President Trump’s senior national security aides met Friday at the Pentagon to review what acting defense secretary Patrick Shanahan called a “comprehensive set of options” for the administration’s next steps in Venezuela.
“This was really a true review and then making sure that we’re all in alignment,” Shanahan told reporters. Asked whether the “options” included U.S. military action, he said, “I’ll leave that to your imagination. We have all options . . . on the table.”
The review follows the collapse this week of a plan by the Venezuelan opposition to force President Nicolás Maduro to cede power to Juan Guaidó, recognized by the United States and more than 50 other countries as Venezuela’s legitimate leader.
Defense officials said the Friday review included a briefing by Adm. Craig Faller, head of the Miami-based Southern Command. It focused, officials said, on discrete options for the U.S. military, including humanitarian assistance and support for civilians, rather than plans for a possible intervention in Venezuela.
Earlier Friday, Trump spoke by telephone with Russian President Vladimir Putin about Venezuela. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton have accused Russia of propping up Maduro with money and military equipment. Part of the reason the Tuesday opposition plan failed, they said after it fell apart, was that Russia prevented Maduro’s departure from the country.
“The Russians like nothing better than putting a thumb in our eyes,” Bolton told CNN Wednesday. “They’d love to get effective control of a country in this hemisphere. . . . We’ve made it clear to the Russians in a lot of different conversations at a lot of different levels . . . why we think that behavior is unacceptable to us.” Those conversations, Bolton said, “are going to go on.”
At a late March meeting with Guaidó’s wife in the Oval Office, Trump had pledged to “fix” Venezuela and insisted that “Russia has to get out.”
But on Friday, the president indicated that he and Putin were in agreement, and that Putin “is not looking at all to get involved there.” Overall, Trump said later in the day, “I thought it was a very positive conversation I had with President Putin on Venezuela.”
In its own statement on the phone call, the Kremlin said Putin had “underscored that only the Venezuelans themselves have the right to determine the future of their country” and warned that “attempts to change the government in Caracas by force undermine prospects for a political settlement of the crisis.”
Russia has called for negotiations between Maduro and the opposition, which both the opposition and the administration have rejected as an attempt to keep Maduro in power.
The public dissonance between Trump and his national security team came amid high level concerns in the military over a push by Bolton and his National Security Council aides for more aggressive U.S. intervention as the crisis has dragged on for months.
While emphasizing it will do whatever Trump orders, uniformed military leaders have urged caution in internal discussions regarding the use of force. Latin Americans remain broadly skeptical of American military intervention — most of their governments have joined the United States in backing Guaidó — and U.S. action could fracture the current consensus over Venezuela.
At the same time, such action would not be without risk. Although maintenance and training are seen as lagging, the Venezuelan military is one of the best equipped in South America, with both U.S. and Russian jets, as well as Russian air defense systems. U.S. military planners traditionally worry about operations that may be limited in intent but can quickly spiral out of control.
The administration has also charged that more than 20,000 Cuban military and intelligence officials are embedded in the Venezuelan security services, although experts on the region believe that number is significantly inflated and that whatever Cubans are there do not include combat capability.
The Friday review was held in the Tank, a secure space inside the Pentagon where senior military officials meet to discuss sensitive issues. Attendees included Shanahan, Pompeo and Bolton, in addition to the Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats and Undersecretary of Defense for Policy John Rood.
Officials previously have said the military options under consideration included actions before Maduro’s possible departure, such as sending additional military assets to the region, increasing aid to neighboring countries and providing humanitarian assistance to Venezuelans who have fled the country.
More forward-leaning options included sending naval ships to waters off Venezuela as a show of force, a possibility that Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), generally a strong supporter of Trump foreign policy, appeared to support Friday on Twitter.
“Cuba, Russia send troops to prop Maduro up in Venezuela.......while we talk/sanction,” Graham tweeted. “Where is our aircraft carrier?”
Asked about the Pentagon meeting, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said that she had no new options to announce but that “the president is going to do what is required, if necessary.”
Missy Ryan and Dan Lamothe contributed to this report.