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Scoop: Inside Trump's naval blockade obsession

Illustration of a map with Battle Ship game toy pieces placed near Venezuela.
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

President Trump has suggested to national security officials that the U.S. should station Navy ships along the Venezuelan coastline to prevent goods from coming in and out of the country, according to 5 current and former officials who have either directly heard the president discuss the idea or have been briefed on Trump's private comments.

Driving the news: Trump has been raising the idea of a naval blockade periodically for at least a year and a half, and as recently as several weeks ago, these officials said. They added that to their knowledge the Pentagon hasn't taken this extreme idea seriously, in part because senior officials believe it's impractical, has no legal basis and would suck resources from a Navy that is already stretched to counter China and Iran.

  • Trump has publicly alluded to a naval blockade of Venezuela. Earlier this month he answered "Yes, I am" when a reporter asked whether he was mulling such a move. But he hasn't elaborated on the idea publicly.

In private, Trump has expressed himself more vividly, these current and former officials say.

  • "He literally just said we should get the ships out there and do a naval embargo," said one source who's heard the president’s comments. "Prevent anything going in."
  • "I'm assuming he's thinking of the Cuban missile crisis," the source added. "But Cuba is an island and Venezuela is a massive coastline. And Cuba we knew what we were trying to prevent from getting in. But here what are we talking about? It would need massive, massive amounts of resources; probably more than the U.S. Navy can provide."

Hawkish GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham, a close Trump ally, has a different perspective about the value of a show of military force. "I've been saying for months that when the Venezuelan military sees an American military presence gathering force, this thing ends pretty quickly," he told me.

Behind the scenes: In recent months, an alleged drug lord in President Nicolás Maduro's inner circle has reached out to the White House through intermediaries, according to administration officials and other sources briefed on the outreach.

  • Diosdado Cabello, an alleged drug lord with substantial power inside the Venezuelan political and military elite, has been communicating through emissaries with National Security Council official Mauricio Claver-Carone, these sources said. These sources did not know what messages, if any, Claver-Carone had sent back to Cabello through these intermediaries.
  • A senior administration official added that members of various centers of power within Venezuela, including Cabello, have been reaching out through emissaries to U.S. government officials.
  • Trump administration officials view Cabello as an important power broker, and some say the Venezuelan opposition's April 30 uprising would have succeeded if Cabello had been involved.
  • Some State Department officials are concerned about the idea of communicating with an alleged drug lord, per a source familiar with the situation. It's also the case that some administration officials have assessed that Cabello purportedly sending messages is a positive sign and suggests Maduro's circle is gradually cracking.

The big picture: Thus far, Trump has sought to strangle dictator Maduro with escalating sanctions. Senior administration officials say they are focused on diplomacy and economic pressure and have little interest in military options, though they won't rule them out.

  • Trump is deeply frustrated that the Venezuelan opposition has failed to topple Maduro — more than 3 months after a failed uprising, and more than 6 months after Trump led the world in recognizing Juan Guaidó as the legitimate leader of Venezuela.

Trump has had good reason to be frustrated, current and former officials said. For the first year and a bit of his presidency, Defense Secretary James Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and chief of staff John Kelly collaborated to ignore or stymie what they judged to be dangerous requests from Trump. This included, in Mattis' case, a request for military options to topple Maduro, according to sources with direct knowledge of Trump's unfulfilled asks.

  • Trump would berate his former national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, asking him why he hadn't produced the Venezuela military options he'd requested. But McMaster wasn't the obstacle to producing the options for Venezuela; it was Mattis, according to sources with direct knowledge.
  • McMaster grew so exasperated with Mattis that around September 2017, he sent him a memo saying the president had requested new options for Venezuela.
  • In the classified memo, which has never been reported on until now, McMaster gave Mattis a deadline to present the military options, according to sources familiar with the memo's contents. Mattis ignored the memo and blew past the deadline, these sources said.
  • This dynamic changed once John Bolton and Mike Pompeo took over.

The bottom line: Trump has no interest in committing U.S. ground troops to Venezuela, according to senior administration officials, but he has told them to keep piling pressure on Maduro and to look for creative ways to help Guaidó force Maduro out of power.