019 in Washington, DC. The Trump Administration has imposed sanctions on Venezuelan state-owned oil company in order to put pressure on President Nicolas Maduro to give up his power and step down. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

President Donald Trump Wednesday morning spoke by phone with Juan Guaidó, whom he has recognized as Venezuela’s interim president, amid violence and political unrest there.

Trump called Guaidó to “congratulate him on his historic assumption of the presidency and to reinforce President Trump’s strong support for Venezuela’s fight to regain its democracy,” press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement. During the call, Guaidó “noted the importance of the large protests across Venezuela against former dictator [Nicolás] Maduro, set to occur today and Saturday,” she added.

The duo agreed to maintain “regular communication to support Venezuela’s path back to stability, and to rebuild the bilateral relationship between the United States and Venezuela,” Sanders said.

The call is aimed at further boosting Guaidó in the eyes of his countrymen — especially the military, which remains mostly aligned with Maduro — by putting the powers of the presidency in his corner.

Prior to the call, Vice President Mike Pence had communicated directly with what the administration calls the country’s interim president.

On Monday, during a rare White House press briefing, National Security Adviser John Bolton and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin announced the Trump administration is slapping new sanctions on Venezuela’s state-owned oil company to prevent Maduro from taking funds for his own use from the outfit.

Mnuchin called on all U.S. allies to follow Trump’s lead by recognizing Guaidó as Venezuela’s interim president. He and Bolton reiterated that Trump is keeping “all options” on the table for dealing with the political unrest there, including the use of U.S. military force.

As Bolton briefed reporters, a photographer snapped a picture of his yellow legal pad that had these words written on it: “5,000 troops to Colombia.”

The administration’s tough talk about and actions toward Maduro started amid a 35-day government shutdown that polls show has left Trump with some political scars as he gears up for a re-election battle.

The approach has not been without criticism. Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, D-Conn., joined with Ben Rhodes, the former deputy national security adviser to President Barack Obama, to question the wisdom of recognizing an interim president who may not actually control the country.

“Chest-thumping declarations that melt away over time weaken American power and credibility. In Venezuela, if the armed forces continue to back Maduro, then last week’s move may come to look feckless, while offering Maduro the opportunity to rally his domestic and foreign backers against U.S. intervention,” Murphy and Rhodes wrote in the Washington Post. “Reckless talk of military options only compounds this problem — there is no credible U.S. military option to invade Venezuela, and it would be dangerous and destabilizing to do so.”

The White House’s saber-rattling has also led some Democratic lawmakers and other critics charging the president is “wagging the dog,” meaning inflating the U.S. response to the unrest in the South American country to distract from his domestic troubles, which also include the indictment by Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III of Roger Stone, a longtime political adviser to Trump.

Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.

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