Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Inside the Wide Open Race to Succeed John Bolton

Will he go hawk, safe bet, or for a foreign policy realist like Doug Macgregor, who would thrill Trump's closest supporters?

After the abrupt ouster of national security adviser John Bolton on Tuesday, a frenzied scramble to succeed him has ensued, with Republican friends of foreign policy restraint smelling a unique opportunity, and hawkish allies of the White House caught off guard.

On Sunday, The American Conservative first broke the story of Bolton’s imminent ouster. But President Donald Trump stirred the pot further Wednesday, giving wide-ranging remarks to the press in which he lambasted his former adviser’s core convictions.

“John is known as a tough guy,” the president said. “He’s so tough he got us into Iraq.”

The causticity of these remarks heightened speculation that Trump and Bolton had not merely fallen out personally—as had been the case in previous administration departures, such as the sackings of former Attorney General Jeff Sessions and former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson—but that Trump had grown frustrated with his administration’s own sclerotic policy formation. This potentially paves the way for Trump to make a clean break from Boltonism on national security matters.

The problem for those hopeful of a victory for foreign policy restraint is that three of the contenders for the role are essentially Bolton heirs.

Robert O’Brien, the Trump hostage negotiator whose stock has risen in the administration in recent months, is “Bolton lite,” according to a source who has known O’Brien for years. Frederick Fleitz, president of the Center for Security Policy (Frank Gaffney’s outfit) and Bolton’s former chief of staff, met with Trump in the Oval Office on Tuesday. The timing was probably a coincidence but his candidacy is nonetheless being pumped by Newsmax, owned by Trump pal Christopher Ruddy. Fleitz previously considered for director of national intelligence.

But the ringer is Richard Grenell, Bolton’s former spokesman at the U.N. and current U.S. ambassador to Germany, who is widely referred to in administration circles as “Trump’s point man on Europe.” Telegenic and ruthless, Grenell is the favorite of a coterie that surrounds the president’s son, Donald Trump, Jr., and anchored by conservative fixer Arthur Schwartz, a former consultant to Stephen Bannon and Anthony Scaramucci. Grenell is a Bolton protege, but the apprentice may have turned on the master, as he’s now all but openly auditioning for the job and has distanced himself from the beleaguered Bolton in recent months. Grenell is a vicious Iran hawk, and would be a popular choice in Trump circles and with segments of the president’s base.

Grenell was the putative favorite earlier this week, after being on few White House watchers’ radars even as Bolton’s stock faded over the summer. If Grenell is selected, it would follow the trajectory of other Trump selections, such as Tillerson, a flashy, last minute pick after other options were exhausted. But several sources tell The American Conservative Grenell is distrusted by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, now the preeminent foreign policy official in the Trump administration, having triumphed in his grudge match against Bolton. Two Pompeo lieutenants—Iran envoy Brian Hook and Korea envoy Stephen Biegun—are in play for the national security adviser job, and an ascendent Pompeo would certainly welcome a known quantity. If Grenell, who is dining with the president over the weekend, gets the nods Pompeo, who continues to flirt with a run for Senate, might feel he’s traded the frying pan for the fire.

Biegun is considered by official Washington as the safest choice. He finished runner-up to Bolton last time, and has deftly handled a signature presidential issue: North Korea. But Biegun also has extensive ties to the late Sen. John McCain and his family, and his candidacy was originally pushed in 2018 by neoconservatives. Populist media, such as Breitbart News, would likely complain that Biegun is the heir in spirit to H.R. McMaster, the doomed Bolton predecessor. Breitbart and influential Fox host Tucker Carlson have already taken aim at Hook, who remains in the mix.

I’m told the second runner-up to Bolton the last time the national security adviser job was open, Keith Kellogg, a former chief of staff to McMaster, is in poor health and not under serious consideration, though his name remains in the media mix.

At the center of the hubbub is a central question: is Trump about to make a seismic shift in his foreign policy or not? If not, then any of the aforementioned will stay the course. Sen. Marco Rubio tweeted on Thursday that the president assured him he would actually be tougher in central theaters, namely Venezuela, and Trump responded he would be tougher than Bolton. Piffle or policy? We shall see.

But hawkish allies of the administration are deeply nervous. Trump, at the urging of Carlson, Sen. Rand Paul, and allies in the House Freedom Caucus, is also considering a more entrepreneurial choice. Top of the heap: Douglas Macgregor, a gregarious former Army colonel and Fox News star. Macgregor would urge wrapping up the war in Afghanistan, a diplomatic solution to the Korean nuclear crisis, and detente with Russia while playing bad cop on NATO. Macgregor’s ascension would thrill the president’s core supporters and a transpartisan coalition of foreign policy realists who want significant change.

If Trump wants to shake things up, there are two alternatives to Macgregor: Rob Blair, an aide to White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney who tussled with Bolton, and Matt Pottinger, a former journalist and Marine, who is also an aide to Mulvaney.

This is the most wide-open Trump personnel race since at least the transition. Unlike when Trump fired McMaster and Tillerson, there is no designated successor. Outside players are auditioning. K.T. McFarland, the controversial former deputy to doomed NSA Michael Flynn, is now omnipresent on Fox News; the Trump administration is hurting for women in senior positions. And, bizarrely, Trump is now even phoning McMaster, triggering speculation about a most unlikely comeback.

Ultimately, as George W. Bush often said, the president is the decider.

Curt Mills is senior writer for The American Conservative.