Jailed U.S. Citizen Visits White House After Venezuela Release

(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump pledged to soon bring home more Americans held overseas during a meeting at the White House with a U.S. citizen imprisoned in Venezuela since 2016 who was released after pressure from Washington.

“You went through a lot,” Trump told Joshua Holt at the Oval Office, where the former Mormon missionary was joined by his parents, his wife and daughter. It was “amazing that you were able to take it,” Trump said of the 26-year-old. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker and Utah Senators Orrin Hatch and Mike Lee plus Representative Mia Love, all of whom worked toward Holt’s release, were in the room.

Trump noted that 17 Americans held overseas had been freed since the start of his administration, and said the U.S. is negotiating more releases. “We have others coming,” he said, singling out pastor Andrew Brunson, held by Turkey since an attempted coup in 2016. “He’s not a spy," he’s a “totally innocent man.” Saturday night’s Oval Office celebration follows Trump’s greeting at Joint Base Andrews earlier this month of three Americans released by North Korea in the lead-up to a planned summit with Trump.

Holt told Trump: “I’m just overwhelmed with gratitude,” adding his imprisonment on weapons charges had been very difficult and “not really the great vacation I was looking for.” Holt’s mother also thanked Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro for releasing her son.

Policy Unchanged

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Twitter that while he welcomes Holt home, “U.S. policy toward Venezuela remains unchanged.”

Trump had previewed his plans to meet Holt earlier in the day on Twitter. Local media showed images of Holt and his wife Thamara with Corker in Venezuela before the three boarded a plane bound for the U.S. Holt’s release came less than a day after Corker met with Maduro in Caracas.

Maduro shook hands with Corker in images broadcast on state TV from the presidential palace, which said the two were “strengthening international relationships,” without offering more details.

Weapons Charge

Holt was arrested about 18 months ago and accused of stockpiling a cache of weapons, including assault rifles and grenades, after he traveled to Caracas to marry his Venezuelan girlfriend. U.S. officials say the charges against Holt were politically motivated.

The release happened even with U.S.-Venezuela relations at a low ebb. Maduro’s autocratic regime faces sanctions on its financial sector, moves meant to punish the government without further hurting a hungry and downtrodden population. Washington also has considered an embargo on Venezuela’s oil industry.

“We hope this gesture strengthens dialogue and respect toward our independence,” Venezuela’s Information Minister Jorge Rodriguez said of Holt’s release in comments broadcast on state television.

Hatch said in a statement that Corker had been “pivotal” in the effort to secure Holt’s release, although the Tennessee lawmaker downplayed his role as “small.”

Family Reunion

Saturday’s outcome, Hatch said, resulted from work across two presidential administrations and with diplomatic contacts, ambassadors and Maduro himself. “I could not be more honored to be able to reunite Josh with his sweet, long-suffering family in Riverton,” he said.

Corker, in a statement, thanked Hatch and the president, as well as Caleb McCarry, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee staff who traveled with him to Caracas. Corker started talks with Venezuela’s government earlier this year at Hatch’s request, he said.

After being sworn in for a new six-year term this week -- in a vote condemned by the U.S. as a “sham” after the main opposition parties boycotted it -- Maduro called for the release of some detained prisoners, without naming anyone specifically.

More than 368 political prisoners are detained in Venezuela, according to the human rights organization Foro Penal, or Penal Forum.

A day after Maduro’s swearing-in, the U.S. prohibited purchases of debt owed to the Venezuelan government, including to its state-run oil company. Maduro responded by expelling the U.S. Embassy’s charge d’affaires and his deputy from Venezuela.

Holt, who’d been held in the El Helicoide intelligence agency prison, published a Facebook video earlier this month pleading for help and claiming his life was in danger.

State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said this month that a senior department official had urged Holt’s release on humanitarian grounds.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.