The Colonel dodged a bullet. After all those tours of Iraq and Afghanistan, and a stint at the Pentagon, and assignments at the National Training Center out here in the desert, and a brigade command at Fort Bliss, he was quietly teaching land warfare theory at the Army War College in Pennsylvania. And then Donald Trump’s first national security advisor, General Michael Flynn, resigned in disgrace after twenty-four days. Yeah, Flynn had lied to the FBI about all sorts of things, repeatedly, and the whole time he had been a paid agent of a foreign government – Turkey, in his case. Trump tried to save him. That didn’t work – so eventually Trump chose General H. R. McMaster for the job.
McMaster stepped up. This was a matter of duty and he needed to staff up. He needed experts, and he knew the Colonel was the go-to guy on all things about Turkey – an extended posting to work with the NATO team in Istanbul will do that. McMaster put out feelers.
All of us told the Colonel not to bite. McMaster was a fine man and a superb general, and he knew his stuff about just about everything, but the problem was Donald Trump, a man with a giant ego who knew next to nothing about anything. McMaster would piss him off. Anyone who knows more than Donald Trump pisses him off. McMaster would be gone soon enough, as would be the expert on all things Turkey. Trump admires Erdogan and that’s that. Trump needs no detail beyond that – and Trump finally decided he didn’t need McMaster either.
Trump didn’t need anyone – so McMaster was gone soon enough – and the Colonel finished up his teaching assignment and joined the Army Futures Command. What will the future Army have to look like? That’s a question that has nothing to do with politics. The Colonel dodged a bullet. Joining the staff of the National Security Council was that bullet. And the problem always was Donald Trump, and only Donald Trump.
And it just happened again:
President Trump announced Tuesday that John Bolton was no longer his national security adviser, ending a stormy tenure marked by widening rifts between an unorthodox president seeking a foreign policy victory and an irascible foreign policy hawk who had been deeply skeptical of much of the president’s agenda.
Trump disclosed the departure in a terse Twitter message, saying he would name a replacement as early as next week. Potential candidates include at least two conservative foreign policy commentators who have appeared on Fox News, where Bolton’s fierce attacks on Democrats endeared him to Trump nearly two years ago.
The appeal didn’t last, however, as Bolton’s opposition to elements of Trump’s approach on North Korea, Iran and Afghanistan, among other issues, put him at odds with his boss and other advisers. Trump also largely blamed his third national security adviser for overselling the strength of Venezuela’s political opposition earlier this year.
That’s the problem with using angry and snide commentary on Fox News as the job interview for any White House position, because you hire nasty people:
“I informed John Bolton last night that his services are no longer needed at the White House,” Trump said on Twitter. “I asked John for his resignation, which was given to me this morning. I thank John very much for his service.”
The chaos and infighting that swirl around Trump’s White House was on immediate display, as Bolton disputed the president’s account of his departure.
“Let’s be clear, I resigned, having offered to do so last night,” Bolton said in a text to the Washington Post. “I will have my say in due course. But I have given you the facts on the resignation. My sole concern is US national security.”
Bolton also responded to Trump on Twitter. “I offered to resign last night and President Trump said, ‘Let’s talk about it tomorrow,’ ” he wrote.
Bolton’s chief nemesis within the administration, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, told reporters that “the president’s entitled to the staff that he wants at any moment.”
Of course all of that was a distraction. It may be that Trump didn’t fire him, or actually did, but it doesn’t matter. He’s gone, because someone thinks that he and that position are useless:
Trump had joked about the perception that Bolton was on thin ice, saying in May that he appreciated hearing Bolton’s views even though he often disagreed with them.
“It doesn’t matter,” Trump said, because only he makes decisions.
Trump will find someone else from Fox News’ guest commentators, and someone less irritating:
Bolton did not like Trump’s repeated meetings with Kim Jong-Un, administration officials said, and he had argued against directly meeting with Iranian officials. He also did not like the president’s repeated insistence that Russia rejoin the Group of Seven nations.
Trump regularly mocked Bolton as a warmonger, sometimes ticking off the names of countries and joking that Bolton would want to invade them, current and former senior administration officials said.
But this was never going to work:
The mustachioed conservative, a fixture in Republican administrations and hawkish foreign policy circles for decades, was an odd fit from the start.
Widely read and witty, Bolton was also known as a bureaucratic knife-fighter and a difficult colleague. He had ruffled feathers in previous administrations and on Capitol Hill. He could not win Senate confirmation as United Nations ambassador in 2005, leading President George W. Bush to install him there in a temporary capacity.
Although he frequently said he had checked his own views at the West Wing door when he went to work for Trump, Bolton’s distrust of diplomatic engagement with North Korea and Iran never abated. He also had more recently been seen as an obstacle in Trump’s effort to broker an end to the Afghanistan war.
What had Trump been thinking? This was the wrong guy, and he dumped most of the geopolitical experts and turned the National Security Council into his little ideological army often at war with the casually impulsive Trump:
Bolton brought in many friends and former colleagues to the National Security Council, which, while in keeping with past practice at the White House, was also viewed by some Trump aides as excessive. Bolton’s large entourage seemed to have deeper loyalty to him than to Trump, one former senior administration official said.
Bolton acted like “a big shot,” and Trump “got sick of it,” said that former official, who like others interviewed spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter on the record.
Bolton recently said he did not want to appear on TV to defend some of the administration’s positions, particularly on Afghanistan and Russia, according to administration officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.
Bolton was the insurgency here, and the Washington Post team of Karen DeYoung and Josh Dawsey and John Hudson provides more detail:
Trump finally decided to remove his top security aide on Tuesday after a heated discussion in the Oval Office, following accusations by other officials in the administration that Bolton had leaked to the news media, tried to drag others into his battles with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo over Afghanistan, and promoted his own views rather than those of the president, according to people familiar with the matter…
Bolton was seen by some in the administration as the source of a media report that Vice President Pence and he were allies in opposing a peace deal with the Taliban, negotiated by Pompeo’s State Department. Just before the meeting, Trump had tweeted that it was “Fake News,” designed to “create the look of turmoil in the White House, of which there is none.”
Bolton denied the charge, but the Afghanistan issue turned out to be a tipping point.
But of course there was much more:
Among accumulated grievances that had been building for months, the president was annoyed that Bolton would regularly call on members of Congress to try to get them to push Bolton-preferred policies on Trump, according to a senior official who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. Many on Bolton’s handpicked staff were seen as unnecessarily confrontational with other parts of the national security bureaucracy.
Trump had been inundated with complaints, officials said. Pence and acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney found Bolton increasingly abrasive and self-promoting.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin had told Trump that his national security adviser was not helping him, officials said. Bolton had even refused, in recent weeks, to go on television and defend the president’s policies on Afghanistan and Russia.
Bolton, the president felt, wasn’t loyal. He wasn’t on the team.
The president seemed to be shocked by that, but he should have known better:
In the wake of Bolton’s departure, a number of senior administration officials and Republicans close to the White House – all of whom spoke only on condition of anonymity about internal White House business – offered up long lists of those who would not mourn him. They included first lady Melania Trump, Pence, Mulvaney, Pompeo, Mnuchin, countless Defense Department officials and numerous international leaders.
But at the time of Bolton’s appointment, after he fired Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster in April of last year, abrasiveness appeared to be what Trump was looking for – a more in-your-face figure to replace McMaster’s military-like organization and policies.
He wanted abrasiveness. He got abrasiveness. He got what he thought he wanted:
Trump could hardly have been unaware of what he was getting with Bolton. A take-no-prisoners official in the administration of George W. Bush, where he strongly supported the 2003 Iraq invasion and used a seat as United Nations ambassador to push a hard line foreign policy, Bolton had spent the wilderness Obama years as a conservative think tanker and Fox News pundit. He advocated regime change in Iran, a preemptive strike against North Korea, and the severing of U.S. ties to international agreements and organizations he viewed as weak and accommodating.
That sounded good until it didn’t sound all that good:
Within a week after Bolton came aboard, Trump authorized a missile strike against Syria. A month later, he withdrew the United States from the Iran nuclear agreement. Both were seen as signals of Bolton’s arrival.
But Bolton also lost a lot of battles over a year and a half in office – among them, Trump’s outreach to North Korean leader Kim Jung-Un; his abrupt decision to withdraw troops from Syria and accommodate Turkish concerns over America’s Kurdish Syrian allies; his friendly relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin; the president’s professed willingness to meet with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani; and the Pompeo-led negotiations with the Taliban that began in October.
There was a misunderstanding here, which Slate’s Fred Kaplan sees this way:
Once in a while, even President Donald Trump makes a wise decision, and firing Bolton as his national security adviser – which he did Tuesday, tweeting, “I disagreed strongly with many of his suggestions, as did others in the Administration” – ranks as one of his best.
Still, questions abound. Why did Trump hire him in the first place? He clearly knew Bolton’s views, having heard him many times, as a Fox News pundit, call for bombing North Korea, ousting the mullahs of Iran, and scuttling every international treaty the U.S. has signed.
This was a mismatch:
Bolton played a crucial role in urging Trump to scuttle the Iran nuclear deal and the INF Treaty with Russia. But otherwise, it turns out that – though he loves a big military parade, a skyrocketing defense budget, and batting out belligerent tweets – Trump isn’t so keen to go to war (which isn’t to say he knows how to keep from stumbling into one). So Bolton – who’s never hesitated to let his views be known, even back when he was undersecretary of state and, for a very short time, U.N. ambassador – proved to be a poor fit.
But who would be a good fit for the job? What does Trump want to do in the world? How does he want to do it? He doesn’t know – clearly he’s never given the questions much thought – and until he does, he’ll always find something in his appointees worth grousing about, which is one reason he’s gone through so many of them in his still-brief time in office.
That means that the problem is Trump, but Bolton should have seen the writing on the wall:
It has been clear that Bolton’s days were numbered since early July, when Trump dispatched him to Mongolia while he and the rest of his team, including his daughter, flew to Japan for a G-20 summit and a meeting at the DMZ with Kim Jong-un. Ever since 1957, when Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev sent Vyacheslav Molotov to serve as ambassador to the remote country as part of his campaign to rid the Kremlin of Stalinist remnants, sending rivals or unwieldy subordinates to Mongolia has been a metaphor for consigning them to oblivion.
The handwriting should have been neon-bright last month when Bolton was refused a copy of the draft agreement that U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad was negotiating with the Taliban. Khalilzad told Bolton – who had opposed the talks – that he could read the draft in the presence of a senior official but couldn’t take a copy with him.
Bolton should have walked away then, not now, but Trump should worry now:
Whatever the sequence of events in this firing, we may at last have in Bolton a piece of scorched debris from Trump’s inner circle disgruntled and disloyal enough to write a scathing tell-all memoir.
But that won’t be the work of a hero:
Bolton was a terrible national security adviser – by any measure, among the worst in White House history. He is one of the very few who came to the job with a purely ideological agenda. He can’t be faulted for assuming that the president shared the agenda, but he can be condemned for wrecking the National Security Council staff, the apparatus in the West Wing that calls for interagency meetings to discuss foreign policy issues and provides the president with analysis and options. In his tenure, Bolton put forth his own recommendations with little staff support; NSC meetings were rarely held; decisions were made, or skirted, by a handful of senior officials on their own.
But then there’s Trump:
Trump allowed, even encouraged, this practice, seeing no need for expert analysis, devil’s-advocate questioning, or administration-wide consensus. L’état, c’est moi would be Trump’s motto, if he knew any French.
Bolton was happy to be Trump’s viceroy until, as is the danger in any autocratic system, the king grew unhappy with his advice.
There are no heroes here, and Jim Newell adds this:
John Bolton is a dangerous war lover who loves war so much that he couldn’t even get confirmed by the Senate in 2005, when love of war was all the rage in American politics. Bolton’s extremely well-known ideology either wasn’t known, or didn’t matter enough, to President Donald Trump, who hired him to serve as national security adviser in 2018 because he liked how Bolton sounded on the television set. After a predictable year and a half of Bolton being frustrated that the president, for whatever reasons, hadn’t carpet-bombed Iran, North Korea, and Venezuela, it was the president’s consideration of having the Taliban over for dinner and drinks that reportedly severed the relationship for good…
Delighting in Bolton’s departure does not mean praising some shrewd instance of leadership from the president – especially as we don’t know that Trump fired him in the first place. It’s enough of a black mark on Trump for hiring Bolton because he liked watching his mustache flap on Fox News, without bothering to recognize that they might spend the next indefinite amount of time disagreeing over major foreign policy decisions.
You don’t have to give Trump a hearty slap on the back to express relief that the mistake has been corrected, and Democrats should feel comfortable celebrating Bolton’s absence from an official position of power in the United States government.
It may be that simple, but Max Boot sees this:
I did not welcome John Bolton’s appointment as national security adviser. But now that he has been fired (or has resigned) I am more ambivalent about his departure than I had expected. In some ways he has been as bad as I feared, but in other ways he has been an important check on an impetuous president. If his replacement is a yes-man (or woman) the result could actually be worse.
That is possible:
When Bolton’s appointment was announced in March 2018, I described him as a “wild man” with legendary “antipathy toward international treaties and organizations,” a lack of “the kind of interpersonal skills” that a national security adviser needs “to coordinate all of the defense and foreign-policy agencies,” and a worrisome predilection for preemptive wars against Iran and North Korea.
I was right to worry that the foreign policy process would become more “chaotic” under Bolton. He disdained attempts by his predecessor, H.R. McMaster, to consult with other agencies. Bolton froze other officials out of the process in the hope that he alone could shape President Trump’s decision-making.
How ironic, then, that Bolton – who began his tenure by excluding bureaucratic rivals – wound up being excluded himself from decision-making about Afghan peace negotiations. His skepticism of a deal was said to have “irritated” Trump.
But here’s the thing: Much as I disagree with Bolton on many issues, he was right to be wary of a deal that would have led to U.S. troop withdrawal in return for empty promises of good behavior from the Taliban.
That was nonsense from the beginning, and there’s this:
Bolton was also right to be skeptical about peace talks with North Korea. Unlike Trump, he never fell in love with North Korean tyrant Kim Jong-Un. Bolton played an important role at the Hanoi summit in February in persuading Trump not to take a very bad deal after Kim offered to close down only one of his many nuclear facilities in exchange for a lifting of U.S. sanctions. Bolton has also been correct to note that North Korea’s short-range missile tests violated United Nations sanctions. Trump, by contrast, has recklessly given Kim permission to continue developing short-range missiles that place U.S. troops and U.S. allies in South Korea and Japan in harm’s way.
So that’s all good, but this isn’t:
Bolton played a more destabilizing and dangerous role when it came to Iran. McMaster, along with former defense secretary Jim Mattis and former secretary of state Rex Tillerson, had urged Trump to maintain the Iran nuclear accord because the Iranians were abiding by its terms. But within a month of Bolton’s ascension, Trump announced that the United States was exiting the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (as the accord is known). This was followed by unilateral sanctions on Iran.
Trump seemed to expect that U.S. pressure would cause Iran to come back to the table to negotiate an even more restrictive agreement. But instead of giving in, Iran has struck back. It has been accused of attacking shipping in the Persian Gulf (a charge it denies), and it has not reined in its militant proxies in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon or Yemen. Most ominous of all, Iran is now stepping up uranium enrichment in violation of the accord’s limits.
Bolton led Trump into a strategic dead end with no obvious way out save a resurrection of the nuclear accord or a war with Iran.
That was an unforgivable miscalculation, as was this:
Trump went all-in to support a military coup against Venezuelan dictator Nicolás Maduro. After the uprising fizzled out, the Washington Post reported on June 19 that Trump was “losing both patience and interest in Venezuela.” Now Trump has lost patience and interest with the national security adviser he blamed for the failure in Venezuela – and Iran.
But the problem isn’t really Bolton:
Bolton made many mistakes – just as his critics had expected – but he is not the real reason that U.S. foreign policy has been so erratic and unsuccessful over the past 17 months. If Trump wants to find the real culprit for his failed foreign policy, he should look in the mirror. Not even a president with far more acumen than Trump could possibly formulate and execute a successful foreign policy amid such incessant staff turnover – and such abrupt shifts of direction.
That’s why, when offered, one should never join the staff of the National Security Council as the ultimate subject-matter expert on this or that – at least not now, not in this administration. Trump will fire your boss soon enough. Careers end that way.
Do something else. There’s no other way that this could have ended, as David Graham explains here:
The problem is not that Trump doesn’t get along with his national security adviser; it’s that he doesn’t want one in the first place. The point of the job is to advise the president on national-security matters and to coordinate the efforts of the sprawling national-security bureaucracy to ensure the government works smoothly. But Trump doesn’t want advice, and he prefers to keep his subordinates in conflict.
This is, after all, his show:
The president has little interest in either facts or analysis about the problems that confront him. He prefers to trust his gut, and has often declared he knows more about matters than the diplomats and generals who report to him. He also has no interest in a consistent or functional policy process, and his decisions are frequently undertaken by apparent whim. No one can succeed as national security adviser because the job is antithetical to Trump’s approach to the presidency.
Trump tends to hire people because he’s liked their work outside, and then concludes that he can do a better job than they can.
But he can’t. And then they’re gone. Donald Trump may be running out of people willing to step in and join his administration, so expect a phone call, but just say no. Stay away. Don’t take the job. Dodge that bullet.
There are real jobs.