A bipartisan group of 34 USA lawmakers sent a letter last week to Trump urging the president to increase pressure on the socialist government in Caracas by sanctioning top officials responsible for corruption and human rights abuses.
On Monday night, the White House announced it would be imposing sanctions against Venezuela Vice President Tareck El Aissami, due to accusations that he's a major drug trafficker, as reported by the New York Times. The new vice president, sworn in on January 4, joins a blacklist that already includes half a dozen other Venezuelan officials and former officials. He responded to the Trump administration's move on Twitter Tuesday, writing, "We shall not be distracted by these miserable provocations".
"Truth is invincible and we will see this vile aggression dispelled".
Speaking to media Tuesday, Venezuelan Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez also slammed the sanctions, calling them an attack on the vice president's "rights, honor and reputation" that is both "lamentable and highly risky".
Anyway, the U.S. has made a decision to sanction Tarek for advocating drug reform. El Aissami also allegedly used his control of Venezuela's immigration agency to sell passports and visas to citizens of the Middle Eastern countries with ties to terrorism, the people say.
El Aissami is now next in line in the event Maduro is forced to resign or removed in a recall referendum.
El Aissami, as the AP notes, has always denied any criminal activity. "To be clear, El Aissami and others should be held responsible for their actions".
The action is "not a political one, not an economic one, not a diplomatic one", said another high-ranking USA official who briefed reporters. "Mr. Lopez is not a government official and has not engaged in drug trafficking".
"We are looking at something catastrophic for Venezuela", from both economic and humanitarian perspectives, says Patrick Duddy, a former USA ambassador to Venezuela.
Samark Jose Lopez Bello, a Venezuelan businessman who the US Department of the Treasury believe to be El Aissami's front man, was also added to the list along with him and 13 companies in his name or under his control but based in the United States, Panama, the United Kingdom and the British Virgin Islands.