Special Representative Elliott Abrams said in the recording that the U.S. wouldn't use force in Venezuela unless the government did something "completely crazy" like attack the American Embassy. But Abrams, who apparently believed he was speaking with a Swiss official, said the U.S. seeks to "make the Venezuelan military nervous" by not publicly ruling out military action to oust President Nicolas Maduro.
"We think it is a mistake tactically to give them endless reassurances that there will never be American military action," he said. "But I can tell you this is not what we are doing. What we are doing is exactly what you see, financial pressure, economic pressure, diplomatic pressure."
The recording was made by two Russian comedians, Vladimir Kuznetsov and Alexei Stoyarov, as one of the men posed as a Swiss official speaking with Abrams about efforts to seize Venezuelan bank accounts as part of an effort to compel Maduro to cede power to opposition leader Juan Guaido.
The comedians are known for prank calls with public officials and celebrities, including one with the former British foreign secretary last year. The Abrams recording was released online and published by Russian media Wednesday.
Asked for comment, the State Department said in an email that "we are well aware in general, and were aware in this case, of Russia's propaganda playbook and the lengths they will go to prop up the Maduro regime."
U.S. policy, it said, is "to support democracy in Venezuela, to support the National Assembly, which is the only democratically-elected part of the government." The U.S. and more than 50 governments have recognized Guaido, the leader of the National Assembly, as interim president, insisting that Maduro was not legitimately re-elected last year to lead the once-prosperous nation.