Trump says he would only meet Venezuela's Maduro to discuss exit

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President Donald Trump on Monday walked back comments that he would consider meeting Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, saying he would only do so to discuss Maduro’s departure from office.

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In an interview published on Sunday, Trump said he would consider meeting Maduro and played down his earlier decision to recognize opposition leader Juan Guaido as Venezuela’s legitimate leader.

The Republican president changed tack in a tweet on Monday. “My Admin has always stood on the side of FREEDOM and LIBERTY and against the oppressive Maduro regime! I would only meet with Maduro to discuss one thing: a peaceful exit from power!” Trump said.

Trump told the news site Axios on Friday, however, that he was open to a meeting, a move that would upend his “maximum pressure” campaign aimed at ousting Maduro, a socialist who has presided over a deep economic crisis in the South American nation.

“I would maybe think about that. ... Maduro would like to meet. And I’m never opposed to meetings,” Trump said. “But at this moment, I’ve turned them down.”

Maduro told Venezuelan state news site AVN on Monday that he would be open to meeting with Trump.

“I am willing to talk respectfully with President Donald Trump. In the same way that I spoke with Biden, I could speak with Trump,” Maduro said, citing a brief 2015 meeting with then-U.S. Vice President Joe Biden following the inauguration of Brazil’s president at the time, Dilma Rousseff.

Trump expressed an openness in 2018 to meeting Maduro, who had also made overtures for talks, but nothing materialized and the United States instead ratcheted up the pressure.

Trump’s comments to Axios were possibly the clearest sign yet of what some U.S. officials have privately said is growing frustration over his administration’s failure to unseat Maduro through sanctions and diplomacy.

The United States and most other Western countries have recognized Guaido as the OPEC nation’s interim president since January 2019, regarding Maduro’s 2018 re-election as a sham.

The White House said on Monday that Trump continued to recognize Guaido as the leader of Venezuela.

“Nothing has changed,” White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany told a news briefing, adding that he “has not lost confidence at all” in Guaido.

Reporting by Susan Heavey, Steve Holland and Sarah Kinosian; Editing by Kevin Liffey and Peter Cooney