WASHINGTON - Venezuelan officials reached out to the US behind President Nicolas Maduro's back solely to discuss his exit from power and free elections, National Security Advisor John Bolton said Wednesday.
Bolton's comment came after Maduro said he had authorized the contacts with high level US officials, casting them as a long-standing initiative that he was aware of and approved.
Countering in a tweet, Bolton said, "The only items discussed by those who are reaching out behind Maduro’s back are his departure and free and fair elections."
He noted that US President Donald Trump "has repeatedly stated, to end the pilfering of the Venezuelan people's resources and continued repression, Maduro must go."
Trump told reporters at the White House Tuesday that the US was in discussion with Venezuelan officials "at a very high level."
"We are in touch. We're talking to various representatives of Venezuela," Trump said.
Maduro has so far survived mass protests, a failed military uprising and international challenges to his legitimacy as the once-rich, oil-producing country spins deeper into crisis.
The United States has thrown its backing behind Venezuela's National Assembly leader, Juan Guaido, as the legitimate president.
Guaido, who is supported by more than 50 countries, declared himself acting president in January after the opposition-controlled National Assembly declared that Maduro had usurped power through fraudulent elections last year.
In a message broadcast on radio and television Tuesday, Maduro said he had authorized the backchannel talks with US officials.
"For months there has been contact between senior officials of the United States, of Donald Trump, and the Bolivarian government that I preside over," Maduro said.
"Just as I have sought dialogue in Venezuela, I have sought a way in which President Donald Trump really listens to Venezuela," he said.
Washington has been pressuring Maduro through sanctions into acquiescing to opposition demands to step down and hold new presidential elections, something he has steadfastly refused to do.
"We're staying out of it, but we are helping it, and it needs a lot of help," Trump said of Venezuela.
"It's an incredible tribute to something bad happening, and the something bad is socialism," he said.