President Donald Trump said he was not ruling out “a military option” Friday for the United States’ involvement in Venezuela’s ongoing government power struggle, which has led to widespread, and at times, violent demonstrations within the country.
“Venezuela is a mess,” said Trump, in an appearance before reporters with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Ambassador to the United NationsNikki Haley at his New Jersey golf club. “It is a very dangerous mess and a very sad situation.”
Asked about the possibilities for U.S. intervention in the country currently led by President Nicolas Maduro — whom the Trump administration has labeled a “dictator” — the president went out of his way to discuss utilizing the armed services.
“We have many options for Venezuela. And, by the way, I’m not going to rule out a military option,” said Trump. “We have many options for Venezuela. This is our neighbor … we’re all over the world, and we have troops all over the world in places that are very, very far away.
“Venezuela is not very far away and the people are suffering and they’re dying,” he continued. “We have many options for Venezuela, including a possible military option, if necessary.”
The president’s remarks about not ruling out a “military option” didn’t sit well with Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, who responded in a statement, “No. Congress obviously isn’t authorizing war in Venezuela. Nicolas Maduro is a horrible human being, but Congress doesn’t vote to spill Nebraskans’ blood based on who the Executive lashes out at today.”
On Friday, Trump refused a requested call from Maduro, according to a statement from the White House.
“Today, Nicolas Maduro requested a phone call with President Donald J. Trump. Since the start of this administration, President Trump has asked that Maduro respect Venezuela’s constitution, hold free and fair elections, release political prisoners, cease all human rights violations, and stop oppressing Venezuela’s great people. The Maduro regime has refused to heed this call, which has been echoed around the region and the world. Instead Maduro has chosen the path of dictatorship,” the statement reads.
“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 statement added.
Military engagement in the turmoil in the South American country would mark a vast escalation in U.S. participation, which has thus far been limited to rebukes from the White House and economic sanctions.
Last week, national security adviser Gen. H.R. McMaster appeared at a White House press briefing to read a statement from Trump that noted the current Venezuelan “regime” “refused to heed” a call for “free and fair” elections.
“Maduro is not just a bad leader, he is now a dictator,” said McMaster, who accused the Venezuelan president of seizing “absolute power” through a “sham election.”
“The United States stands with the people of Venezuela in the face of this oppression,” McMaster added.
During the same briefing, Secretary of the Treasury Steve Mnuchin announced sanctions to freeze “all assets of Maduro subject to U.S. jurisdiction” and restrict U.S. deals with the leader.
When asked about military options following Trump’s comments Friday, a U.S. official told ABC News that “the State Department still has the lead.”
“The Pentagon has received no orders as of yet. The military conducts contingency planning for a variety of situations. If called upon, we are prepared to support whole of government efforts to protect our national interest and safeguard U.S. citizens,” Department of Defense spokesperson Eric Tahon said.
On Thursday, Maduro referenced Trump during an address to the Venezuelan constitutional assembly, inviting a dialogue with the American leader.
“Mr. Donald Trump, here is my hand,” said Maduro, according to an Associated Press report on the speech. For years, Maduro and his predecessor, the late Hugo Chavez, have accused the U.S. of interfering in their country’s democracy and attempting to overthrow their leadership.
From New Jersey Friday, Trump would not comment on the possibility of a “regime change” in the country when it was raised during a question that also asked about the ongoing tensions between the U.S. and North Korea.
“I don’t want to comment because I think they’re very different places so I don’t want to comment,” said Trump.
“I support peace. I support safety. And I support having to get very tough if we have to to protect the American people and also to protect our allies,” he added.
ABC News’ Elizabeth McLaughlin contributed to this report.