Trump Axes Bolton via Twitter
Another national security advisor departs the White House after losing a series of policy battles.
U.S. President Donald Trump on Tuesday fired National Security Advisor John Bolton via Twitter, ending a turbulent 17-month run in the White House for the hawkish security advisor during which he grew increasingly isolated and on the losing end of key policy debates.
Bolton’s “services are no longer needed at the White House,” Trump said in his tweets. “I disagreed strongly with many of his suggestions, as did others in the Administration.”
Bolton’s firing—though he said he offered his resignation Monday night—comes as he has found himself on the losing end of a series of foreign-policy debates. An uber-conservative advocate of the unilateral application of U.S. power, Bolton was opposed to Trump’s diplomatic opening with North Korea, his effort to find a negotiated solution to the war in Afghanistan, and Trump’s repeated overtures to the leaders of Iran to meet.
The latest high-profile departure from a White House in chaos promises to further destabilize a foreign-policy team in disarray, just ahead of the big United Nations General Assembly in New York. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has flirted with running for the open U.S. Senate seat in Kansas, and senior State Department officials concede that the United States has ceded influence to rivals like China in part because of the turmoil in leadership.
While the exact circumstances of Bolton’s firing remained unclear on Tuesday, it comes immediately on the heels of the collapse of peace talks with the Taliban, who had been invited to a meeting with Trump at Camp David. Trump abruptly canceled the meeting after a Taliban attack in Kabul. Bolton had been opposed to the meeting, the planning for which exposed deep divisions in the president’s national security team.
Bolton and defense officials argued that inviting “a designated terrorist organization” to Camp David would “set a terrible precedent,” one senior administration official told Foreign Policy. But Pompeo, eager to clinch a deal that would pave the way for thousands of U.S. troops to begin withdrawing from the 18-year conflict, pushed for the meeting.
Bolton took on the job in April 2018 and was Trump’s longest-serving national security advisor in a White House famous for constant hirings and firings. Trump’s first national security advisor, Michael Flynn, lasted less than a month before resigning amid scandal for misleading the FBI and vice president about his contacts with Russian diplomats. His next national security advisor, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, resigned after just over a year in office following internal clashes with the president and other advisors over foreign-policy decisions.
In a tweet on Tuesday after Trump announced his firing, Bolton asserted his departure was on his own initiative and appeared to have been caught off guard by the president’s announcement: “I offered to resign last night and President Trump said, ‘Let’s talk about it tomorrow.’”
After Trump announced Bolton’s departure on Tuesday and the media described it as a firing, Bolton began texting reporters to tell them that he resigned and wasn’t fired.
White House officials made no attempt to back up Bolton’s version of events and said Bolton and Trump had grown apart on a number of issues. White House spokesman Hogan Gidley told reporters that Bolton’s “priorities and policies just don’t line up with the president.”
Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, Pompeo said Bolton was asked to resign Monday night.
The timing of Bolton’s firing appeared to catch members of the Trump administration by surprise. Just hours before the announcement, Bolton had been slated to conduct a briefing alongside Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Pompeo on sanctions Tuesday. Only Pompeo and Mnuchin showed up. When asked if he was blindsided by Trump’s announcement, Pompeo smiled and dismissed the question: “I’m never surprised.”
With Bolton ousted, Charles Kupperman, his deputy, will take over as acting national security advisor. Among the names mentioned as possible permanent replacements are the current U.S. envoy to North Korea, Stephen Biegun, and Doug MacGregor, a retired U.S. Army colonel. Biegun’s name has recently been in the mix to take over as the No. 2 senior official at the State Department. Biegun is perceived as close to Pompeo, and his appointment as national security advisor would further cement Pompeo’s role as Trump’s key lieutenant on foreign-policy issues.
National security experts say whomever Trump picks to permanently replace Bolton will indicate whether the president values honest brokers of varying foreign-policy ideas or simply yes-men to enable his instincts.
“I think Trump will choose someone who is going to facilitate him, not someone who is going to stand up to him,” said Thomas Wright, a scholar with the Brookings Institution who has studied the National Security Council.
In announcing Bolton’s firing, Trump said he planned to reveal his replacement next week.
Bolton’s departure has been the subject of intense Washington gossip in recent months, and the divisions between Bolton and his boss grew increasingly visible over the summer before apparently reaching a breaking point over the proposed Taliban meeting.
Nowhere were the differences between Trump and Bolton more apparent than in U.S. policy toward North Korea. Bolton, before entering the White House, had argued it was time to go to war to stop the country from obtaining nuclear weapons, but he found himself sidelined. When Trump met North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on the North-South border in June, Bolton was thousands of miles away in Mongolia for meetings, an assignment that symbolized his exile from Trump’s inner circle.
In a revealing March interview, Bolton candidly addressed the reality of working in a government whose policies he was on the record opposing: “I’m the national security advisor. I’m not the national security decision-maker.”
Trump had grown increasingly frustrated with Bolton’s approach to the job and was particularly furious over his handling over the crisis in Venezuela, according to sources close to the White House. In April, the Trump administration backed an attempt to force out Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro but vastly overestimated the ability of U.S.-recognized interim president and opposition leader Juan Guaidó to take power.
The failed coup and the ensuing stalemate left the United States looking blundering and ham-fisted in its attempt to force political change in its own backyard. The episode left Trump frustrated and furious at his lieutenants, and particularly at Bolton, current and former officials say.
A longtime Iran hawk, Bolton made an aggressive campaign against Tehran one of his signature issues. At Bolton’s urging, Trump withdrew last year from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and has since levied harsh sanctions on the country’s fragile economy. Bolton was also seen as pushing for the transfer of U.S. ships, troops, and planes to the Middle East to counter what U.S. officials called an increased threat from Iran.
The tension culminated in the shooting down of a U.S. drone by Iranian forces in the Strait of Hormuz this summer, but once again Bolton found himself clashing with Trump. At the last minute, Trump called off retaliatory strikes against Iran—ignoring the advice of both Bolton and Pompeo.
More recently, Bolton has clashed with Trump over his desire to meet with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Trump has said he wants to meet without any preconditions in place, but Tehran has so far rejected the meeting unless the United States first eases sanctions.
In his remarks Tuesday, Pompeo said a meeting between Trump and Rouhani remains a possibility, though Iran has made no indication that it is willing to back down on its demands of sanctions relief.
“It’s surprising to me he lasted as long in the job as long as he did given that he did not seem to want to do any element of the job as a national security advisor,” said Loren DeJonge Schulman, a former National Security Council staffer under President Barack Obama now at the Center for a New American Security, a think tank.
A veteran foreign-policy hand, Bolton served in senior roles in the George W. Bush administration, first as undersecretary of state for arms control and international security from 2001 to 2005, and then as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations from 2005 to 2006. In the Bush administration, Bolton became known as a legendary bureaucratic knife-fighter perpetually at war with his fellow colleagues.
Prior to entering the Bush administration, Bolton attempted to position himself as a don of Republican Party politics, distributing money via his political action committee and delivering lucrative speeches on his pet causes. He reentered the bloodstream of right-wing politics in no small part because of his appearances on Fox News, where his pugilistic tone caught Trump’s attention.
But once in the White House, Trump and Bolton never clicked. Unlike Trump’s more trusted lieutenants, such as Pompeo and Vice President Mike Pence, Bolton never learned how to channel the president’s instincts in his public appearances. Pompeo and Pence eagerly defended the president in public, going on television to attempt an articulation of Trump’s “America First” worldview. But Bolton never embraced that public role and in interviews declined to conceal the fact that he often disagreed with his boss.
According to NBC, Trump grew so disillusioned with Bolton that he would call up McMaster, Bolton’s predecessor, to tell the retired Army general that he missed him.
Bolton’s departure will send shockwaves through the capitals of U.S. allies. In Jerusalem, his firing will be mourned. Bolton was a staunch supporter of Israel and was viewed as a bulwark of support within the Trump administration for the right-wing Benjamin Netanyahu government. In Seoul, where Bolton was seen as an obstacle to peace talks, his firing will likely be celebrated.
“We’re now headed for our fourth national security advisor in less than three years,” said Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democrat who serves on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “This revolving door of American leadership is devastating to our nation’s security as our allies now turn to more stable nations—like China and Russia.”
At the Tuesday briefing, reporters shouted questions at Pompeo and Mnuchin about the implications of Bolton’s departure. One of them—“Is this national security team a mess?”—caught Mnuchin’s attention.
“Absolutely not,” the treasury secretary snapped back. “That’s the most ridiculous question I’ve ever heard of.”
Update, Sept. 10, 2019: This article has been updated to include additional details about Bolton’s firing and his White House tenure.
Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer
Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman