US President Donald Trump on Monday walked back comments that he would consider meeting Nicolas Maduro, saying he would only do so to discuss the Venezuelan president's departure from office.
In an interview published on Sunday, Trump said he would consider meeting Maduro and played down his earlier decision to recognize opposition leader Juan Guaido as Venezuela's legitimate leader. The Republican president changed tack in a Twitter post on Monday.
My Admin has always stood on the side of FREEDOM and LIBERTY and against the oppressive Maduro regime! I would only meet with Maduro to discuss one thing: a peaceful exit from power! Trump said.
However, Trump told news site Axios on Friday he was open to a meeting, a move that would upend his maximum pressure campaign aimed at removing Maduro, a socialist who has presided over a deep economic crisis in Venezuela.
I would maybe think about that. ... Maduro would like to meet. And I'm never opposed to meetings, Trump said. But at this moment, I've turned them down.
The US has indicted Maduro and several key aides on charges of narco-terrorism.
Trump made lukewarm comments about recognizing Guaido as Venezuela's legitimate leader - the linchpin of the United States' 18-month campaign to remove Maduro.
I think that I wasn't necessarily in favor, but I said - some people that liked it, some people didn't. I was OK with it. I don't think it was - you know, I don't think it was very meaningful one way or the other, Trump was quoted as telling Axios.
Trump had expressed openness in 2018 to meeting Maduro, who had also made overtures for talks, but nothing materialized and the US instead ratcheted up the pressure.
The comments to Axios were possibly the clearest sign yet of what some US officials have privately said was growing frustration over his administration's failure to unseat Maduro through sanctions diplomacy.
The comments sent social media in Venezuela ablaze, with many wondering whether Trump was pulling the rug from under the opposition, which has struggled to ignite mass protests and has failed to break military support for Maduro despite an unprecedented economic collapse.
The United States was first among more than 60 nations to back Guaido, who as head of the opposition-led Congress claimed presidential powers in early 2019, arguing that Maduro's reelection had been invalid.
Guaido was a surprise guest at Trump's annual State of the Union address in February, where Trump recognized Guaido as the only legitimate president of Venezuela and said Maduro's hold on power will be smashed and broken.
But Trump's former national security adviser, John Bolton, wrote in a book to be published on Tuesday that Trump had wavered on his support for Guaido.