White House

How the State Department got beat on Venezuela

Woman holds up a sign as Vice President Mike Pence gives his remarks after meeting with several political exiles to highlight the Venezuelan crisis at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church, in Doral, Fla., on Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2017.
Woman holds up a sign as Vice President Mike Pence gives his remarks after meeting with several political exiles to highlight the Venezuelan crisis at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church, in Doral, Fla., on Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2017. TNS

As aides in the White House and Congress were drawing up plans for a broad and tough set of sanctions against Caracas, one of the State Department’s most senior and experienced diplomats was meeting in private with Venezuela’s foreign minister.

It was July 23, one week before the scheduled vote to disband the democratically elected national assembly, and Tom Shannon was eager to talk about how to keep talking.

Already, battle lines inside the Trump administration were becoming clear. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio was aligned with a group at the White House that included National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster in arguing for tough economic sanctions aimed at crippling President Nicolas Maduro’s government.

On the other side was the State Department. But really, it was Shannon – now essentially playing the lead role on Venezuela as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson focused on the other mounting crisis in the world, a nuclear North Korea.

It’s pretty much everybody against Shannon.

U.S. official

President Donald Trump had promised “strong and swift” economic sanctions, including potentially oil sanctions, against Venezuela. And the inter-agency group was nearly agreed on what that package of punishments would entail.

Shannon, however, kept moving toward a different goal, a more limited punishment that could allow dialogue to continue.

Two days after Shannon’s undisclosed meeting with then-foreign minister Samuel Moncada, the Venezuelan government called a surprise meeting with U.S.-based reporters at ambassador’s residence in Washington. There, over a typical Venezuelan breakfast of beef and flatbread arepas, Carlos Ron, the chargé d'affaires of the embassy, criticized U.S. threats of sweeping sanctions targeting Venezuelan oil.

But he also made clear that they wanted to keep the dialog going.

Then, Ron pulled out his cell phone for special call from Moncada himself, surprising several reporters. Moncada, on speaker phone, hammered home the point: Venezuela wanted to continue to talk, but Caracas expected Washington to respect its sovereignty.

“What we want is a dialog, but with respect,” Ron said. “Not with threats. Venezuela is not going to sit down together at a table under threat.”

Inside the U.S. government, Shannon was making a similar play. He wanted the lines of communication with Caracas to remain open and, according to multiple sources, he spent the ensuing days pushing back against pressure from NSC and Rubio and warning aggressive sanctions could close diplomatic channels to Caracas.

The arguments were intense. At one point, Fernando Cutz, the NSC’s director for South America, Western Hemisphere Affairs, snapped at State Department officials, in front of about 30 senior aides at an NSC Policy Coordination Committee meeting including State, USAID and Treasury Department officials.

Shannon lost the inter-agency tussle: The team settled on a plan that would meet Trump’s “strong and swift” promises. On the Friday before the vote, Vice President Mike Pence called political prisoner Leopoldo Lopez and reassured him that the United States would take action if Venezuela stripped lawmakers of their constitutional powers.

Shannon is one of the most respected diplomats not only in the United States but in the hemisphere. He has served three presidents and as ambassador in Brazil. He was the lead diplomat in Venezuela and he was credited with helping the United States facilitate a peace deal in Colombia.

And, now, this veteran of the department knew he had another avenue to pursue. He could still convince Tillerson.

On Sunday, July 30, just hours after Maduro held what has been widely panned as a fraud-filled vote, Trump signed off on the set of tougher measures put together by the inter-agency group, and supported by Rubio’s team. But that evening, according to one source, on Shannon’s urging, Tillerson intervened. The secretary of state told the president the punishment was too severe, that source said.

So the next day, the administration announced Maduro as a dictator and issued a softer set of sanctions that exclusively targeted the Venezuelan president.

The result: Maduro ridiculed Trump as weak.

Proponents of stronger sanctions were furious, and they blamed Shannon: “No one is serving as a counterweight to Shannon,” said a former high ranking State Department official who was still advising current officials; “Tillerson is too busy dealing with North Korea and John Sullivan, the deputy secretary of state, is too busy managing the Department.”

The frustrations with State also began to spill out into the open.

Rubio, clearly irritated during a Senate hearing after the Venezuelan vote, challenged a top State Department official who refused to call the election “illegitimate,” instead saying that it was simply “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.”

On the inside, pressure began to build for a second, more forceful response. And Shannon, having convinced Tillerson once, couldn’t do it again.

“It’s pretty much everybody against Shannon,” a U.S. official as final discussions were being held this week. “Shannon is by himself.”

Ultimately, Trump’s Chief of Staff John Kelly joined Pence and McMaster to overrule Shannon and encourage Trump to sign off on the sanctions package announced Friday. According to several sources, Tillerson joined in their decision. And the White House delivered the tougher, broader set of sanctions that NSC wanted.

And in the end, rather than be there to witness his own defeat, Shannon went on vacation.

Miami Herald reporter Patricia Mazzei contributed. Mazzei and Gámez Torres contributed from Miami.