State Department Says Giuliani Was Freelancing in Venezuela

January 8, 2020by Michael Wilner and Alex Daugherty McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS)
Former New York City Mayor and attorney to President Donald Trump Rudy Giuliani visits "Mornings With Maria" with anchor Maria Bartiromo at Fox Business Network Studios in September, 2019 in New York City. (Roy Rochlin/Getty Images/TNS)

WASHINGTON — Donald Trump’s personal lawyer went rogue when he attempted back-channel diplomacy with embattled Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro, according to Elliott Abrams, the senior State Department official in charge of Venezuela policy.

In an interview with McClatchy and the Miami Herald, Abrams said Rudy Giuliani’s phone conversation with Maduro in 2018 and legal work in 2019 for a wealthy Venezuelan businessman with ties to Maduro was not an official diplomatic effort approved by the State Department.

“I certainly wasn’t aware of anything that happened in 2018,” said Abrams, who joined the Trump administration the following year. “But in terms of 2019, it was not an official channel.”

According to The Washington Post, Giuliani spoke by phone with Maduro in September 2018. A member of Congress, former Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas, was also on the reported call. Around the time of the call, Giuliani reportedly also approached John Bolton, then Trump’s national security adviser, to strategize over Maduro’s removal from power, with Bolton rejecting his overtures.

Abrams said in an interview over the weekend that the Trump administration has not sent any messengers to carry out diplomacy with the Maduro regime. Any efforts by Giuliani or Erik Prince — the founder of the private security company Blackwater and an informal Trump administration adviser who reportedly held secret talks with a top Venezuelan official — were done of their own accord, he added.

“We have not sent any messengers to Venezuela to carry messages to the Maduro regime. And the talks that Giuliani or Erik Prince may have had were not official, and were not carrying messages from the United States government,” Abrams said.

And Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, a vocal supporter of recognized Venezuelan President Juan Guaidó, said he was never made aware of Giuliani’s work in Venezuela. Rubio said if he knew, he would have raised concerns with the administration and publicly.

“If anybody is trying to undermine the direction we’re going, I would raise that,” Rubio said.

The back-channel overtures toward Venezuela by Giuliani place him yet again in the middle of a controversy over his unofficial communications with a foreign government. His campaign to pressure the government in Ukraine to open investigations into Trump’s political rival, former Vice President Joe Biden, has led to the president’s impeachment.

But it remains unclear whether Trump or his secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, knew about Giuliani’s contacts with Maduro, who has overseen the greatest humanitarian crisis in the history of the Western Hemisphere.

“Both are bad situations,” Fernando Cutz, former director for South America at the White House National Security Council under the Trump administration, told McClatchy. “If the secretary was aware of this and didn’t brief his own team, that shows he knew it was bad news. If he wasn’t aware this was happening, it shows you’ve got figures going around the president’s senior Cabinet.”

The Trump administration has been attempting to push Maduro out of power for over a year, primarily through sanctions. In recent months, the administration has signaled a willingness to partner with Maduro’s political allies to ease him out of office.

The United States — and more than 50 other countries — recognize Guaidó, president of Venezuela’s National Assembly, as the nation’s legitimate interim president and has called for free and fair elections that restore the country’s democratic institutions.

At the time of the 2018 call, the United States had not yet recognized Guaidó as president.

Rubio said Tuesday Giuliani’s efforts in Venezuela were inconsequential. But he opposes the idea of Americans attempting to back-channel on behalf of blacklisted regimes such as Maduro’s Venezuela.

“Unfortunately, we have this cottage industry of American lawyers, lobbyists, operatives who sort of parachute into any area of the world where there’s U.S. policy sanctions and think they can pull off some back-channel deal that’s going to benefit them personally, or their client personally, and Venezuela’s one of those,” Rubio said. “But it hasn’t had any impact — I just care if it’s had any impact on foreign policy and it hasn’t.”

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., who represents thousands of Venezuelans and frequently talks with Guaidó’s U.S. representatives, said Giuliani is “complicating, if not interfering with American diplomatic efforts to restore democracy and stability to Venezuela.”

“Giuliani’s shadow diplomacy campaigns have already set off alarms in other global hotspots, but it absolutely must stop in Venezuela, and the State Department must make clear that he does not speak for the American people,” Wasserman Schultz said in a statement. “As Venezuelans put their lives on the line right now to fight for democracy there, we can’t afford to let this reckless, feckless freelancer muddle such a delicate and volatile political situation.”

José Cárdenas, who worked on Latin America policy in the National Security Council under President George W. Bush, said Giuliani’s freelance involvement in Venezuela is a product of Trump’s leadership style.

“Given that Trump in so many instances keeps his own counsel and is wary of the policymaking bureaucracy, (Giuliani’s) relationship with the president is currency,” Cardenas said. “It’s very hard for a secretary of State or national security adviser or a secretary of Defense to say, ‘you really need to cut Giuliani off at the knees.’ Donald Trump is what he is. He believes he got where he is by following his own counsel.”

Cárdenas said any further overtures from Giuliani regarding Venezuela will hurt the Trump administration’s anti-Maduro messaging and sanctions efforts.

“I think he’s only going to result in causing problems for the administration,” Cardenas said. “Any administration has very defined processes for developing policy towards international hot spots. It can ill-afford to have a freelancer hopping around.”


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