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Bolton’s Pick for Deputy Could Roil Pentagon Relations

Mira Ricardel clashed with Defense Secretary James Mattis’s team in the early days of Trump’s presidency.

National Security Advisor John Bolton listens to President Donald Trump speak during a cabinet meeting at the White House on April 9.
(Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)
National Security Advisor John Bolton listens to President Donald Trump speak during a cabinet meeting at the White House on April 9. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)

National Security Advisor John Bolton’s choice for his deputy passes the loyalty litmus test for President Donald Trump, but it could signal yet more headwind for Defense Secretary James Mattis.

Last Friday, Bolton named Mira Ricardel, currently the undersecretary of commerce for export administration and a former Boeing executive, as deputy national security advisor. Having worked on the president’s 2016 campaign and helped the White House transition team after the election, Ricardel comes with unassailable credentials as a Trump supporter.

Her history with Trump will help bolster Bolton’s status with a president fixated with loyalty, but it could also create more friction between Mattis and the rest of the new national security team, according to four sources with ties to the administration. Those sources say the Pentagon chief butted heads with Ricardel early in the administration. 

Bolton’s appointment and the sacking of former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has created an uncertain landscape for Mattis, who has often played a moderating influence — with support from Tillerson and others — to an inexperienced and impulsive president. This month, Mattis reportedly successfully convinced the president not to undertake larger-scale military action against Syria that Trump initially favored.

Bolton and, to some extent, CIA Director Mike Pompeo — nominated to be the next secretary of state — hold more hard-line, hawkish views than Mattis. Bolton, for example, has previously argued for preemptive strikes on North Korea and Iran.

And Ricardel is more ideologically aligned with Bolton than Mattis, sources say.

When Bolton met Mattis last month after being named national security advisor, the defense secretary tried to make light of Bolton’s public image as an ultra-hard-line hawk.

“I’ve heard that you’re actually the devil incarnate, and I wanted to meet you,” Mattis joked as the two greeted each other in front of reporters outside the Pentagon.

Even if Mattis and Bolton are able to get along, Ricardel could be a wild card in the relationship. After Trump’s election victory when Ricardel oversaw Pentagon personnel during the transition, she clashed with Mattis and his aides over who should be named to senior civilian jobs, former officials and other sources close to the White House say.

Ricardel was brought in as the lead White House official on personnel decisions at the Defense Department after the inauguration, as the Trump team had soured on John Gallagher, who was deemed too close to Mattis and other top brass, a Republican congressional aide says.

She helped shoot down Mattis’s initial picks for top jobs at the Pentagon, including Anne Patterson, a retired senior diplomat who served as ambassador to Pakistan and Egypt, for undersecretary of defense for policy, the No. 3 position at the Defense Department. Mattis also ended up abandoning plans to name Michèle Flournoy, who served in the Pentagon during President Barack Obama’s administration, as deputy defense secretary.

The discord between Ricardel and Mattis held up nominations for key policy positions for months and derailed prospects for Ricardel to serve as undersecretary of defense for policy. In the end, she took a job at the Commerce Department, and Mattis later named John Rood to the undersecretary position.

The White House and the Pentagon declined to comment on Ricardel or her relationship with Mattis.

Ricardel moves into her new role as several senior officials on the National Security Council (NSC) follow H.R. McMaster, the former national security advisor, out the door.

In Bolton’s first week on the job, Michael Anton, the NSC’s top press spokesman; Nadia Schadlow, the deputy national security advisor for strategy; and Ricky Waddell, the deputy national security advisor overseeing day-to-day operations, announced plans to step down. Schadlow, who wrote the president’s National Security Strategy, was in the deputy role only since January. Trump’s homeland security advisor, Tom Bossert, also was unexpectedly pushed of his job this month, reportedly at Bolton’s request, and his deputy, cybersecurity coordinator Rob Joyce, also will depart and return to the National Security Agency.

It’s not clear if others at the NSC, including Middle East director Michael Bell, will stay on under Bolton, sources say. 

Turnover in the Trump White House has moved at a dizzying and unprecedented pace, with the president now on his third national security advisor in little more than a year.

For Bolton, who was shut out of Trump’s presidential campaign, Ricardel could provide an important link to the president and others in his inner circle.

In the spring of 2016, Bolton was keen to meet and advise the Republican candidate, but he was rebuffed, as Trump had disdain for those he considered establishment hawks, a former Trump campaign advisor says.

“Trump personally didn’t give him the time of day, although he did get at least one meeting with the campaign,” the source says. “Bolton took it in stride and continued to say positive things about Trump on television, which the campaign appreciated.”

Ricardel is one of a few foreign-policy advisors from the Trump campaign who secured jobs in the administration, the source says. “Nearly everyone else was stiffed in one way or another.”

Ricardel “fits the pattern of many Trump appointees who aren’t major players in Republican foreign-policy circles,” says another source close to the administration. As a result, she sidestepped the so-called “Never Trump” movement.

Trump blacklisted dozens of prominent Republican foreign-policy experts from joining his administration after they signed a series of Never Trump open letters before the election or for openly criticizing Trump during the campaign. The letters warned that Trump was unfit to be commander in chief and would endanger America’s national interests.

Those blocked from senior White House jobs include Jon Lerner, currently the deputy U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under Nikki Haley and a former Republican strategist and pollster.

Vice President Mike Pence initially planned to name Lerner as his new national security advisor. However, Lerner crafted critical anti-Trump ads on behalf of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s failed Republican presidential bid.

Trump was reportedly furious when reports of Pence’s decision emerged, and Lerner withdrew his name from consideration.

Sources close to the administration describe Ricardel as even-tempered and experienced, having spent nearly a decade as a senior executive with Boeing. Prior to that, she held senior positions in the Pentagon during the George W. Bush administration, including acting assistant secretary of defense for international security policy and deputy assistant secretary of defense for Eurasia.

“I selected her as Deputy National Security Advisor because her expertise is broad-based and includes national security matters related to our alliances, defense posture, technology security, foreign security assistance, and arms control,” Bolton said in a statement released last Friday announcing the decision. “Her policy-making and interagency experience will make her a great addition to the National Security Council.”

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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