Grenell pursued talks over change of power in Venezuela
By Kenneth P. Vogel and Lara Jakes
Richard Grenell, a close Trump ally who has served numerous roles in the administration, quietly embarked on a preelection mission last month that was at least partly intended to persuade President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela to give up power.
Grenell, a vocal and combative supporter of President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign, met near Mexico City on Sept. 17 with Jorge Rodríguez, a former Venezuelan vice president and close ally of Maduro, to facilitate a peaceful transition of power, a White House official said.
Had Maduro agreed to stand down, it could have been a major foreign policy victory for Trump in the weeks before the election. But there is no evidence that Grenell’s trip had any effect, and it was not clear why Maduro, a socialist strongman who has maintained power despite international opposition, would suddenly consider stepping down.
The trip, which was reported by Bloomberg News on Wednesday night, caught the State Department and even some White House officials off guard and created confusion about its purpose.
A person involved in the planning of the trip said that it was intended at least partly to negotiate for the release of U.S. detainees in Venezuela, but the White House official and Grenell denied that. Under current U.S. policy, officials can negotiate only with Maduro or his loyalists to discuss the terms of his departure.
Trump demanded last year that Maduro resign, and the United States has formally recognized Juan Guaidó, the former leader of Parliament, who heads the country’s popular opposition movement, as Venezuela’s president.
Trump’s stance, which was at the fore of the international community’s condemnation of Maduro, won him plaudits among U.S. hard-liners, including among Latino voters in Florida, a pivotal swing state.
But people close to Trump questioned his commitment to leadership change; his former national security adviser, John Bolton, wrote in a book published this year that Trump was impressed by the resilience of Maduro, who has retained the support of his country’s military.
In the closing months of the presidential campaign, Trump has sought to showcase his work on the international stage, including freeing U.S. hostages in Yemen, sealing a landmark peace accord between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, and promising to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq and Afghanistan. He has also been seeking a new nuclear arms deal with Russia.
Grenell, who had served as Trump’s ambassador to Germany and the acting director of national intelligence, was involved in another recent effort to broker a major international deal. He was named special envoy for peace talks between Serbia and Kosovo late last year, even though the State Department already had a special envoy to the region.
His brash style and partisan background ruffled feathers among some of those he worked with in the roles.
Grenell’s trip to Mexico City surprised senior administration officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. At the State Department, officials scrambled to learn the details of the trip after being asked about it by reporters, with some worrying that it could confuse Guaidó about the U.S. diplomacy and fuel concerns that the Trump administration was not forthcoming about its strategy.
It also revealed a divide between the White House and the State Department, where officials have long denied that the Trump administration was growing frustrated with Guaidó and the stalemate in Venezuela as Washington issued blistering economic sanctions against Maduro’s government and its loyalists.
The White House did not immediately respond to questions about who specifically authorized the trip.
Maduro has defied demands to leave since a popular revolt in Venezuela in January 2019 against his self-declared victory in widely disputed presidential elections in 2018.
Since then, however, Venezuela’s economy has crumbled under widespread isolation, forcing Maduro to rely on illicit trade and other assistance from Cuba, Iran, Russia, Turkey and other states that have faced financial punishment or condemnation from the United States as a result.
His government has detained six executives of Citgo — five naturalized U.S. citizens and a permanent legal U.S. resident — since consolidating power in 2017. The Houston-based refining company is a subsidiary of Venezuela’s state-run oil company.
While securing their release could bolster Trump’s credentials among voters as a deal-maker who brought American hostages and other detainees safely home, it could provoke the ire of hard-liners who do not want to negotiate with Maduro’s government.
Grenell declined to comment other than to deny that the trip was related to hostage negotiations.
The White House official also rejected the idea that Grenell’s trip was intended to negotiate for the release of detainees, instead portraying it as an effort to facilitate Maduro’s resignation.
“We are very much committed to seeing Maduro leave power and have Juan Guaidó in office,” the official said.