Colombia Venezuela Migrants

Venezuelan migrants camp in a park near the main bus terminal in Bogota, Colombia, Friday, Sept. 7, 2018. The United Nations' refugee agency says that around 5,000 people are leaving Venezuela every day. More than half of the migrants stay in Colombia, but others look to settle in countries further south, including Ecuador, Peru and Chile. (AP Photo/Fernando Vergara)

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro needs to go. Few objective observers of his disastrous administration would suggest otherwise.

What started as an economic collapse turned into an authoritarian crackdown and is now a humanitarian crisis with millions of Venezuelans fleeing the country out of desperation.

But a coup is not the ideal path to regime change. And President Donald Trump’s administration should have known better than to even consider United States involvement in a forced ouster of Mr. Maduro, much less meet with Venezuelans plotting to overthrow him.

On Saturday, The New York Times reported that Trump administration officials had met on several occasions with Venezuelan military leaders interested in forcibly unseating Mr. Maduro. According to the story, the talks went nowhere.

That’s probably for the best. One of the top officials involved in plotting the coup is reportedly on a U.S. sanctions list for corruption and has a history of backing a Colombian rebel group that the United States considers to be a terrorist organization.

Besides, U.S. efforts to force regime change in Latin American have a dismal and bloody track record.

Had the Trump administration meetings stayed secret, they would have amounted to little more than ill-advised brainstorming sessions followed by a welcome decision to err on the side of caution. But the meetings are no longer secret.

And that is the biggest problem.

President Maduro has long pushed a preposterous narrative that Venezuela’s woes are the result of U.S. meddling and economic warfare rather than the consequence of corruption and colossal mismanagement. Now he has proof.

Of course, Venezuela’s problems are still the result of Mr. Maduro’s failed socialist governance, not any sort of international conspiracy. But he can point to the New York Times story as evidence that United States officials are willing to go to great lengths to undermine him.

Mr. Maduro already had an excuse to crack down on political dissent after a failed August assassination attempt, which he now blames on the United States. Following confirmation of a coup plot, he is likely to take his authoritarian tendencies to dangerous new extremes.

Already, leaders of Mr. Maduro’s socialist party have called for a massive march in protest of U.S. intervention.

And the Trump administration meetings don’t just hurt U.S. credibility in Venezuela. The debacle could chill diplomatic relationships throughout Latin America, which is a strategically and economically important region.

Few would miss Mr. Maduro were he to be forced out of office one way or another.

But the United States should stick to messages of support for democracy and the rule of law and provide assistance to countries struggling to accommodate waves of Venezuelan refugees. Considering backing a coup was a bad idea. Letting news of the plotting slip was even worse.