President Donald Trump last August asked several top foreign policy advisers about the possibility of invading Venezuela during a meeting about diplomatic sanctions the US was enacting on the autocratic government, a senior administration official familiar with the comments said.
Trump's aides, including then-national security adviser HR McMaster, vigorously urged him against the notion of a military invasion of Venezuela, warning him it could backfire and explaining that US allies in the region were firmly opposed to such drastic action. Taking military action against Venezuela would be a dramatic escalation of the US's so-far solely diplomatic and sanctions-focused response to the political and economic crisis roiling the South American country.
Still, the official with knowledge of Trump's private comments noted there was "no imminent plan for a military strike" and chalked the comments up to Trump thinking "out loud."
"The President says and thinks a lot of different things," the official said. "He just thinks out loud."
Venezuela President Nicolas Maduro reacted to Trump's comments on Wednesday, urging the country's armed forces not to "lower their guard."
"We need to defend our right for peace, dignity and for the right to chose our own destiny," Maduro said during a military ceremony in Caracas. "No empire is going to choose for us!"
"A military invasion from the US empire will never be a solution for Venezuela's problems, never," he added. "The greatest right our people have is the right to live in peace."
Trump's private comments to his advisers were first reported by the Associated Press. They came a day before he said publicly -- standing alongside then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley -- that he was not taking "a military option" against Venezuela off the table.
Trump in the following month continued to press Latin American leaders about the possibility, including on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly when he dined with many of those leaders -- all of whom said they did not want a US invasion of Venezuela.
Venezuela has been a key focus of the Trump administration's policy toward Latin America, with Trump taking numerous steps to ratchet up pressure on the government of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. The administration has enacted numerous sanctions and issued strongly worded statements urging the Venezuelan government to allow free and fair elections to take place.
Vice President Mike Pence has also met numerous times with Venezuelan opposition leaders and has issued stinging criticisms of the Venezuelan government during his recent trips to Latin America.
Trump's comments were not the first time he has raised the possibility of military action against another country. Before the cooling of tensions with North Korea in recent months, Trump deliberated with aides about the possibility of preventive strikes against the Pyongyang regime and in January sought to order the evacuation of US military dependents in South Korea -- sounding alarms among the President's top national security aides who worried North Korea might interpret the move as wartime preparations.
Just as with his discussions of military action in Venezuela, Trump's aides dissuaded him from taking such brash action.