CARACAS, Venezuela — President Donald Trump on Monday appeared to walk back comments that he would consider meeting Venezuela's Nicolás Maduro following an interview that cast doubt on his support for the socialist leader's main rival, Juan Guaidó.
Trump said in a tweet Monday that "I would only meet with Maduro to discuss one thing: a peaceful exit from power!"
That followed a White House interview published Sunday by Axios in which the news website reported that Trump made lukewarm comments about recognizing Guaidó as Venezuela's legitimate leader — the linchpin of the U.S.' 18-month campaign to remove Maduro.
"I think that I wasn't necessarily in favor, but I said — some people that liked it, some people didn't. I was OK with it. I don't think it was — you know, I don't think it was very meaningful one way or the other," Trump was quoted as telling Axios.
He also said he would consider meeting Maduro despite the fact that the Venezuelan leader was indicted recently on U.S. drug trafficking charges:
"I would maybe think about that. ... Maduro would like to meet. And I'm never opposed to meetings — you know, rarely opposed to meetings.
"I always say, you lose very little with meetings. But at this moment, I've turned them down," he said, according to the Axios report.
The comments sent social media in Venezuela ablaze, with many wondering whether Trump was pulling the rug from under the opposition, which has struggled to ignite mass protests and has failed to break military support for Maduro despite an unprecedented economic collapse.
Trump, however, on Monday doubled down on his anti-socialist stand.
"Unlike the radical left, I will ALWAYS stand against socialism and with the people of Venezuela," Trump said. "My Admin has always stood on the side of FREEDOM and LIBERTY and against the oppressive Maduro regime!"
The United States was first among more than 50 nations to back Guaidó, who as head of the opposition-led congress claimed presidential powers in early 2019, arguing that Maduro's reelection had been invalid.
Guaidó was a surprise guest at Trump's annual State of the Union address in February, where Trump recognized Guaidó as the only "legitimate president of Venezuela" and said that Maduro's hold on power "will be smashed and broken."
But Trump's former national security advisor, John Bolton, says in an upcoming book that Trump had wavered on his support for Guaidó. At times Trump wanted to take military action to oust Maduro, but he also said the socialist leader was too strong for Guaidó to topple, according to Bolton.
Presidential candidate Joe Biden in his own tweet took a shot at Trump.
"Trump talks tough on Venezuela, but admires thugs and dictators like Nicolas Maduro," Biden said. "As President, I will stand with the Venezuelan people and for democracy."
In Caracas, Maduro said in a written statement that he was willing to meet Trump, repeating a request he has made before. The statement did not address Trump's tweet talking about his exit from power.
State TV throughout the day also played a video clip of Maduro informally talking with Biden in 2015 outside a meeting in Brazil. The two men were smiling, appearing to have a cordial conversation.
"I am willing to talk respectfully with President Donald Trump," Maduro said. "In the same way that I spoke with Biden, I could speak with Trump."