Venezuela tests Trump-Bolton relationship

President TrumpDonald John TrumpFacebook releases audit on conservative bias claims Harry Reid: 'Decriminalizing border crossings is not something that should be at the top of the list' Recessions happen when presidents overlook key problems MORE and national security adviser John BoltonJohn Robert BoltonSchumer joins Pelosi in opposition to post-Brexit trade deal that risks Northern Ireland accord Why President Trump must keep speaking out on Hong Kong Trump meets with national security team on Afghanistan peace plan MORE's relationship is being put to the test by the escalating crisis in Venezuela.

Bolton this week signaled support for military intervention in the South American country to oust embattled President Nicolás Maduro, a move that would pose a challenge for Trump, who has so far indicated a preference for and campaigned on scaling down existing military conflicts and avoiding new ones.

While Trump has said all options are on the table for Venezuela, Bolton has become the public face of any military effort. On Friday, Bolton met with Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoCotton warns China: Crackdown on Hong Kong would be 'grave miscalculation' Pompeo expresses concern over North Korea missile tests Pompeo acknowledges 'places where ISIS is more powerful today' MORE and acting Defense Secretary Patrick ShanahanPatrick Michael ShanahanWhy Dave Norquist is the perfect choice for DOD's deputy secretary Five questions for Trump's new defense secretary on first major tour Trump says media is part of vetting his nominees: 'We save a lot of money that way' MORE at the Pentagon to discuss the situation in Venezuela.

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But Trump has long declared that the United States is done with nation building. He has called for an end to the war in Afghanistan and has withdrawn hundreds of U.S. troops in Syria.

Those two competing schools of thought on foreign intervention are now playing out at the highest level within the administration as the U.S. hashes out its course of action on Venezuela.

“The administration is very divided,” Paul W. Posner, a Venezuela expert at Clark University, told The Hill. “Trump likes Bolton’s rhetoric, but I don’t think he’s interested in intervening in Venezuela.” 

The president tends to “adopt positions he thinks will help him politically at home,” Posner added. “He’s not going to pull the trigger.” 

But much of what the White House has been saying on Venezuela has been influenced by Bolton, according to William LeoGrande, a professor at American University who specializes in U.S. foreign policy toward Latin America.

“I think there’s no doubt that John Bolton has been leading this policy both publicly and, I suspect, in private,” LeoGrande said. “What little Trump has said about Venezuela has been straight out of Bolton’s playbook.” 

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The White House on Friday said Trump and his national security adviser are working toward the same goal. 

National Security Council spokesman Garrett Marquis said in a statement to The Hill that Bolton “is executing the President’s strategy of maximum pressure to achieve a peaceful transition to democracy in Venezuela.”

Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó this past week rallied supporters to take to the streets and called for the country’s military to oust Maduro.

The White House, which recognizes Guaidó as interim president, hoped that uprising would be the turning point in toppling Maduro, one of the administration’s top foreign policy goals.

Guaidó’s effort, however, fizzled after he failed to gain support from senior leaders of the Venezuelan military.

"We want as our principle objective the peaceful transfer of power, but I will say again as the president has said from the outset ... all options are on the table," Bolton told reporters outside the White House on Tuesday when the street protests were underway.

A day later, Pompeo told Fox Business Network that if military action is required, “that’s what the United States will do.”

Shanahan told reporters on Friday that he, Bolton and Pompeo were briefed that day by U.S. Southern Command chief Adm. Craig Faller on his observations in the region.

"And then we went through a number of the … options that we have," Shanahan said.

"These were decisions on our planning and some of the recommendations, just so that we’re in alignment. So think of it as interactive and agreeing to things," he said. "We have a comprehensive set of options tailored to certain conditions."

Asked if the instability in Venezuela posed a security risk to the United States that would warrant military intervention, Shanahan said that "depends on the conditions."

Some experts say the meeting was just more posturing and tough talk rather than a step toward military action.

"The subsequent threats that military intervention is not off the table, I think, have been part of a psychological warfare campaign targeting the Venezuela military," LeoGrande said.

Ryan Berg, a Latin America expert at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute, characterized Friday’s meeting as an effort to "take control of the situation again."

Administration officials "woke up on Thursday and thought, 'This isn’t working out the way we needed it to.' I think the national security team is reassuring leadership on this issue," he said.

Berg added that he would be "highly surprised" if Bolton, Pompeo and Shanahan were considering any sort of intervention that involves boots on the ground and said it was likely a discussion on exploring military options to deliver humanitarian aid to Venezuelans.

Michael McCarthy, a professor at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, likened the recent posturing by administration officials to being "in a position where they believe it’s time to get a win for Trump."

"They’re doubling down, but they’re working on what doubling down means besides increasing sanctions pressure," McCarthy said. "We’re in a gray zone between the saber rattling and action, and I think we’re going to stay there for the foreseeable future." 

But inaction is unlikely to satisfy Bolton, Posner said, even if it sets up a showdown with Trump. 

Bolton will likely "find another reason for military intervention," he said. "If that happens, I think that Trump will back off because he knows that’s a losing proposition."