Bolton Expected to ‘Clean House’
The incoming national security advisor aims to ax dozens of White House officials as he dismantles McMaster’s NSC.
Incoming National Security Advisor John Bolton and people close to him are expected to launch a massive shake-up at the National Security Council, aiming to remove dozens of current White House officials, starting with holdovers from President Barack Obama’s administration, according to multiple sources.
Those targeted for removal include officials believed to have been disloyal to President Donald Trump, those who have leaked about the president to the media, his predecessor’s team, and those who came in under Obama.
“Bolton can and will clean house,” one former White House official said.
Another source said, “He is going to remove almost all the political [appointees] McMaster brought in.”
A second former White House official offered a blunt assessment of former Obama officials currently detailed or appointed to the NSC: “Everyone who was there during Obama years should start packing their shit.”
On Thursday evening, just hours after Trump tapped him for the job, Bolton held a call with longtime advisors, including Matthew Freedman, a Republican consultant who once advised Bolton at the State Department and the United Nations. Freedman is currently helping manage the transition, according to a source familiar with the call.
“Freedman is a very political guy that Bolton likes,” one Republican source said. “He is overly ambitious about cleaning house.”
Freedman disputed that account, saying he was not aware of the Thursday phone call. “I can tell you there is no list,” he said.
Another source close to Bolton said it was premature to be talking about personnel changes.
Trump and Bolton see eye to eye on a more hawkish foreign policy, especially when it comes to North Korea and Iran, and are equally averse to multilateral diplomacy, whether that means the U.N. or working with the European Union.
That has veterans of the Trump administration predicting that Bolton will quickly seek to install his own team at the NSC, which functions as a clearing house for policy advice and is supposed to integrate the different perspectives of U.S. government agencies.
Among the officials Bolton’s allies are urging him to fire is Nadia Schadlow, currently the deputy national security advisor for strategy. Schadlow was the primary author of the administration’s recently released National Security Strategy, which was viewed as a surprisingly mainstream document that reaffirmed many traditional U.S. foreign-policy positions. Another official likely to be targeted in a Bolton purge is McMaster’s deputy, Ricky Waddell.
It wouldn’t be the first purge to follow a change in Trump’s national security advisor. When Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster replaced retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn in the job last year, McMaster systematically eliminated officials seen as loyal to his predecessor. According to four sources close to the White House, some of those so-called “Flynnstones” — advisors loyal to Flynn — are believed to be plotting their return to the NSC.
Whether Bolton will sign off on the staff purge his allies and advisors are pushing is less clear, though he has been insistent about ousting so-called Obama holdovers. “You could easily say that people close to Bolton want these people to go,” one source said. Other sources stress that Bolton, a veteran bureaucratic infighter, makes his own decisions.
A source close to Bolton cautioned that any staffing changes would take time, given the need to process security clearances. That means Bolton will likely be stuck with his current staff for the May summit meeting between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Bolton is a known quantity for Trump, who has for years watched the former George W. Bush administration official on Fox News. He enters the White House with Trump’s ear, the source close to Bolton said, which promises to further raise tensions with chief of staff John Kelly. Whether Kelly and Bolton are able to forge a working relationship will mark an early test for both men’s ability to run a well-functioning staff.
Another question concerns Bolton’s traditionally hard-line stance toward Russia and Russian President Vladimir Putin, which is at odds with Trump’s. Two sources familiar with Bolton’s relationship with Trump said one of the big unknowns was how Bolton’s approach to Russia will go over with the president or if he’s even aware of those differences.
Trump and Bolton have discussed staffing changes since at least last July, when Bolton was offered the job as McMaster’s deputy, the position currently held by Waddell. Trump told Bolton that the deputy job would lead to the top post, but Bolton declined, saying he’d rather wait until he was offered the national security advisor job, according to three sources familiar with the matter.
McMaster’s departure may have been hastened by leaks emanating from the White House. Two sources familiar with the matter said McMaster was going to stay on until early summer.
But when the Washington Post reported this week that Trump had congratulated Putin in a phone call on his fraudulent election win — after receiving written briefing materials from the NSC instructing him not to congratulate Putin — the president reacted furiously and blamed McMaster. The story caused Trump to speed up McMaster’s departure, the sources said.
Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. @EliasGroll