For a year-and-a-half, John Bolton has been Donald Trump’s bad cop.
Don’t believe me? Just ask the president.
Flashback to last Christmas, when Trump made a surprise trip to U.S. troops in Iraq after some prodding from the media. Holding court with the press, the president said: “By the way John and I agree on all of this.” This? The president had just announced a shock troop pullout in Syria—a pullback that the president’s NSA would eventually help smother in bureaucratic backrooms.
“I think John will say that we went through numerous—extension, extension, extension—John?” the president asked his top national security aide, characteristically, in front of the press. “And John’s…pretty strong on the subject. He’s pretty strong, he’s pretty hawkish on everything having to do with the military.”
Though President Trump is the commander-in-chief most skeptical of America’s role abroad in at least a generation, the former Manhattan maven has always been equally concerned about not appearing “weak.” Trump’s public handwringing with an official his junior has always made for a circus show.
The two have never been close, according to my interviews with administration officials current and former, and those who have known both men for years. So why, exactly, does the former George W. Bush U.N. ambassador sit in the chair of Henry Kissinger and Brent Scowcroft for this White House? And might his days in that role be numbered?
No major politician, not even Barack Obama, excoriated the Iraq war more fiercely than did Trump during the primaries. He did this in front of a scion of the house of Bush and in the deep red state of South Carolina. He nevertheless went on to win that primary, the Republican nomination and the presidency on that antiwar message.
And so, to see Bolton ascend to the commanding heights of the Trump White House shocked many from the time it was first rumored. “I shudder to think what would happen if we had a failed presidency,” Scott McConnell, TAC’s founding editor, said in late 2016 at our foreign policy conference, held, opportunely, during the presidential transition. “I mean, John Bolton?”
At the time, Bolton was a candidate for secretary of state, a consideration scuttled in no small part because of the opposition of Kentucky Republican Senator Rand Paul. As McConnell wrote in November of that year: “Most of the upper-middle-level officials who plotted the Iraq War have retreated quietly into private life, but Bolton has kept their flame alive.” Bolton had already been passed over for NSA, losing out early to the doomed Michael Flynn. Rex Tillerson beat him for secretary of state. Bolton was then passed over for the role of Tillerson’s deputy. When Flynn flamed out of the White House the following February, Trump chose a general he didn’t know at all, H.R. McMaster, to replace him.
Bolton had been trying to make a comeback since late 2006, after failing to hold his job as U.N. ambassador (he had only been a recess appointment). His landing spots including a Fox News contributorship and a post at the vaunted American Enterprise Institute. Even in the early days of the Trump administration, Bolton was around, and accessible. I remember seeing him multiple times in Washington’s Connecticut Avenue corridor, decked out in the seersucker he notoriously favors during the summer months. Paired with the familiar mustache, the man is the Mark Twain of regime change.
But Bolton coupled the Fox and AEI sinecures with gnarlier associations—for one, the Gatestone Institute, a, let’s say Islam-hostile outfit, associated with the secretive, influential Mercer billionaires. He also struck a ferocious alliance with the Center for Security Policy, helmed by the infamous Frank Gaffney, and gave paid remarks to the National Council for the Resistance of Iran, the lynchpin organization of the People’s Mujahideen of Iran, or MEK. The latter two associations have imbued the spirit of this White House, with Gaffney now one of the most underrated power players in Washington, and the MEK’s “peaceful” regime change mantra all but the official line of the administration.
More than any of these gigs, Bolton benefited from two associations that greased the wheels for his joining the Trump administration.
The first was Steve Bannon, the former White House chief strategist. If you want to understand the administration’s Iran policy under Bolton to date, look no further than a piece by the then-retired diplomat in conservative mainstay National Review in August 2017, days after Bannon’s departure from the White House: “How to Get Out of the Iran Deal.” Bolton wrote the piece at Bannon’s urging. Even out of the administration, the former Breitbart honcho was an influential figure.
“We must explain the grave threat to the U.S. and our allies, particularly Israel,” said Bolton. “The [Iran Deal’s] vague and ambiguous wording; its manifest imbalance in Iran’s direction; Iran’s significant violations; and its continued, indeed, increasingly, unacceptable conduct at the strategic level internationally demonstrate convincingly that [the Iran deal] is not in the national-security interests of the United States.”
Then Bolton, as I documented, embarked on a campaign of a media saturation to make a TV-happy president proud. By May Day the next year, he would have a job, a big one, and one that Senator Paul couldn’t deny him: national security advisor. That wasn’t the whole story, of course. Bolton’s ace in the hole was Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire casino magnate who has helped drive Trump’s Israel policy. If Trump finally moves against Bolton, it will likely be because Adelson failed to strenuously object.
So will Trump finally do it? Other than White House chief of staff, a position Mick Mulvaney has filled in an acting capacity for the entire calendar year, national security advisor is the easiest, most senior role to change horses.
A bombshell Washington Post story lays out the dire truth: Bolton is so distrusted on the president’s central prerogatives, for instance Afghanistan, that he’s not even allowed to see sensitive plans unsupervised.
Bolton has also come into conflict with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, according to three senior State Department officials. Pompeo is the consummate politician. Though an inveterate hawk, the putative Trump successor does not want to be the Paul Wolfowitz of the Iran war. Bolton is a bureaucratic arsonist, agnostic on the necessity of two of the institutions he served in—Foggy Bottom and the United Nations. Pompeo, say those around him, is keen to be beloved, or at least tolerated, by career officials in his department, in contrast with Bolton and even Tillerson.
The real danger Bolton poses is to the twin gambit Trump hopes to pull off ahead of, perhaps just ahead of, next November—a detente deal with China to calm the markets and ending the war in Afghanistan. Over the weekend, the president announced a scuttled meeting with the Taliban at Camp David, which would have been an historic, stunning summit. Bolton was reportedly instrumental in quashing the meet. Still, there is a lot of time between now and next autumn, and the cancellation is likely the latest iteration of the president’s showman diplomacy.
Ending America’s longest war would be a welcome rebuttal to Democrats who will, day in and day out, charge that Trump is a fraud. But to do so, he will likely need a national security advisor more in sync with the vision. Among them: Tucker Carlson favorite Douglas Macgregor, Stephen Biegun, the runner-up previously, or the hawkish, but relatively pragmatic retired General Jack Keane.
Bolton seems to be following the well-worn trajectory of dumped Trump deputies. Jeff Sessions, a proto-Trump and the first senator to endorse the mogul, became attorney general and ideological incubator of the new Right’s agenda only to become persona non grata in the administration. The formal execution came later. Bannon followed a less dramatic, but no less explosive ebb and flow. James Mattis walked on water until he didn’t.
And Bolton appeared the leading light of a neoconservative revival, of sorts, until he didn’t.
Curt Mills is senior writer for The American Conservative.