As aides in the White House and Congress were planning tough sanctions against Venezuela, a State Department official met with the South American country’s foreign minister in Washington. Days later, after Venezuela held a controversial vote to strip the democratically elected national assembly of power, State blocked the agreed-upon sanctions package, saying it was too tough.
The previously unreported meeting held by State’s undersecretary for political affairs, Tom Shannon, stunned proponents of stronger sanctions with Venezuela, who are now blaming the official for undermining President Donald Trump’s promise of “strong and swift” economic sanctions meant to punish Venezuela.
Instead, the administration issued softer sanctions that exclusively targeted President Nicolás Maduro, giving the Venezuelan leader an opening to ridicule the president and his administration as weak.
The State Department confirmed that the July 23 meeting between Shannon and then-Foreign Minister Samuel Moncada, took place. But State would not discuss any details about the discussion.
“We do not discuss diplomatic conversations,” a State Department spokesperson said. “We maintain diplomatic relations with Venezuela and raise at all levels our call for the government to suspend the Constituent Assembly.”
It’s unclear whether the White House knew of the meeting. The White House did not immediately respond to questions about whether they were aware of the meeting or had any concerns about it.
The State Department dismisses reporting of a rift between the department and the White House as untrue. The White House says it is working with the State Department.
But the meeting with Shannon has raised concerns on Capitol Hill, where some lawmakers and senior aides feel State is undercutting the White House’s efforts to put more pressure on the Venezuelan government.
“The dialog is a stall tactic,” said a congressional source who works on Latin America issues and talks regularly with officials at State.
“We’ve learned that for three years dealing with Maduro. He (Maduro) uses these dialogs as a stall tactic and he never really means to do anything. So when you legitimize the dialog, you legitimize Maduro, which undermines everything that we’re trying to accomplish with Venezuela.”
During a visit to Miami Wednesday, Vice President Mike Pence promised the local Venezuela community of economic sanctions soon, but he did not provide any details. On Thursday, Pence called members offices on Capitol Hill to alert them of the upcoming sanctions.
Sources familiar with the plans said the U.S. is considering Russian-type financial sanctions to limit U.S. companies from investing or purchasing debt from the Venezuelan government.
Multiple sources say Shannon has pushed back against the most aggressive sanctions out of concern they could close off diplomatic channels to Caracas.
“No one is serving as a counterweight to Shannon,” said a former high ranking State Department official who has spoken with current officials. “[Secretary of State Rex] Tillerson is too busy dealing with North Korea and John Sullivan, the deputy secretary of state, is too busy managing the Department.”
Miami Herald reporter Patricia Mazzei contributed. Mazzei and Gámez Torres contributed from Miami.