White House

White House fights with State over how far to go on Venezuela

Anti-government demonstrators wave Venezuelan national flags during a protest against Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela, Tuesday, Aug. 8, 2017.
Anti-government demonstrators wave Venezuelan national flags during a protest against Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela, Tuesday, Aug. 8, 2017. AP

White House promises of “strong and swift” economic sanctions meant to punish Venezuela have been slowed by a senior State Department official who is holding tight to an Obama-era posture that sidelines aggressive measures in favor of dialogue.

According to multiple sources familiar with the talks between the White House and State, Thomas Shannon, the undersecretary for political affairs and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s right-hand man at the department, has pushed back against the most aggressive sanctions out of concern they could close off diplomatic channels to Caracas.

“The White House is completely on a different page,” said a source who is familiar with the conversations but couldn’t speak publicly because of the sensitivity of the talks. “It’s such a disaster. It’s an absolute, absolute disaster.”

The Trump administration has been delivering mixed signals since the July 30 vote in Venezuela that will allow a new constituent assembly to change the Venezuelan constitution and strip current lawmakers of power.

Soon after the vote, McMaster and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin took Trump’s message to the public declaring Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro a dictator and announced new sanctions against him personally. The State Department moved more cautiously, delivering a message the next day through Spanish language media that they wanted to continue talks with the Maduro government.

“We want to dialogue with the government of President Maduro,” Michael Fitzpatrick, a deputy assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere told EFE Spanish wire service. “We do not necessarily recognize parallel or separate governments. We respect the official government of Venezuela and President Maduro at this time.”

On Wednesday, the White House issued sanctions against eight more Venezuelans tied to the Maduro government, but the action falls short of the wide-reaching economic sanctions the administration threatened, which could potentially cripple the government.

The administration emphasizes that all options remain on the table, but some diplomats and experts are pointing their fingers at the State Department and Shannon for resisting the stronger measures intended to pressure the Maduro administration to negotiate.

Shannon is one of the country’s most senior and seasoned foreign policy hands. He has worked under both Republican and Democratic administrations. He is a well-respected career member of the U.S. Foreign Service and former U.S. Ambassador to Brazil who also has a Ph.D. from Oxford University.

Tillerson has credited Shannon with helping him adjust to his new role.

“I would be remiss if I did not thank all of those who have stepped into acting roles during these past three months to help me, and starting with acting Deputy Secretary Tom Shannon, who's just been stellar,” Tillerson told department employees last week.

“The White House, the secretary and the deputy secretary have all spoken forcefully about the importance of Tom Shannon’s role at the State Department and his value in forging a common approach across the administration on a range of policy priorities, including Venezuela,” said Heather Nauert, a spokeswoman for the U.S. State Department. “This administration has spoken clearly and with one voice in condemning the undemocratic actions of the Maduro regime, holding Maduro and his cronies to account while supporting the aspirations of the Venezuelan people.”

Nauert has also called the election “illegitimate” and emphasized the administration won’t recognize the constituent assembly.

Shannon is well familiar with the dynamics in Latin America, having served as assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs. He knows the players involved. He served as the political counselor at U.S. Embassy in Caracas from 1996 to 1999 and witnessed the revolution led by former president Hugo Chavez.

Indeed, Shannon has been United States’s point man in some of the most sensitive negotiations in Latin American and around the world.

But he has not always seen eye-to-eye with his fellow bureaucrats.

Last year, several U.S. agencies tried to implement sanctions against Venezuelan Vice President Tareck El Aissami for alleged involvement in drug trafficking, but the sanctions were held up by the State Department and could only be applied after Donald Trump assumed the presidency, sources said.

Some White House officials were angered in 2015 that Shannon met with a Maduro ally and then-national assembly president, Diosdado Cabello, even though he was the target of a U.S. criminal investigation into drug trafficking by senior Venezuelan officials.

At about the same time, during a meeting over Venezuelan sanctions, Vice President Joe Biden threatened staff members with their jobs if they left the discussions with State officials without ensuring the measures had teeth in them that could be enforced.

But Shannon has many fans in Washington and around the world. He is undoubtedly one of the most trusted and respected diplomats. He has had a hand in sensitive negotiations, including helping broker last year’s peace agreement between the Colombian government and Marxist rebels after a half-century of hostility.

Juan Gonzalez, who worked with Shannon as a deputy assistant secretary of state under former President Barack Obama, said Shannon sees things that others don’t. He understands that diplomacy “is ultimately the only way out of this.”

“What do we actually get after we do sanctions? Is this actually the right outcome that we’re hoping for,” Gonzalez said. “Tom Shannon is as conservative as they come. He’s a card-carrying Republican. He’s no spring flower, but I think he’s thinking much more about what are going to be the consequences of each decision. He doesn’t want to abandon the diplomatic angle. And I think that is the right approach.”

It’s not just dialogue that is a concern, but also U.S. interests as industry leaders and human rights groups have lobbied the Trump administration not to carry out threats of an embargo of Venezuelan oil that could dismantle the government and hurt Venezuelan citizens more than they’re hurting today.

The philosophical battle has sometimes created divisions between the State Department and a group aligned with the White House that includes National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who have been pushing for stronger sanctions.

The frustrations played out publicly when Rubio grew frustrated during a Senate hearing after the election questioning a top U.S. State official about whether the vote was “illegitimate.”

Francisco Palmieri, acting assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere affairs, would not say whether the vote was illegitimate and instead repeated multiple times the results were “flawed.”

“I know the process was flawed,” Rubio pressed. “The outcome is this new constituent assembly. There cannot be a legitimate National Assembly and a legitimate constituent assembly. If the National Assembly is the only legitimate entity, the constituent assembly by definition is illegitimate.”

It was only after the exchange that the State Department clarified its position and upped its language publicly with what the White House was saying.

“In hindsight, I should have just acknowledged that it was an illegitimate body,” Palmieri said in an interview with McClatchy. “I thought we were saying the same thing.”

Palmieri dismissed the concerns and said the State Department and White House are aligned. Palmieri said he speaks with his counterparts at the White House every day.

“There is really no gap between us on that,” Palmieri said. “Over the last three weeks, we have worked collaboratively to identify the people who should be sanctioned for not respecting human rights in Venezuela for contributing to the corruption in the country and who are undermining democratic institutions by supporting the creation of this illegitimate constituent assembly.”

He pointed out that more countries were joining the United States in condemning the new assembly. On Tuesday, 17 countries, including Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile and Mexico, formally condemned the “breakdown of democratic order,” and said they would not recognize the “illegitimate” constituent assembly.

Patricia Mazzei contributed reporting from Miami.