Venezuela has appeared to slide toward a more volatile stage of unrest in recent days, with anti-government forces looting weapons from a military base after a new legislative body usurped the authority of the opposition-controlled congress.
"The people are suffering and they are dying. We have many options for Venezuela including a possible military option if necessary," Trump told reporters in an impromptu question and answer session.
The comments appeared to shock Caracas, with Venezuela's Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino calling the threat "an act of craziness."
The White House said Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro requested a phone call with Trump on Friday, which the White House appeared to spurn, saying in a statement that Trump would gladly speak to Venezuela's leader when democracy was restored in that country.
Venezuelan authorities have long said U.S. officials were planning an invasion. A former military general told Reuters earlier this year that some anti-aircraft missiles had been placed along the country's coast for precisely that eventuality.
In Washington, the Pentagon said the U.S. military was ready to support efforts to protect U.S. citizens and America's national interests, but that insinuations by Caracas of a planned U.S. invasion were "baseless."
Trump's suggestion of possible military action came in a week when he has repeatedly threatened a military response if North Korea threatens the United States or its allies.
Asked if U.S. forces would lead an operation in Venezuela, Trump declined to provide details. "We don't talk about it but a military operation - a military option - is certainly something that we could pursue," he said.
Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, criticized Trump's new stance.
"Congress obviously isn't authorizing war in Venezuela," he said in a statement. "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."
'MADURO MUST BE THRILLED'
The president's comments conjured up memories of gunboat diplomacy in Latin America during the 20th century, when the United States regarded its "backyard" neighbors to the south as underlings who it could easily intimidate through conspicuous displays of military power.
The U.S. military has not directly intervened in the region since a 1994-1995 operation that aimed to remove from Haiti a military government installed after a 1991 coup.