In a meeting last August to discuss sanctions on Venezuela in the Oval Office, Mr Trump asked why he could not just invade the country.
Months later, Mr Trump was briefed not to mention the topic at a private dinner with leaders from four Latin American allies, but the first thing the president said was “my staff told me not to say this” – stunning his advisers at the time.
The initial discussion, which took place with the then US secretary of state Rex Tillerson and national security adviser Herbert McMaster among others, resulted in aides taking turns to explain why military action was not a good idea.
They argued that bringing up the topic could risk losing hard-won support among Latin American governments to punish President Nicolas Maduro for taking Venezuela down the path of dictatorship.
Mr Trump apparently argued the case and 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, nonetheless persisted in the president’s head.
The day after the topic was first brought up at the private Oval Office meeting last August, he again spoke 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 afterward, he raised the issue with Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos, two high-ranking Colombian officials and the US official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
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 and the same three officials, it was reported.
The US official said Mr Trump was specifically briefed not to raise the issue and was told it wouldn’t play well, but the first thing the president said at the dinner was: “My staff told me not to say this.”
Mr Trump then went around asking each leader if they were sure they didn’t 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 aside the president and walked him through the dangers of an invasion, the official said.
Taken together, the behind-the-scenes talks, the extent and details of which have not been previously reported, highlight how Venezuela’s political and economic crisis has received top attention under Mr Trump in a way that was unimaginable in the Obama administration.
But critics say the details underscore how his America First foreign policy, at times, can seem outright reckless, providing ammunition to America’s adversaries.
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 European Union have levied sanctions on dozens of top Venezuelan officials, including Mr Maduro himself, over allegations of corruption, drug trafficking and human rights abuses.
The US has also distributed more than $30m to help Venezuela’s neighbours absorb an influx of more than one million migrants who have fled the country.
For Mr Maduro, who has long claimed that the US has military designs on Venezuela and its vast oil reserves, Mr Trump’s bellicose talk provided the unpopular leader with an immediate if short-lived boost as he was trying to escape blame for widespread food shortages and hyperinflation.
Within days of the president’s talk of a military option, Mr Maduro filled the streets of Caracas with loyalists to condemn “Emperor” Trump’s belligerence, ordered up nationwide military exercises and threatened to arrest opponents he said were plotting his overthrow with the US.
“Mind your own business and solve your own problems, Mr. Trump!” thundered Nicolas Maduro, the president’s son, at the government-stacked constituent assembly.
“If Venezuela were attacked, the rifles will arrive in New York, Mr Trump,” the younger Maduro said. “We will take the White House.”
Even some of the staunchest US allies were begrudgingly forced to side with Mr Maduro in condemning Mr Trump’s sabre rattling.
Mr Santos, a big backer of US attempts to isolate Mr Maduro, said an invasion would have zero support in the region. The Mercosur trade bloc, which includes Brazil and Argentina, issued a statement that said “the only acceptable means of promoting democracy are dialogue and diplomacy”, and repudiated “any option that implies the use of force”.
But among Venezuela’s beleaguered opposition movement, hostility to the idea of a military intervention has slowly eased.
A few weeks after Mr Trump’s public comments, Harvard economics professor Ricardo Hausmann, a former Venezuelan planning minister, wrote a syndicated column titled “D Day Venezuela”, in which he called for a “coalition of the willing” made up of regional powers and the US to step in and support militarily a government appointed by the opposition-led national assembly.
Mark Feierstein, who oversaw Latin America on the National Security Council during the Obama administration, said that strident US action on Venezuela, however commendable, won’t loosen Mr Maduro’s grip on power if it’s not accompanied by pressure from the streets.
However, he thinks Venezuelans have largely been demoralised after a crackdown on protests last year triggered dozens of deaths, and the threat of more repression has forced dozens of opposition leaders into exile.
“People inside and outside the administration know they can ignore plenty of what Trump says,” Mr Feierstein, who is now a senior adviser at the Albright Stonebridge Group, said of Mr Trump’s talk of military invasion of Venezuela.
“The concern is that it raised expectations among Venezuelans, many of whom are waiting for an external actor to save them.”
Agencies contributed to this report
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