"The Venezuelan people are suffering from a collapsing economy brought about by their government's mismanagement and corruption. Members of the country's Supreme Court of Justice have exacerbated the situation by consistently interfering with the legislative branch's authority," U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said. "By imposing these targeted sanctions, the United States is supporting the Venezuelan people in their efforts to protect and advance democratic governance in their country."
The action marked the second time the Trump administration has stripped high-level Venezuelan officials of their U.S. assets and banned Americans from any business dealings with them. In February, the U.S. ordered sanctions against Vice President Tareck El Aissami, accusing him of playing a major role in international drug trafficking.
Earlier Thursday, Trump expressed dismay about Venezuela's troubles, asking aloud how a nation sitting atop the world's largest oil reserves could be stricken by so much poverty and violence.
"You sort of have to wonder: Why is that happening? How is that possible? Hopefully that will change and they can use those assets for the good. Because right now what's happening is really a disgrace to humanity," Trump said after meeting at the White House with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos.
Venezuelan Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez took to Twitter late Thursday to call the U.S. sanctions "outrageous and unacceptable." She said that the executive order was one more example of U.S. attempts to interfere and destabilize Maduro's government and that the president strongly backs the Supreme Court magistrates who are "victims of U.S. imperial power."
Venezuela's Supreme Court has long been filled with government loyalists. The court's constitutional chamber declared null and void eight National Assembly laws between January and October 2016, after just one such ruling in the previous 200 years, legal experts say.
In issuing its sanctions ruling, the U.S. Treasury Department cited several court rulings since the opposition gained control of congress. One was the approval of Maduro's budget and his appointment of two government sympathizers to the National Electoral Council, which decisions that are supposed to require National Assembly approval. Another was a ruling a year ago declaring null all acts of the National Assembly issued while it remains in contempt of an earlier ruling requiring the congress to unseat three elected lawmakers over still-unproven allegations of voting fraud.
The new sanctions come as Maduro is facing increasing pressure at home and abroad to hold elections. On Thursday, several thousand demonstrators once again paralyzed Caracas and other cities in protests that ended in clashes with security forces firing tear gas and rubber bullets. More than 2,000 people have been detained and hundreds injured during almost daily protests.