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Democrats press Trump for answers on foiled Venezuela raid

MIAMI – Three Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee are demanding answers from the Trump administration about how much it knew about an attempted raid to capture Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, an operation they said potentially violated U.S. law and ran counter to American support for negotiations to end the South American country's political standoff.

In a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Attorney General William Barr and Richard Grenell, the acting director of national intelligence, the lawmakers led by Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut expressed “alarm” about the raid led by a former Green Beret and which has resulted in the detention in Venezuela of two American citizens.

“Either the U.S. government was unaware of these planned operations, or was aware and allowed them to proceed," according to the letter sent Thursday. “Both possibilities are problematic.”

The letter cited the findings of an Associated Press investigation into Jordan Goudreau, who claimed responsibility for the foiled incursion. The AP investigation detailed how Goudreau, through his Florida private security firm, had teamed up with a retired Venezuelan army official to train at secret camps in Colombia dozens of deserters from Venezuela’s security forces for a mission targeting Maduro, for whose capture the U.S. has offered a $15 million bounty.

Trump has denied any U.S. involvement in the raid and Goudreau has said he was unable to ever persuade the Trump administration to support his bold plan for a private coup.

Maduro has insisted the operation was directed by the White House. Meanwhile, aides to Juan Guaidó, the opposition leader recognized by the U.S. and 60 other nations as Venezuela's rightful leader, have acknowledged exploring the idea last year but said they quickly backed out after deciding Goudreau couldn't deliver or be trusted.

The letter, which was also signed by Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia and Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico, cites provisions in the VERDAD act, signed into law by Trump in late 2019, that state it is U.S. policy to support diplomatic engagement to bring a negotiated and peaceful end to Venezuela's political, economic and humanitarian crisis.

“Such incursions harm the prospects for a peaceful democratic transition in Venezuela by insinuating that an armed intervention is a viable option to resolve the crisis, potentially undermining the willingness of hard-line opposition actors to negotiate, while simultaneously allowing Maduro to rally support to his side, strengthening his hand,” the lawmakers wrote.

The letter contains six lines of questions about U.S. officials' awareness of Goudreau's plans and whether the administration had taken any steps to prevent his actions and make sure U.S. assistance wasn't directly or indirectly provided to those involved.

It also seeks the intelligence community's assessment about the legitimacy of a contract that Goudreau has presented and that he says was signed by Guaidó and two Miami-based aides allegedly authorizing his actions.

“Maduro is a dictator, and the Venezuelan people deserve to live in a democracy again," the Democrats wrote. “But that will only be achieved through vigorous and effective diplomacy, not martial adventurism.”

Officials in Venezuela said Thursday that they have now captured 23 people involved in the botched attack.

They also aired a video showing Airan Berry, one of the two captured Americans, answering questions about the operation.

Dressed in a gray T-shirt with the word “MOSCOW” written on it, Berry says he signed on with Silvercorp to train between 50 and 60 men in the Colombian city of Riohacha and then accompany the rebels into Caracas.

“What were the objectives of the mission?” an off-camera interrogator asks in halting English.

“I believe it was to attain specific targets. And to, I think, get Maduro,” Berry responds.

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Joshua Goodman on Twitter: @APJoshGoodman