The White House
Office of the Press Secretary
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
February 5, 2020

BACKGROUND PRESS CALL
BY SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIALS
ON VENEZUELAN INTERIM PRESIDENT
GUAIDÓ’S HEAD OF STATE VISIT

Via Teleconference


12:06 P.M. EST

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Hi, everybody. Thanks for joining. As the moderator indicated, we'll have brief remarks by a senior administration official. Following those, we'll do a short Q&A. And we're going to get started.

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This call is embargoed until the conclusion, and any kind of attribution is on background to a "senior administration official."

For your awareness purposes, the speaker is [senior administration official]. And with that, I would like to kick it off to [senior administration official].

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Hey, thank you so much. And thank you, everyone, for joining us. This is clearly -- yesterday's State of the Union clearly was a historic moment with a "surprise" appearance -- "surprise" in quotes -- of Interim President Juan Guaidó, who is the recognized leader of Venezuela by a nearly 60-country coalition of countries led by the United States -- the United States being the first country to recognize him -- which is an extraordinary diplomatic feat in itself.

The key of what the President -- this had been approximately two weeks in the works. And, clearly, it managed to stay close hold because the President was committed to prominently displaying the cause for freedom of Venezuela. It's something he's been interested in since the first day of his administration, and it's something that he's essentially lit -- ignited and challenged the United States government as a whole to really step it up and use all of the tools at his disposal to ensure that there's a democratic transition that puts an end to Maduro's dictatorship.

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Obviously, we've also been focused on the humanitarian crisis and overcoming that. And then, what we would look forward to is really uniting with all of this coalition and others to restore economic prosperity to the people of Venezuela.

The other important message was really signal. And, you know, this came early on. Most of the foreign policy issues were later on in the speech, but it came at the beginning because there's a very important -- you know, the Trump doctrine, per se, which is something he had discussed earlier at an event in Miami -- which is a goal that the President has set and discussed earlier in Miami at an event at Florida International University when, actually, there was a message from Interim President Guaidó.

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And it was there that we had the opportunity -- the very real opportunity for this to be the first fully democratic region -- the first fully democratic hemisphere in human history. That's an extraordinary feat -- one that the President is committed to -- and wanted to extend also a message. You know, I mean, it is a restoration, per se, which we strongly believe in as regards -- I would say the Trump doctrine is a rebirth of the Monroe Doctrine in the sense of sending a signal to external -- to extra-continental actors that the United States will remain and should remain the partner of choice in the Western Hemisphere.

We are a part of this neighborhood. We are leaders here. We believe that we share principles and values with our neighbors in our neighborhood. And these extra-continental actors -- whether it's the Russians, the Chinese, and through their proxies in Cuba and others -- are subverting those values and those principles.

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We will stand with the coalition of regional allies, mostly formed by the Lima Group, and with the international coalition of 59 democracies that support a democratic transition in Venezuela.

The President has held, from the get-go, that Venezuela is a national security priority. It's a national security priority in the sense of the destabilization effect that it has on its neighbors. We are seeing it.

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There's extraordinary -- not only in regards to the degrading of public finances through the migration crisis that Maduro has caused, but also in regards to looking to destabilize those democracies and foment anarchism and illicit activities, whether it's been in Colombia, Ecuador, Chile, or in other countries that has faced unrest in recent months.

That destabilization obviously is of concern to us and it is something that we will work with our allies to ensure it doesn’t happen.

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Also, the Venezuelan regime is -- the Maduro dictatorship is responsible for harboring narco-traffickers, narco-terrorists in the name of ELN, FARC dissidents, and others whereby those groups, with the cognizance of Maduro and with the support of Maduro, you know, it has turned Venezuela into a narco state, which has become a primary point of narcotics trafficking to Central America, Mexico, therefore the United States.

As such, human lives are being exposed and are at risk every day through this narco state, frankly, that Venezuela has become. Those are issues important to our security. This the first time probably since the Cold War that a President highlights an issue of the Western Hemisphere as a national security priority. And again, we intend to use all the tools in our box into doing so.

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I’ve said before: This is a very different marked track than our predecessor's policy. As all of you may be aware, the previous administration toward Chavez, and Maduro later, had a policy of strategic patience whereby they sat by idly and blindly, watching the pillaging of Venezuela, and encouraged -- and instead embraced the Cuban regime and watched its pillaging of Venezuela.

When President Trump entered office, we changed that strategic patience policy to one of incrementalism whereby we began holding accountable individuals, sanctioning individuals, and having an incremental approach.

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In January of 2019, we began a maximum pressure policy in name, in the sense of maximum pressure is our goal. I have said before and I will say again: We are probably halfway to what maximum pressure could look like. There’s a lot of tools and a lot of targets at our disposal, and we plan to use as many of them as necessary in order to fulfill our goal of an end to this dictatorship and a democratic transition in Venezuela.

So we remain steadfast in that. The President made that incredibly clear. There was also, in this year -- so I would say, in the 12 months since President Trump recognized Interim President Guaidó, we have accomplished more and put more pressure on Maduro than in the previous 12 years, frankly, had been done.

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And we’ve seen great success in that there is now a unified opposition in Venezuela, which Interim President Guaidó deserves a lot of credit for; that we have now prioritized Venezuela as a national security priority, which takes the relocation of the assets, of resources necessary to confront this crisis in a serious fashion, and dedicate to its success.

We put together -- we led probably the largest coalition of democracies in support of a democratic cause, or at least since World War Two, in the 59 countries that recognized Interim President Guaidó. We put together a sophisticated and impactful sanctions, of policies, since January 2019 that has targeted really the heart of Maduro’s economy and has caused incredible strain in the regime’s purse.

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And we protected the assets that they started to pillage abroad. You know, CITGO is now under the control of Interim President Guaidó and the board named by him. As such, it is now doing well. It is no longer being pillaged for billions of dollars as the previous -- as Maduro and his cronies did when it was under their control.

And that’s another important success: to protect the assets of the Venezuelan people so that when we can have an economic reconstruction and transition, that those assets can be put to use for that reconstruction. And so preserving those assets are extraordinarily important.

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The level of theft, of larceny of this regime is something unlike we’ve seen any time in history. I’ve seen numbers scaling from, you know, in the hundreds of billions of dollars that have been stolen by Maduro and his cronies and is stashed in different parts of the world. We’ve also been very at targeting those, per se.

Obviously today, this afternoon, President Guaidó will meet with President Trump. They will discuss the current situation. We feel we have good momentum after the failed parliamentary coup where Maduro, with the support of Russia, sought to, essentially, take control of the National Assembly.

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We are watching all of this very carefully, and we are dedicated to an acceleration of our policy to continue moving in the direction of maximum pressure. We have given direction to --- the President has given direction to his Cabinet to do so. And we will -- and you will see some impactful measures within the next 30 days, which will be very important and further crippling on the regime.

So this is also an important message to President Mad- -- this is an important message that President Trump wanted to send to Nicolás Maduro and his cronies not to interfere with Guaidó’s return to Venezuela; that any harm that may be caused on Juan Guaidó upon his return to Venezuela will have very significant consequences. So, therefore, they should tread very carefully in that regards.

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And with that, I will open it up to questions.

Q Hi. Thanks for doing this call. This is Franco Ordoñez from NPR. Can you address concerns that priorities had stalled as Maduro has remained in power? And can you also address these efforts of a negotiated transition to democracy? Is the administration planning some kind of negotiations with Maduro or the Maduro government?

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SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think it’s clear that we are not planning any negotiations with Maduro government, with the Maduro regime. It was clear a day -- yesterday, in front of the entire U.S. executive, legislative, and judicial branch -- or senior judicial branch of the United States government -- that the only -- our conversations will be with the Interim President, per se.

If Nicolás Maduro wants to discuss exit and certain guarantees upon his exit, perhaps we will be doing -- we will be willing to do so. However, that’s the only subject of conversation that we will be willing to have with Nicolás Maduro at this time.

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I think Maduro has -- his Russian and Cuban handlers have been giving him a false sense of confidence as regards to his standing. We all know Nicolás Maduro is not governing Venezuela. Nicolás Maduro is surviving day by day.

We have indeed, since the full block in August of last year, we have been taking -- we have taken certain measures of different kind of variants of impact, et cetera. But we had reasserted and the President has given us the direction to reaccelerate and intensify our measures as regards Venezuela. And you’ll be seeing that in the weeks to come.

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Q Are those economic measures that you’re planning? I mean, can you give a general idea of what type of measures that we may be looking forward to?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think -- yeah, like I said, we have given direction to the entire whole of government -- not just to the Treasury Department, but to the whole of government -- to use all of the tools at their disposal to further create and stress upon Maduro and his cronies and in support of democratic efforts of a transition in Venezuela.

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Q Hi. It’s Darlene Superville from the Associated Press. Thanks a lot for doing the call. I was wondering -- you know, the United States has been supporting Guaidó for quite some time now -- more than a year or so -- and he is still in position there in Venezuela. And I’m wondering if the U.S. -- if the White House and the U.S. government at this point is thinking about executing a different strategy for trying to get Maduro out of office, even if that means Guaidó does not end up leading the country, for example?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I mean, that’s -- first of all, just to clarify that, our support for Juan Guaidó as Interim President is in his capacity as President of the National Assembly. And, obviously, that’s a constitutional issue in Venezuela, which we respect.

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You know, Juan Guaidó didn’t appear out of nowhere. He was a member of the National Assembly. He was elected by the assembly members as President of the National Assembly. And as such, he was -- (inaudible).

So anyhow, so just to make clear, it’s not about, you know, like Juan Guaidó came out of nowhere or was picked out of a hat. Essentially, this is an institutional issue, and we respect that institutional issue and, you know, recognition of the National Assembly as the only democratic body in Venezuela.

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As regards to our strategy, our strategy -- our maximum pressure policy is 12 months old. We are, like I said, at best, halfway to achieving maximum pressure. So we have a whole lot to go. And as I said before: In the last 12 months, we have had more success creating stress and isolation on the Maduro regime than had been accomplished in the previous 12 years.

So we feel confident that, as we continue to increase that maximum pressure, that that stress will be unsustainable and an opportunity for a democratic transition will prevail.

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Q Hi. How are you? I’m Lucía Leal with EFE. I wanted to ask: First, how did the idea of inviting Juan Guaidó to the State of the Union come up? Did he reach out to you? And, secondly, Russia has an important role in backing up Maduro. Is it an option to impose sanctions on the oil firm, Rosneft? Thank you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Absolutely. Everything is an option as regards creating pressure, whether it’s towards Russian entities that are supporting Maduro or others. So, absolutely, that is and remains on the table.

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In regards to how this came about, when he had left the country, we thought it would be a good opportunity, while he was out of the country, to invite him and to ensure that there would be no question. Because, I mean, obviously, you know, sometimes the media is always looking for what narrative to create, and ebbs and flows. And it’s actually been fun watching, in the last couple of weeks, everybody -- a lot of people in the media writing Juan Guaidó’s obituary -- political obituary -- because, you know, somehow he had gotten snubbed by President Trump, and creating all these narratives.

We had wanted all along to put that narrative to rest once and for all. And I think that the only obituary that was written last night at the State of the Union was (inaudible) the skeptics that continue to question our commitment to this democratic transition in Venezuela and to an end to the Maduro (inaudible).

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Q Hey. Nick Schifrin and Ali Rogin from PBS NewsHour. Thanks for doing this. I wanted to follow up on the Rosneft question. We saw a suggestion by the National Security Advisor that Rosneft needed to change its behavior; otherwise, face some kind of punishment from the United States.

So if you could just clarify: Are you considering sanctions on Rosneft? Has Rosneft and the Russian government been told what the U.S. expects it to do -- what Rosneft needs to do or not to do in Venezuela? And is there any kind of deadline by which Rosneft needs to change its behavior before you sanction or otherwise consider some kind of punishment? Thanks.

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SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We are indeed concerned about the behavior of Rosneft in Venezuela. However we approach that is a question of internal deliberations, which obviously I can’t address.

But whether it’s Rosneft, whether it’s Reliance, whether it’s Repsol, whether it’s Chevron here in the United States, I would tread cautiously towards their activities in Venezuela that are in support, directly or indirectly, of the Maduro dictatorship -- because, as I said, we’re halfway through our maximum pressure campaign, and we’re only moving in one direction, and that is forward. And their activities are clearly of concern.

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OPERATOR: With that, we're taking no further questions. Is that correct?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Correct.

OPERATOR: Thank you to all of our speakers, and thank you all in the audience for joining us today.

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END 12:27 P.M. EST


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