Thousands of miles from the chaos that erupted in Caracas, Venezuela, on Tuesday, Mr. Bolton directed a string of unusually sharp threats at socialist President Nicolas Maduro and found himself embroiled in a Twitter war of his own with one of Mr. Maduro’s top deputies.
“Your time is up,” Mr. Bolton tweeted to three top Venezuelan officials. “This is your last chance. Accept Interim President [Juan] Guaido’s amnesty, protect the Constitution, and remove Maduro, and we will take you off our sanctions list. Stay with Maduro, and go down with the ship.”
Mr. Bolton’s hard-charging rhetoric underscores a central reality of the Venezuelan crisis: The Trump administration has nearly as much riding on the outcome in Caracas as its ally on the ground, opposition leader Juan Guaido.
Throughout the day, when many in the international community were appealing for calm, Mr. Bolton, joined by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Vice President Mike Pence and later President Trump, seemed positively eager to ratchet up the tension in a bid to force Mr. Maduro from power.
Since January, the White House has led a broad international coalition in rejecting Mr. Maduro and recognizing Mr. Guaido, Venezuela’s young political opposition leader, as the nation’s rightful president. The socialist government, U.S. officials contend, is responsible for driving Venezuela’s oil-rich economy into the ground and sparking the largest humanitarian and refugee crisis in the Western Hemisphere.
Mr. Bolton also seems heavily invested in the outcome on a personal level, going beyond other administration officials in public comments castigating the Maduro regime. He threatened U.S. intervention and expressed unwavering solidarity with Mr. Guaido, who was urging his supporters to mount a full-on rebellion.
Although the Maduro government accused Washington of orchestrating the rebellion, Elliott Abrams, the State Department point man on the crisis, seemed to suggest that the U.S. did not anticipate Mr. Guaido’s declaration at dawn.
“What was going to happen, we were told, was that they would announce their support for the constitution,” he told reporters at the State Department, The Associated Press reported. He said the situation on the ground in Venezuela “remains confused.”
Should the U.S. gambit fail, critics surely will cast Mr. Bolton as the face of an unsuccessful American strategy in South America while increasing the prestige of Mr. Maduro and his leftist allies in the region.
Venezuelans will recall that a previous U.S. government made a major miscall of its own when the George W. Bush administration in April 2002 gave initial support to a coup that briefly ousted populist Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez, Mr. Maduro’s political mentor. The uprising fizzled, and Mr. Chavez died in office 11 years later.
With Venezuela’s military seeming to stick — for now — with the president, the Maduro regime responded to the uprising with a violent crackdown. Dozens of people were being treated for injuries late Tuesday.
Even amid that crackdown, top Venezuelan officials took time to trade barbs with Mr. Bolton on Twitter. They highlighted how the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations has become the face of America’s Venezuela policy.
“Dream on, @AmbJohnBolton … Not today!” Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza tweeted in direct response to Mr. Bolton’s threat.
Mr. Bolton held a hastily arranged press conference outside the White House on Tuesday afternoon to reject assertions that the uprising amounted to little more than an American-led coup. He called out top Maduro allies by name to defect to the opposition and again stressed that all options, including military force, remained on the table.
“We are seeing the Venezuelan people strive to get a government that they control, not … an authoritarian military regime,” he said. “This is clearly not a coup. We recognize Juan Guaido as the legitimate” president of Venezuela.
Should Mr. Guaido’s revolution succeed, Mr. Bolton said, the administration is fully prepared to work with the new government in Caracas and would even organize a conference on the benefits and economic opportunities a post-Maduro Venezuela could expect.
“We’ve been planning for what we call the day after, the day after Maduro, for some time,” he said.
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