US President Donald Trump and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on Friday discussed the crisis in oil-rich Venezuela, where Washington has thrown its weight behind a campaign to oust the Moscow-backed socialist president.
“Very productive talk!” tweeted the US leader following their conversation, which came three days after an abortive military uprising in support of Juan Guaido, the self-declared interim leader seeking to oust President Nicolas Maduro.
US-Russian tensions have spiked over the months-long standoff in Venezuela, where Moscow accuses the United States of fomenting a coup against Maduro.
Recognized by more than 50 countries as interim leader, Guaido has urged his supporters to gather for a new day of peaceful demonstrations at military bases on Saturday in a fresh bid to rally the armed forces behind him.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders told reporters Trump had made clear to Putin “that the United States stand with the people of Venezuela,” in talks that also touched on trade, North Korea, Ukraine and disarmament treaties.
The leaders also discussed Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia election meddling, she said, describing the talks — which lasted well over an hour — as “overall very positive.”
The Trump-Putin call followed a week of unrest in Venezuela where a military uprising in support of Guaido fizzled out, triggering deadly street clashes.
The Kremlin stressed the call took place at Washington’s initiative.
According to a Russian statement, “Vladimir Putin stated that only the Venezuelan people have the right to decide the future of their country.”
“Interference in internal affairs, attempts to change the leadership in Caracas through force, undermine the prospects for a peaceful settlement of the conflict,” it added.
The United States has imposed tough sanctions and Trump has refused to take the threat of military action off the table, in an intensifying campaign to drive Maduro from power.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo asserted this week that Maduro had a plane on the tarmac ready to flee to Cuba, but had been talked out of it by the Russians.
– Peaceful protests –
Tensions in Venezuela have soared since Guaido, the 35-year-old head of the National Assembly, invoked the constitution to declare himself acting president on January 23, claiming Maduro’s re-election last year was illegitimate.
On Tuesday the opposition leader called on the military to rise up against Maduro, and a small group heeded his call.
The movement petered out — with 25 rebel soldiers seeking asylum at the Brazilian embassy in Caracas — but sparked two days of protests during which four people were killed and some 200 injured.
The influential opposition figure Leopoldo Lopez — who made a dramatic appearance alongside Guaido after being freed from house arrest — has since taken refuge at the Spanish embassy.
The military leadership has since reiterated its support for the government, and Maduro is standing his ground.
Addressing a press conference in Caracas on Friday, Guaido insisted the opposition is “stronger than ever.”
“We know we must continue to protest. We must continue peacefully and civilly,” he said.
The United States is insisting Maduro’s days are numbered.
But experts warn that US options for breaking the stalemate are limited, and that Washington may have overestimated the opposition leader’s strength.
Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan hosted Pompeo at the Pentagon on Friday along with National Security Advisor John Bolton and Admiral Craig Faller, commander of the US Southern Command.
Reiterating Trump’s position — that “all options” are on the table — Shanahan declined to provide any details on a possible military intervention.
“I’m trying to avoid walking into ‘We could do this or we could do that,'” he said. “What people should feel confident about is we have… there’s depth to these plans.”
“We have a comprehensive set of options tailored to certain conditions and I’m just going to leave it at that.”
‘I don’t know how Secretary Pompeo is not dragged in’: Ex-FBI counsel says Secretary of State must testify
On Monday's edition of CNN's "Cuomo Prime Time," former FBI general counsel James Baker told Chris Cuomo that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has to answer for the allegations laid out in the impeachment testimony.
"They wanted to give [Ukraine Ambassador Marie] Yovanovitch support, she asked them for support, they decided no, maybe because they thought the president would jump all over them. So what?" said Cuomo.
"The issue with her is that they wanted to and were inclined to get her out of the way, unless she was willing to play ball, unless she was willing to acquiesce in this sort of irregular channel and the goals of the irregular channel that Ambassador Taylor described," said Baker. "They were going to either get her out of the way, or have her join the team. This is what it seems to me was going on. They were trying to achieve these other objectives and they were going to either do it by forcing the career people to go along and compromise their values, quite frankly, or they were going to do it through the Giuliani channel."
Rudy Giuliani was not just working for Trump — he also said he worked for Pence: State Department testimony
One of the strangest moments of the testimony of State Department official David Holmes, as laid out in the transcript released by the House Intelligence Committee on Monday, was when Holmes told Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-NY) that President Donald Trump's personal attorney Rudy Giuliani claimed to be working as an adviser to Vice President Mike Pence.
"Was Rudy Giuliani representing his client as a private attorney?" asked Zeldin.
"I have never spoken with him, sir. So, I mean, you could ask him," said Holmes, but he added, "At one point he, Mr. Bakanov, told me that, you know, someone named Giuliani said he was an adviser to the Vice President."
Kurt Volker to ‘modify’ his testimony — and claim he was ‘out of the loop’ on Ukraine: NYT
President Donald Trump's former special envoy to Ukraine will "modify" his testimony to Congress during televised hearings on Tuesday.
"Kurt D. Volker, the former special envoy to Ukraine, plans to tell lawmakers on Tuesday that he was out of the loop at key moments during President Trump’s pressure campaign on Ukraine to turn up damaging information about Democrats, according to an account of his prepared testimony," The New York Times reported Monday.