Maduro regime in Venezuela could be 'toppled very quickly,' Trump says

U.S. President Donald Trump suggests that Venezuela's leader Nicolas Maduro could be easily toppled in a military coup as the U.S steps up financial pressure by slapping the socialist president's inner circle with fresh sanctions.

U.S. slaps fresh sanctions on Maduro's wife and top-ranking government officials

U.S. President Donald Trump meets with Ivan Duque, the new leader of Colombia, on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly on Tuesday. Colombia has felt the brunt of Venezuela's troubles over the past two years. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

U.S. President Donald Trump suggested on Tuesday that Venezuela's leader Nicolas Maduro could be easily toppled in a military coup as his administration slapped the socialist president's inner circle with fresh sanctions.

Trump declined to respond to questions about whether a U.S.-led military intervention in the crisis-stricken country was possible, saying he doesn't reveal military strategy.

"It's a regime that, frankly, could be toppled very quickly by the military if the military decides to do that," Trump said in comments on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, which he addressed Tuesday. "It's a truly bad place in the world today."

Earlier in the day, the Trump administration slapped financial sanctions on four members of Maduro's inner circle, including his wife and the nation's vice-president, on allegations of corruption.

As part of the actions, the U.S. barred Americans from doing business with Maduro's wife Cilia Flores, Vice-President Delcy Rodriguez, Communications Minister Jorge Rodriguez and Defence Minister Vladimir Padrino. It will also seize any financial assets belonging to them in the United States.

"We are continuing to designate loyalists who enable Maduro to solidify his hold on the military and the government while the Venezuelan people suffer," Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement.

Latest in series of sanctions

Over the past two years the Trump administration has sanctioned dozens of individuals, including Maduro himself, on allegations of corruption, drug trafficking and human rights abuses.

But until now it had spared key leaders like Delcy Rodriguez, as well as the U.S.-trained Padrino, believing they occupy seats of power and could play a key role in an eventual transition.

David Smilde, a Tulane University professor who has spent more than two decades living and working in Venezuela, said Tuesday's actions would seem to suggest the U.S. has given up trying to sow division within the government in the hopes it could force a democratic transition from within.

"This clearly breaks from that strategy, said Smilde. "If everyone is sanctioned then it could end up uniting the government."

Badge of honour

Maduro later appeared on state television, thanking Trump for sanctions that he called a badge of honour for those around him in a battle against what he calls an imperialist power. He also blasted the sanctions targeting his wife.

"If you want to attack me, come at me directly. But don't touch Cilia and my family," Maduro said, calling her an anti-imperialist warrior. "Her only crime is being my wife."

Flores is an influential figure in her own right, and has served in congress as well as a constitutional assembly that has expansive powers.

Beyond rallying Maduro's opponents, it's unclear what impact the sanctions will have.

For over a year, top U.S. officials have struggled to build support for more-sweeping oil sanctions, facing resistance from energy companies still active in the country and fearing it could tip the OPEC nation over the edge at a time of hyperinflation and widespread food and medicine shortages.

The latest sanctions by the U.S. Treasury Department also seized a $20 million US private jet belonging to an alleged front man for powerful socialist party boss Diosdado Cabello.

Cilia Flores, right, is shown on Tuesday in Caracas alongside her husband, Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro. (Miraflores Palace/Handout via Reuters)

Trump publicly floated the idea of a military option in August 2017; he has avoided direct reference to a possible attack since then.

Maduro, however, has repeatedly accused the U.S. of backing attempts to overthrow him.

But Fernando Cutz, who until April led U.S. policy on Venezuela at the National Security Council under both presidents Barack Obama and Trump, said that only in unusual cases would the U.S. employ military action in Venezuela.

An attack on the U.S. Embassy in Caracas harming American citizens would warrant a military response, he said, or a scenario where Venezuelan government forces slaughtered 1,000 or more of its own people.

Cutz spoke publicly Monday at the Wilson Center think-tank in Washington for the first time since leaving government. He said he did not back force as an option, but that it's likely the only way the entrenched Maduro regime could be removed.

"For us to remove that from the table is irresponsible," Cutz said. "We need to keep all the options on the table."

New U.S. aid package

Adding to the political pressure, a bipartisan group of 11 U.S. senators on Monday introduced sweeping legislation that calls for expanding humanitarian relief to Venezuelans by $40 million and increasing pressure on Maduro's government.

"From the country's plummeting economy to the deterioration of the rule of law, something has got to change," said Sen. David​ Perdue, a Georgia Republican and member of the Armed Services Committee.

On Tuesday, the U.S. pledged an additional $48 million to help Venezuelans fleeing their country's historic crisis, bringing the total American aid since 2017 for Venezuelan refugees to $95 million.

In a sign of simmering tensions, U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence also noted reports of​ Maduro sending troops to Venezuela's border with Colombia, a U.S. ally, calling it an intimidation tactic.

"Let me be clear: the USA will always stand with our allies," Pence tweeted.