A U.S. military intervention in Venezuela is still on the table, President Donald Trump said Sunday.
The president was asked about his position on the crumbling South American country this weekend during an interview with CBS' Face the Nation.
The comments come after National Security Adviser John Bolton flashed a notebook suggesting 5,000 U.S. troops could be sent to respond to the crisis in Venezuela, and after Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro ordered all U.S. diplomats to leave the country, which the U.S. ignored.
Maduro has since backtracked on the expulsion order, but his country remains divided.
When asked what would make him deploy U.S. forces to Venezuela, Trump said: “Well I don’t want to say that. But certainly it’s something that’s on the — it’s an option.”
Trump added that he turned down a request from Maduro to meet “a number of months ago.”
“I decided at the time, ‘no’ because so many really horrible things have been happening in Venezuela,” Trump said. “That was the wealthiest country of all in that part of the world. ... And now you look at the poverty and you look at the anguish and you look at the crime.”
Maduro’s critics have called him a dictator, as his country continues a downward spiral into a severe economic crisis and government forces crack down on dissidents who oppose his rule.
Now, “the process is playing out," which includes “very, very big tremendous protests,” Trump added.
Some high-ranking Venezuelan military officials have already defected from Maduro’s regime, but most of the military remains loyal.
“We’re very far along in the process,” Trump said, referencing Juan Guaido, the leader of the Venezuelan National Assembly who the U.S., Canada and several Latin American countries have recognized as Venezuela’s interim president.
Meanwhile, Russia, Turkey and China have vocalized their support for Maduro.
“The international community’s goal should be to help [Venezuela], without destructive meddling from beyond its borders,” Alexander Shchetinin, head of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Latin American department, told Interfax news agency.
Two Russian nuclear-capable Tu-160 strategic bombers were sent to Venezuela in December, accompanied by a heavy-lift An-124 cargo plane and an Il-62 passenger plane. The Russian Defense Ministry said the move was part of bilateral cooperation between the two allies, but didn’t specify whether the bombers were carrying weapons and didn’t say how long they would stay.
“You have a young and energetic gentleman [Guaido] but you have other people within that same group that have been very very — if you talk about democracy — it’s really democracy in action," Trump said.
In response to the U.S. government recognizing Gaido as Venezuela’s legitimate leader, Maduro ordered all U.S. diplomats to leave his country. He has since backtracked on that order, and will allow U.S. Embassy personnel to remain in the country while talks take place, according to the Associated Press.
In September, Trump noted that the Maduro government could be toppled easily.
“It’s a regime that, frankly, could be toppled very quickly by the military if the military decides to do that,” Trump said in comments on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly.
Last year, the Trump administration reportedly began asking for military options in Venezuela, and top officials met with Venezuelan dissidents who floated the idea of a U.S.-backed coup of Maduro with Latin American leaders, according to the New York Times.
U.S. national security advisers rejected the coup plan, and instead pushed for a coalition solution involving humanitarian assistance and financial sanctions.
Venezuela’s state-owned oil firm, a key source of revenue for the country, was dealt severe sanctions by the Trump administration last week, according to the U.S. Treasury Department.
Kyle Rempfer is an editor and reporter who has covered combat operations, criminal cases, foreign military assistance and training accidents. Before entering journalism, Kyle served in U.S. Air Force Special Tactics and deployed in 2014 to Paktika Province, Afghanistan, and Baghdad, Iraq. Follow on Twitter @Kyle_Rempfer