WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump would not rule out the possibility of a military intervention in Venezuela on Friday, stepping up rhetoric directed at a regime the President has already accused of being led by a “dictator.”
Asked about the possibility of a military intervention in response to the mounting crisis in the country, the President said that is something the United States “certainly could pursue.”
“We have many options for Venezuela. And by the way, I am not going to rule out a military option,” Trump said. “We have many options for Venezuela.”
He added: “This is our neighbor. You know, we are all over the world and we have troops all over the world in places that are very, very far away. Venezuela is not very far away and the people are suffering, and they are dying. We have many options for Venezuela, including a possible military option if necessary.”
The Trump administration slapped sanctions on Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro after a July 30 vote that allowed the President to replace the opposition-held National Assembly with a new 545-member Constituent Assembly filled with his supporters.
Protests have rocked the streets of Caracas and other Venezuelan cities in response to Maduro’s move. The United Nation’s’ human rights office said earlier this month that Venezuelan security forces have used excessive force and arbitrarily detained thousands of people.
“The United States condemns the actions of the Maduro dictatorship. Mr. Lopez and Mr. Ledezma are political prisoners being held illegally by the regime,” Trump said in a statement earlier this month, referencing Leopoldo Lopez and Antonio Ledezma, two of Maduro’s top political opponents.
While Trump raised the specter of military intervention, his top national security aides have downplayed that possibility.
H.R. McMaster, Trump’s National Security Adviser, flatly told MSNBC earlier this month that military intervention from any outside source was not a possibility.
“No. I don’t think so,” McMaster said. “What’s really required is for everyone to have one voice about the need to protect the rights and the safety of the Venezuelan people.”
Later Friday, Pentagon spokesman Eric Pahon said the Defense Department has not been ordered to make any military movements related to Venezuela — but is prepared for that if need be.
“I refer you to the White House to characterize the President’s statement. The Pentagon has not received any orders with regards to Venezuela,” Pahon said. “The military conducts contingency planning for a variety of situations. If called upon, we are prepared to support … government efforts to protect our national interests and safeguard US citizens. Any insinuations by the Maduro regime that we are planning an invasion are baseless and are designed to distract from his continued efforts to undermine the democratic process and institutions in Venezuela.”
Trump’s comments came after a meeting at his New Jersey golf club with US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. During the remarks, Trump also announced that he will speak by phone with Chinese President Xi Jinping Friday night about North Korea.
Saber-rattling from the rogue nation has dominated Trump’s 17-day working vacation in New Jersey. When asked about the ratcheted-up rhetoric in recent weeks between the US and North Korea, Trump said there are good options on the table for dealing with the tensions, but that a bad option was a possibility.
“Lots of good things could happen and we also could have a bad solution,” he said.
When asked if that bad solution meant war, Trump declined to say. “I think you know that answer to that,” he said.
“You know what I can say, hopefully it will all work out,” Trump said. “Nobody loves a peaceful solution better than President Trump, that I can tell you.”
Trump has looked to blame the volley of threats between the United States and North Korea on past administrations, arguing that tension with North Korea was thrust upon him.
“This has been going on for many years, would have been a lot easier to solve this years ago before they were in the position they are in. But we will see what happens,” Trump said.
Trump told reporters on Friday that the US is considering additional sanctions against North Korea “at a very, very high level.”
“Very strong ones. They are already very strong,” he said. “We are considering additional sanctions at a very, very high level. And probably you could say as strong as they get.”
It is unclear what stepped up sanctions against the North Korea would look like.
Kim Jong Un was placed on sanctions blacklist last July for human rights abuses, and Trump signed further sanctions on North Korea earlier this month after Congress overwhelmingly approved the measures.