By Ben Kesling in Washington and Anatoly Kurmanaev in Caracas, Venezuela
Updated Aug. 11, 2017 11:31 p.m. ET
President Donald Trump warned of possible military action in Venezuela on Friday, even as he amplified threats of an armed response to North Korea missile buildup.
Mr. Trump said a military option is possible in Venezuela, though he provided few details, while the president also stepped up his warnings to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as he spoke at a press conference at his golf course in Bedminster, N.J., on Friday.
“I’m not going to rule out a military option,” Mr. Trump told reporters when asked about the situation in the South American country. “Venezuela is a mess.”
“We have many options for Venezuela, including a possible military option if necessary,” he said.
The remarks came a day after President Nicolás Maduro said in a speech to the newly formed constituent assembly that he wanted to speak with Mr. Trump by phone or meet him when he visits the U.S. next month for the United Nations General Assembly. “If he is so interested in Venezuela, here I am,” Mr. Maduro said Thursday. “Mr. Donald Trump, here is my hand.”
But Mr. Maduro also reiterated his criticism of Mr. Trump as the leader of an “imperial power,” calling him a threat to the global order. “With Donald Trump, a dangerous class of lobbyists, multimillionaires and extreme right-wingers reached the presidency, capturing all of the positions of power in the government,” Mr. Maduro said. “Today, they are threatening world peace.”
On Friday, Venezuela’s Information Minister Ernesto Villegas said in a Twitter message that Mr. Trump’s comments are “the gravest and most insolent threat ever made against the fatherland of Bolivar,” referring to the country’s independence hero.
A Pentagon spokesman said Friday that the Department of Defense had received no orders from the White House regarding Venezuela and referred all questions on the matter to the White House.
The White House later said that Mr. Maduro on Friday, before Mr. Trump made his remarks, had requested a call with the U.S. president. Mr. Trump refused the request, citing Mr. Maduro’s steps that the U.S. has characterized as “the path of dictatorship,” the White House said.
“The United States stands with the people of Venezuela in the face of their continued oppression by the Maduro regime. President Trump will gladly speak with the leader of Venezuela as soon as democracy is restored in that country,” the White House said.
Venezuela has been gripped by antigovernment protest and unrest, with some 120 people killed over the past four months, according to Luisa Ortega, the country’s attorney general who was ousted from office for her activism against Mr. Maduro.
Mr. Maduro has been consolidating power in Caracas in ways deemed dictatorial by American officials and which have led to tightened sanctions against his regime.
Venezuelan opposition supporters had mixed reaction to Mr. Trump’s announcement.
“I’m worried by these remarks because they could deepen the political, social and economic crisis of the country,” said Caracas advertisement agent Carmen Gonzalez.
But more radical government opponents said military intervention is the only way to get rid of the authoritarian government.
“This government has ruined us, has destroyed this country. I don’t see this [military] option as bad as long as this government goes,” said Angelica Azuaje, an architect from a Caracas suburb of Los Teques.
Political analysts said Mr. Trump’s comments might inadvertently bolster the Venezuelan president by seeming to affirm what the late Hugo Chávez and Mr. Maduro have been saying for years: That the U.S. is out to get the country’s Socialist government.
“This is made to order for Maduro,” said David Smilde, a specialist on Latin America and Venezuela at Tulane University. “Domestically, this will lead to 24/7 state media coverage. It could lead to heightened state of alert in the military and perhaps more repression of the opposition. All of these things are under way, but it provides an even more conducive environment for it.”
Venezuelans opposed to the National Constituent Assembly protest in Caracas on Aug. 4.
Venezuelans opposed to the National Constituent Assembly protest in Caracas on Aug. 4. PHOTO: MIGUEL GUTIERREZ/EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY
Opposition leaders Friday moved to distance themselves from Mr. Trump’s comments.
“Insolent Trump!” Henri Falcon, opposition governor of Lara state, said in a Twitter message. “This mess is ours! Sort out your own, of which you have plenty.”
Polls in the country show less than 10% of Venezuelans support a military solution to the country’s crisis.
In speeches, Mr. Maduro often defends his administration’s policies and crackdown on critics by saying the country’s political and economic crises have been caused by opponents and foreign powers meddling in Venezuela’s affairs. He has repeatedly claimed that the U.S. wants to invade the oil-rich nation and has called Mr. Trump an “emperor.”
“Maduro is going to play this like a fiddle,” said Frank Mora, the former undersecretary of defense for the Western Hemisphere at the Pentagon during the Obama administration. “For much less, he has accused the U.S. of imperialism. And now he’s got the president of the U.S. talking about military action. I mean, this just plays right in to [his] whole narrative.”
One possible rationale for Mr. Trump’s comments could be to try to ratchet up pressure on Venezuela to persuade Congress and other countries to levy stronger economic sanctions against the nation, said Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Council of the Americas, a nonprofit that focuses on the region.
“Compared to military action, stronger economic sanctions may not seem so bad in response, so it may open up that option more,” Mr. Farnsworth said.
The comments could have a negative effect on neighboring countries, which have become outspoken about Venezuela’s authoritarianism. On Friday, Peru said it was expelling Venezuela’s ambassador, giving him five days to leave the country.
In a region with a long history of U.S. military intervention, many governments will be wary of seeming to support any U.S. action.
“At a time when—finally—Venezuela’s neighbors are coming together to criticize and isolate and delegitimize Maduro, the president makes a statement that I think can have a chilling effect on that process, because no one wants to be associated with an effort that might seem to support any possible U.S. effort to invade a Latin American country,” Mr. Mora said.
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence will travel to the region next week, in a trip aimed at reinforcing regional opposition to the Venezuelan regime, boosting the Colombian peace process, reversing a tide of coca cultivation, and laying the groundwork for potential bilateral trade deals.
Earlier this week, the U.S. Treasury Department placed sanctions on eight members of the Venezuelan legislature, due in part to their close ties to Mr. Maduro.
Despite being ousted from her post, Ms. Ortega is continuing her investigations into corruption. Her probes, though certain to be ignored at home, could lead to more sanctions and greater financial isolation for Mr. Maduro’s government, according to lawyers and human-rights activists.