'My staff told me not to say this' - Donald Trump suggested US could invade Venezuela to end Maduro regime
At a meeting last August in the Oval Office to discuss sanctions on Venezuela was concluding, US 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, including secretary of state Rex Tillerson and national security adviser HR 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 but who insisted on anonymity.
Mr 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. But Mr Trump pointed to what he considered past cases of successful gunboat diplomacy in the region, such as 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, Mr Trump alarmed friends and foes alike with talk of a "military option" to remove Mr 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 president.
Shortly afterward, he raised the issue with Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos, then again in September during the UN General Assembly in a private dinner with leaders from four Latin American allies that included Mr Santos.
The US official said Mr 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."
Mr Trump then asked each leader if they were sure they didn't want a military solution, and each leader told him in clear terms they were sure.
Eventually, Mr McMaster pulled aside the president and walked him through the dangers of an invasion.
The White House declined to comment on the private conversations. But a National Security Council spokesman reiterated the US would consider all options at its disposal to help restore Venezuela's democracy and bring stability.
Mr Maduro has long claimed the US has military designs on Venezuela and its vast oil reserves, and Mr 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.
Mr Santos, who backs American attempts to isolate Mr Maduro, said an invasion would have zero support in the region. The Mercosur trade bloc, which includes Brazil and Argentina, repudiated "any use of force".
But among Venezuela's beleaguered opposition movement, hostility to the idea of a military intervention has slowly eased.
Mark Feierstein, who oversaw Latin America on the National Security Council during the Obama administration, said: "The concern is that [Trump] raised expectations among Venezuelans, many of whom are waiting for an external actor to save them."