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Pompeo says “military action is possible” in Venezuela if Maduro doesn’t step down

It’s the most explicit threat yet by the Trump administration.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks at the Department of State on April 19, 2019 in Washington, DC.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks at the Department of State on April 19, 2019 in Washington, DC.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo just made the most explicit case yet that the Trump administration may use military force to dislodge Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro from power.

It’s perhaps the most aggressive stance so far by an American official during the months-long standoff between a US-backed challenger and the socialist dictator.

In a Wednesday interview with Fox Business’s Maria Bartiromo, Pompeo answered questions about how far US support for Juan Guaidó — the Venezuelan politician who the US and over 50 countries recognize as the country’s legitimate leader — will go.

It’s worth reading a key part of the exchange in full:

Bartiromo: Is the US support going to include troops? Are the military troops in the US going to head there and support Guaidó?

Pompeo: The president has been crystal clear and incredibly consistent. Military action is possible. If that’s what’s required, that’s what the United States will do. We’re trying to do everything we can to avoid violence. We’ve asked all the parties involved not to engage in that kind of activity. We’d prefer a peaceful transition of government there where Maduro leaves and a new election is held, but the President has made clear in the event that there comes a moment — and we’ll all have to make decisions about when that moment is and the -resident will ultimately have to make that decision — he is prepared to do that if that’s what’s required.

Let’s be extremely precise about what Pompeo just said. Yes, the US prefers for Maduro to step aside of his own accord so Guaidó can take over without more bloodshed.

But if Maduro won’t leave, then President Donald Trump may choose to send the US military to force him to. And if that happens, Trump will have launched the first major military invasion of his presidency — which would likely plunge Venezuela into considerable chaos.

Trump has consistently mused about a military option for Venezuela

Pompeo’s statement isn’t entirely unexpected. Since last January when the US supported Guaidó’s claim to become interim president, the Trump administration’s consistent refrain has been that “all options are on the table.” So in a sense, military action was always a possibility.

The difference now is that Pompeo, in a first for the Trump administration, explicitly said the US will consider military action.

In a July 2017 private briefing with intelligence officials, according to former FBI acting director Andrew McCabe, Trump asked why the US wasn’t at war with Venezuela, noting that “they have all that oil and they’re right on our back door.”

Then on August 10, 2017, a former Trump White House official told me, the president asked some of his top aides — including former National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson — if there was a military option for Venezuela. When all four advisers in the room told him no, he let it go. (Multiple reports detailed this last year before Vox confirmed it.)

But the next day Trump publicly threatened a “military option” for Venezuela while talking to reporters at his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey.

It gets worse: Shortly after that press conference, Trump raised the issue during a meeting with then-Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos. And that September, Trump brought it up yet again at a dinner with four Latin American leaders.

However, it seems that no one outside key Trump administration figures thinks invading Venezuela is the right move.

“There is no sensible military option for the US in Venezuela in terms of regime change,” retired Adm. James Stavridis, the top US military official for Central and South America from 2006 to 2009, told me last July.

“The problems Venezuela faces are not military issues and concerns — they’re really diplomatic, political, and economic,” retired Air Force Gen. Douglas Fraser, the top US military commander for Central and South America from 2009 to 2012, told me then. “The military is not going to solve any of those problems.”

Yet here we are, with America’s top diplomat openly musing about a potential military strike or incursion into Venezuela. If it was a one-off comment, perhaps it could be dismissed — but it’s clearly part of a larger pattern.

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