Just when you thought it couldn’t possibly get any sillier, it invariably does.
In September of 2018, Rudy Giuliani participated in a phone call with Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro as part of a back-channeling effort discouraged by John Bolton.
The effort, reported on Monday by The Washington Post, involved former Texas Rep. Pete Sessions, who had visited Maduro in Caracas earlier that year. Sessions, you’ll note, was a key player in the scheme to orchestrate the removal Marie Yovanovitch. He denied wrongdoing, but is linked to Giuliani’s indicted Ukraine fixers Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman.
It won’t surprise you to learn that Bolton – who was running point for the Trump administration on the pressure campaign to squeeze Maduro – was not enamored with Giuliani’s involvement.
According to a pair of sources who spoke to WaPo, Rudy pitched a plan to “ease Maduro from office”, an idea Bolton (and his mustache) “vehemently rejected”.
Pete Sessions’s involvement came about as follows (as recounted by WaPo)
There was absolutely no interest or appetite for negotiations. We generally did not welcome efforts like this one. It wasn’t consistent with our policy goals. We saw it as a nuisance and a distraction.
If that sounds familiar, it’s because that is the same way top officials described back-channeling efforts in Ukraine spearheaded by Giuliani – as a nuisance and a distraction.
Sessions’s spokesman claims any such accounts reflect petty disagreements among Trump officials and, when pressed, doubled down on his insistence that the effort to negotiate with Maduro was coordinated with the State department.
And don’t worry, this had nothing whatsoever to do with the fact that Sessions’s district is home to ExxonMobil and other oil companies that the Post rather dryly notes “were once active in Venezuela but were forced to scale back amid political turbulence”.
“[I was part] of a dialogue between parties that are trying to make progress”, Sessions told The Dallas Morning News last year.
That “progress” apparently involved a list of concessions Maduro was willing to make in exchange for leniency from Washington.
A little more than a month after Sessions got back from Caracas, he met with Parnas at his office on Capitol Hill. On May 9, 2018, Parnas posted pictures from the meeting on Facebook, and Sessions simultaneously sent Mike Pompeo a letter pushing for the ouster of Yovanovitch. That, of course, is at the center of Trump’s impeachment.
Three months on, in August of 2018, the US charged Sessions’s host in Venezuela – television network owner Raúl Gorrín Belisario, at whose compound Sessions stayed – with bribery and money laundering. Here’s what happened next:
Giuliani, who had joined Trump’s legal team months earlier, began talks with individuals who were part of the back channel to Maduro. In August, Giuliani met in New York with Parnas and two American business executives with investments in Venezuela to discuss the effort, according to people familiar with the gathering.
The meeting took place at a favorite Giuliani hangout, the Grand Havana Room cigar bar, blocks from Trump Tower in Manhattan. Over whiskey and cigars, Giuliani agreed to try to discern whether there was a way to negotiate with Maduro and perhaps reach a diplomatic solution to the political chaos and economic collapse overtaking the country, one of the participants said.
In other words, the same motley crew (Giuliani, Parnas and Sessions) that successfully had Yovanovitch removed from her post in Ukraine (in part by pushing Russia-friendly propaganda), also attempted to interfere with official US policy on Venezuela.
A month after the meeting with Parnas in New York, Giuliani joined the call with Sessions and Maduro. After that, Rudy tried to sway Bolton on a plan to let Maduro off easy, but John – who is notoriously hawkish – wasn’t having it.
“We didn’t know why Rudy was involved at the time”, a former senior White House official told the Post.
The US, of course, eventually backed Juan Guaidó’s bid to assume the presidency in Venezuela. Briefly, it looked as though Maduro’s run was over, but Guaidó’s momentum fizzled despite international support.
In July of 2017, reports suggested that during an Oval Office meeting, Trump asked aides if he could invade the country. Subsequently, he publicly stated that he wouldn’t take a military option off the table – that was around the same time the president’s “fire and fury” comments on North Korea were grabbing headlines. “We have many options for Venezuela. And by the way, I am not going to rule out a military option”, he said, while standing next to a visibly concerned Nikki Haley and then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
The next month, on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, H.R. McMaster reportedly had to “pull Trump aside” and explain to him that continually asking Latin American leaders (at dinner, no less) if they are “sure” they don’t want the US to storm into Venezuela, Iraq-style, is dumber than a bag of hammers.
In August of 2018, around the same time Giuliani met with Parnas in New York to discuss Maduro, the Venezuelan strongman was targeted in an infamous “drone incident” billed by the regime as an assassination attempt. A month later, The New York Times reported that the Trump administration once held clandestine meetings with rebel elements within the Venezuelan military and discussed plans to overthrow Maduro.
During the impeachment inquiry, Fiona Hill testified that Bolton (her boss) was aghast at Giuliani’s back-channeling in Ukraine, going so far as to brand “America’s mayor” a “hand grenade”. It’s now apparent that the two men clashed over Venezuela as well.
If you’re wondering whether Giuliani had business interests in all of this, the answer is yes. Here’s WaPo again:
This summer, another wealthy Venezuelan energy executive, Alejandro Betancourt López, hired Giuliani to serve as his lawyer and help argue that he should not be charged in a $1.2 billion money-laundering case in Florida. In early August, Giuliani was hosted at Betancourt’s lavish estate outside Madrid when Giuliani met at Trump’s direction with a top aide to the Ukrainian president.
It emerged last month that Giuliani was engaged in talks to represent Yuri Lutsenko in proceedings aimed at recovering assets he said were looted from the Ukrainian government at the same time the two were actively working to undermine Yovanovitch and dig up dirt on Joe Biden. The payment to Giuliani’s company would have been “at least” $200,000. The deal was never done.
All of the above serves to underscore the notion that Giuliani has been acting as a rogue operative for years, very likely enriching himself along the way. The notion that Rudy is intervening in matters that could change the course of history on an entire continent is not just disconcerting, it’s manifestly insane. Just like Rudy himself – disconcerting and manifestly insane.