TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — President Donald Trump on Monday distanced himself from his own comments that signaled an openness to talks with Venezuelan strongman Nicolás Maduro — but the reversal is unlikely to prevent a political mess in Florida and still complicates the GOP’s 2020 attempt to brand Democrats as socialists.
“Unlike the radical left, I will ALWAYS stand against socialism and with the people of Venezuela,” Trump tweeted Monday morning. “My Admin has always stood on the side of FREEDOM and LIBERTY and against oppressive Maduro regime!”
“I would only meet with Maduro to discuss one thing: a peaceful exit from power!” Trump added.
That contradicts comments he made in an interview with Axios in which he second-guessed his own administration’s decision to recognize opposition leader Juan Guaidó as the South American country’s legitimate president. On the potential Maduro meeting, he said “you lose very little with meetings.”
The interview, published Sunday night, immediately sent shockwaves through Florida’s political ecosystem, especially in South Florida, which is home to more than 400,000 Hispanics of Venezuelan origin. Many of those are expats who fled Maduro’s socialist regime. During a briefing Monday, White House spokesperson Kayleigh McEnany clarified that, despite his comments, Trump continues to view Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate leader.
The mere flirtation with diplomatic talks with Maduro could hurt Trump’s standing in the nation’s largest swing state, which he needs to win in November in order to return to the White House for a second term. It also has big down-ticket implications as Republicans try to flip a vulnerable Miami congressional seat and fend off Democrats’ attempt to win seats in the region that could inch them close to taking control of the Florida Senate for the first time in nearly two decades.
Republicans up and down the ballot have also galvanized around a central 2020 messaging strategy focused on branding Democrats as far-left lovers of socialism. Months of that groundwork is now, at least in part, set back by the president’s own comments.
“Trump talks tough on Venezuela, but admires thugs and dictators like Nicolas Maduro,” Joe Biden tweeted Sunday night. “As President, I will stand with the Venezuelan people and for democracy.”
Trump’s comments were also at odds with actions taken by his administration. Vice President Mike Pence, during a February 2019 visit to a church in Doral, Fla., said “all options are on the table” for ousting Maduro. Pence also met with political prisoners and former Venezuelan elected leaders who fled the country, and met with Florida GOP Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott, both of whom have become anti-Maduro hardliners.
Trump’s Department of Justice indicted Maduro and former regime officials just three months ago on narco-terrorism and corruption charges.
Some Florida Republicans, including some of Trump’s biggest political allies, distanced themselves from the Sunday night remarks.
“No, Senator Scott does not believe President Trump should meet with Maduro — a ruthless thug and dictator who is committing genocide against his people,” said Chris Hartline, a spokesperson for Scott, one of Trump’s biggest Florida allies.
Rubio, a vocal Maduro critic, tweeted Monday that the “central goal” of foreign policy in Venezuela is the “return of democracy.”
In a follow up statement to POLITICO, Rubio defended Trump’s record on Venezuela: “The unprecedented actions taken by the Trump Administration demonstrate a commitment to restoring democratic order and the rule of law in Venezuela. The U.S. has always been willing to facilitate a peaceful transition to democracy. What it has made clear it will not do is negotiate with the Maduro regime remaining in power or allow negotiations to be used as a delay tactic.”
Ernesto Ackerman, an anti-Maduro Venezuelan exile based in Miami and head of Independent Venezuelan American Citizens, said that he believed Trump’s initial comments were “taken out of context.” He said Trump would have legal problems even trying to set up a meeting with Maduro given the charges currently pending against him.
“I don’t think President Trump would meet with Maduro for any reason,” Ackerman said.
Ackerman praised Trump’s record of dealing with Venezuela compared to that of President Barack Obama and said sanctions are working although “not at the speed we need because many Venezuelans are dying” due to a lack of food and medicine. But he added there are limits to what can be done in the region because neighboring nations are not in favor of a “military-styled intervention.”
“If he doesn’t have the support of the region, all he can do is what he’s doing,” Ackerman said.
Neither Scott nor Rubio is on the ballot in 2020, but Trump’s comments were an unwelcome June surprise for those who are.
“Maduro cannot be trusted and diplomatic meeting with him will do nothing to help the Venezuelan people to establish a democracy,” Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez, a Trump-endorsed candidate in a hotly contested congressional seat told the Miami Herald. “I encourage President Trump to continue to adhere to the current administration policy towards Venezuela and I firmly stand with the Venezuelan people in their desire for freedom.”
Democratic Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, who Gimenez is challenging, joined a wave of South Florida Democrats that quickly released statements Sunday night hammering Trump’s comments and doing what they could to tether Republicans to the likely political backlash.
“The news that President Trump is willing to abandon Venezuelans yearning for democracy exemplifies his incoherent and inconsistent foreign policy toward Maduro’s narco-regime,” she said. “Taking a meeting with Nicolas Maduro, who was just indicted by the US Department of Justice for narco-terrorism, clearly shows his complete disregard for freedom and democracy and undermines the gains made by the legitimate President of Venezuela Juan Guaido, to restore democracy.”
At the legislative level, Trump’s Maduro comments will resonate in a closely watched Florida Senate race between Republican state Rep. Ana Maria Rodriguez and Democratic state Rep. Javier Fernández.
Democrats need to flip just three seats to achieve a 20-20 split in the Florida Senate, which would give the party the first semblance of legislative power in Tallahassee since the early 1990s. On a Florida Democratic Party conference call Monday, Fernández did not mention his opponent by name, but did say all politicians, including “future state senators,” need to denounce Trump’s comments.
“And we need that to be a forceful denunciation where Republicans and Democrats recognize the correct course of action, which is supporting Juan Gerardo Guaidó,” he said.
Rodriguez said the U.S. should “do everything in our power to end his reign of terror.”