Donald Trump asked senior aides about the possibility of invading Venezuela, according to an official.
As a meeting last August to discuss sanctions was concluding, the president turned to officials and asked: With a fast unravelling Venezuela threatening regional security, why can the US not simply invade the troubled country?
The suggestion stunned those present at the Oval Office meeting, 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 came from a senior administration official familiar with what was said.
In an exchange that lasted around five minutes, Mr McMaster and others took turns explaining to Mr 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.
But Mr Trump pushed back. Although he gave no indication he was about to order 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, persisted in the president’s head.
The next day, August 11, he 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 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 confirmed the report.
Then in September, on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, Mr Trump discussed it again, this time at greater length, in a private dinner with leaders from four Latin American allies that included Mr Santos, the same three people said and Politico reported in February.
The US official said Mr Trump was specifically briefed not to raise the issue and told it would not play well, but the first thing the president said at the dinner was: “My staff told me not to say this.”
He then went around asking each leader if they were sure they did not want a military solution, according to the official, who added that each leader told Mr Trump in clear terms they were sure.
Eventually, Mr McMaster pulled the president aside and walked him through the dangers of an invasion, the official said.
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.
Under Mr Trump’s leadership, the US, Canada and the EU have levied sanctions on dozens of senior Venezuelan officials, including Mr Maduro himself, over allegations of corruption, drug trafficking and human rights abuses.64 FETO-linked suspects arrested in Turkey in a massive police operation