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Trump Is Wrong to Keep Bolton Around

Donald Trump and his National Security Advisor John Bolton during NATO Summit 2018. Gints Ivuskans/shutterstock

Jonathan Swan reports on why Trump keeps Bolton around:

Trump has a strongly held theory of Bolton’s value, according to senior administration officials and advisers to the president, including people who have privately recommended to Trump that he fire Bolton. Seven sources who have discussed Bolton with Trump told me the president says having Bolton on his team improves his bargaining position and gives him a psychological advantage over foes like Iran and North Korea.

“Trump thinks that Bolton is a key part of his negotiating strategy,” said the same person who described Trump as “touchy” about Bolton. “He thinks that Bolton’s bellicosity and eagerness to kill people is a bargaining chip when he’s sitting down with foreign leaders. Bolton can be the bad cop and Trump can be the good cop. Trump believes this to his core.”

A former senior administration official who remains close to Trump said Bolton’s presence on the team “makes other people know that there is going to be that type of voice in the room.”

Trump’s reason for keeping Bolton in his position is not a very good one, but it does help to account for why Bolton hasn’t been fired yet. It doesn’t really matter why Trump wants to keep Bolton in the White House. The reality is that Trump dooms himself to failure and crises created by his own policies if he doesn’t fire him.

The idea that Bolton improves Trump’s bargaining position is just wrong as a matter of fact. Bolton serves as the perfect foil and target for both the North Korean and Iranian governments. His continued presence as National Security Advisor and his outsized role in shaping policy according to his agenda don’t give Trump an advantage over the other governments. Bolton has been a liability in North Korea talks by encouraging Trump to make maximalist demands that torpedoed the Hanoi summit. The Iranian government sees Bolton’s role in the administration as proof that Trump’s offer to talk is being made in bad faith, and they have every reason to think that. Bolton continues to get his way on almost everything related to Iran. If Bolton is supposed to be the “bad cop” to Trump’s “good cop,” it doesn’t work if the “good cop” is always indulging the other one and doing whatever he says. While the president deludes himself about Bolton’s “value,” Bolton is busily pushing his own agenda that has no place for any “good cops.”

North Korea and Iran don’t have to be convinced that the U.S. government has trigger-happy fanatics advising the president. They take this as a given. Keeping Bolton around to convince these governments that the U.S. might attack them is a remarkably dumb thing to do unless the president actually wants to attack them. If the president doesn’t want war, as we are so often told he doesn’t, he can prove that by ousting the arch-warmonger from his administration. There is no chance that diplomacy with North Korea makes any substantive progress as long as Bolton is there, and it is practically impossible for Trump to make the changes to his Iran policy that he needs to make as long as he has a leading regime changer and MEK booster as National Security Advisor. If the president wants to have failed North Korea and Iran policies, keep should let Bolton stay. If he wants to have any chance of salvaging something with either one, giving Bolton the boot is essential.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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