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Venezuelan troops attend an event last year. Photo: Federico Parra/AFP/Getty Images

The White House National Security Council drafted a step-by-step “program of escalation” for Venezuela after President Trump took office, including the grounds for military intervention, a former senior official said today.

Why it matters: Fernando Cutz, who served as a close adviser to former National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and the top National Security Council official on South America, offered a rare insider account of how the administration has prepared to respond to the massive political and humanitarian crisis. He said at a Wilson Center event in Washington that specific responses were drawn up to anticipated events on the ground.

  • Cutz cited a Venezuelan takeover of the U.S. Embassy or the massacring of 1,000 Venezuelan civilians by the government as events that could trigger U.S. military action.
  • He said other steps the White House “had ready” included a full oil embargo, which would severely restrict Venezuela's cashflow but presented the question: “If we destroy Venezuela, and we make the situation worse for the people of Venezuela, what comes next?” They didn't have a satisfactory answer.

The backdrop: The New York Times reported earlier this month that the White House held a series of meetings over the last year with “rebellious military officers from Venezuela” who were hoping to depose President Nicolas Maduro. Trump himself said a year ago that there was a “military option” in Venezuela. Such rumblings provoke anxiety in a region with well-grounded suspicions of U.S. intervention.

  • Cutz was asked about the meetings and said the White House “never debated supporting a coup” or offered support or tacit approval to coup plotters, but was “open to listening” to “any significant players.” He also said he had “no idea” why Trump had mentioned military action, adding that it “wasn’t in the script.”

However, Cutz, who also served in the Obama administration and left the White House in April, made the case that a multilateral military intervention could ultimately be the right move.

His argument ...

  • The economic disaster is deepening, and the refugee crisis is approaching Syria’s scale. “Can Colombia sustain 3 million refugees? 5 million? Those are realistic numbers. So what do we do? [Close the borders and] let Venezuelans die in the streets of Caracas?”
  • Maduro is not going to leave on his own accord, and the crisis won't end as long as he's in power. That leaves a coup, uprising from the people or a foreign military intervention, and "the least bloody of those is probably going to be a foreign military intervention.”
  • His bottom line: “We made policy decisions in Rwanda and Syria, essentially to do nothing” and those failures became the biggest regrets for presidents Clinton and Obama. Not intervening in Venezuela would be a policy choice.

Where things stand: I asked Cutz whether the White House had discussed the possibility of an intervention with countries or international organizations that could be called upon to support it. He said he doesn't believe it has been discussed through diplomatic channels, but “the president would certainly muse on things” with other world leaders.

Go deeper

Updated 3 hours ago - World

Skripal poisoning suspects linked to Czech blast, as country expels 18 Russians

Combined images released by British police in 2018 of Alexander Petrov (L) and Ruslan Boshirov, who are suspected of carrying out an attack in the in the southern English city of Salisbury using Novichok, a military-grade nerve agent, and also the2014 Czech depot explosion. Photo: Metropolitan Police via Getty Images

Czech police on Saturday connected two Russian men suspected of carrying out a poisoning attack in Salisbury, England, with a deadly ammunition depot explosion southeast of the capital, Prague, per Reuters.

Driving the news: Czech officials announced Saturday they're expelling 18 Russian diplomats they accuse of being involved in the blast in Vrbětice, AP notes. Czech police said later they're searching for two men carrying several passports — including two with the names Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov.

Indianapolis mass shooting suspect legally bought 2 guns, police say

Marion County Forensic Services vehicles are parked at the site of a mass shooting at a FedEx facility in Indianapolis, Indiana, on Friday. Photo: Jeff Dean/AFP via Getty Images

The suspected gunman in this week's mass shooting at a FedEx facility in Indianapolis legally purchased two assault rifles believed to have been used in the attack, police said late Saturday.

Of note: The Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department's statement that Brandon Scott Hole, 19, bought the rifles last July and September comes a day after the FBI told news outlets that a "shotgun was seized" from the suspect in March 2020 after his mother raised concerns about his mental health.

U.S. and China agree to take joint climate action

US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry waves as he arrives at the Elysee Presidential Palace on March 10, 2021 in Paris. Photo: Chesnot/Getty Images

Despite an increasingly tense relationship, the U.S. and China agreed Saturday to work together to tackle global climate change, including by "raising ambition" for emissions cuts during the 2020s — a key goal of the Biden administration.

Why it matters: The joint communique released Saturday evening commits the world's two largest emitters of greenhouse gases to work together to keep the most ambitious temperature target contained in the Paris Climate Agreement viable by potentially taking additional emissions cuts prior to 2030.