Wed | Jul 17, 2019

Trump pressed aides on Venezuela invasion, US official says

Published:Friday | July 6, 2018 | 12:11 AM
In this file photo, US soldiers practice war games. US President Donald Trump has contemplated a potential invasion of crisis wracked Venezuela.

 

As a meeting last August in the Oval Office to discuss sanctions on Venezuela was concluding, United States President Donald Trump turned to his top aides and asked an unsettling question: With a fast unravelling Venezuela threatening regional security, why can't the US just simply invade the troubled country?

The suggestion stunned those present at the meeting, including US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and national security adviser H.R. McMaster, both of whom have since left the administration.

This account of the previously undisclosed conversation comes from a senior administration official familiar with what was said.

In an exchange that lasted around five minutes, McMaster and others took turns explaining to Trump how military action could backfire and risk losing hard-won support among Latin American governments to punish President Nicolas Maduro for taking Venezuela down the path of dictatorship, according to the official. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the discussions.

But Trump pushed back. Although he gave no indication he was about to order up military plans, he pointed to what he considered past cases of successful gunboat diplomacy in the region, according to the official, like the invasions of Panama and Grenada in the 1980s.

The idea, despite his aides' best attempts to shoot it down, would nonetheless persist in the president's head.

The next day, August 11, Trump alarmed friends and foes alike with talk of a "military option" to remove Maduro from power. The public remarks were initially dismissed in US policy circles as the sort of martial bluster people have come to expect from the reality TV star turned commander in chief.

But shortly afterwards, he raised the issue with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, according to the US official. Two high-ranking Colombian officials who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid antagonising Trump confirmed the report.

Then in September, on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, Trump discussed it again, this time at greater length, in a private dinner with leaders from four Latin American allies that included Santos, the same three people said and Politico reported in February.

The US official said Trump was specifically briefed not to raise the issue and told it wouldn't play well, but the first thing the president said at the dinner was: "My staff told me not to say this". Trump then went around asking each leader if they were sure they didn't want a military solution, according to the official, who added that each leader told Trump in clear terms they were sure.

Eventually, McMaster would pull aside the president and walk him through the dangers of an invasion, the official said.

Taken together, the behind-the-scenes talks, the extent and details of which have not been previously reported, highlight how Venezuela's political and economic crisis has received top attention under Trump in a way that was unimaginable in the Obama administration. But critics say it also underscores how Trump's 'America First' foreign policy at times can seem outright reckless, providing ammunition to America's adversaries.

The White House declined to comment on the private conversations. But a National Security Council spokesman reiterated that the US will consider all options at its disposal to help restore Venezuela's democracy and bring stability.

The US, Canada and European Union have levied sanctions on dozens of top Venezuelan officials, including Maduro himself, over allegations of corruption, drug trafficking and human rights abuses. The US has also distributed more than US$30 million to help Venezuela's neighbours absorb an influx of more than one million migrants who have fled the country.

Trump's bellicose talk provided the unpopular leader with an immediate if short-lived boost as he was trying to escape blame for widespread food shortages and hyperinflation. Within days of the president's talk of a military option, Maduro filled the streets of Caracas with loyalists to condemn "Emperor" Trump's belligerence, ordered up nationwide military exercises and threatened with arrest opponents he said were plotting his overthrow with the US.

On Wednesday, Maduro cited the AP's article to reaffirm his long-standing claim that the US has military designs on Venezuela and its vast oil reserves. At a military promotion ceremony in Caracas, he called on troops to remain vigilant, criticising what he called the "supremacist and criminal vision of those who govern the US".

"A military intervention on the part of the US empire will never be a solution to Venezuela's problems," he said.

Even some of the staunchest US allies were begrudgingly forced to side with Maduro in condemning Trump's sabre rattling. Santos, a big backer of US attempts to isolate Maduro, said an invasion would have zero support in the region.

The Mercosur trade bloc, which includes Brazil and Argentina, issued a statement saying "the only acceptable means of promoting democracy are dialogue and diplomacy" and repudiating "any option that implies the use of force".