Who’s on the Shortlist to Replace Bolton

A number of names have emerged as top contenders for the job, but at the end of the day, Trump will remain the decider-in-chief.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin brief reporters in the James Brady briefing room at the White House on Sept. 10.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin brief reporters in the James Brady briefing room at the White House on Sept. 10. Mark Wilson/Getty Images

John Bolton’s abrupt ouster as U.S. national security advisor leaves a significant gap in President Donald Trump’s team. Bolton, a hawkish tour de force within Washington’s bureaucratic machine, pushed for more muscular policies on Iran, North Korea, and Afghanistan, even as they ran against the president’s own deal-making instincts.

“We have five people who want it very much,” Trump told reporters in the White House on Wednesday. “We’ll be announcing somebody next week.”

Bolton’s departure has many inside (and outside) the administration breathing a sigh of relief, as it could pave the way for progress on diplomatic efforts such as a meeting between Trump and Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani at an upcoming United Nations General Assembly, and give new life to stalled peace talks with North Korea.

Depending on who is tapped as his replacement, it also could return a sense of normality to the National Security Council process, which Bolton reportedly upended. Principals meetings were rare, with major policy decisions made at lower levels, in one-off meetings between Trump and his individual cabinet members, or simply on Trump’s whims.

But when it comes to matters of policy, whoever replaces Bolton may not have much real impact on the administration. Throughout his presidency, Trump has been consistently mercurial, acting on his instincts, and frequently over-ruling his lieutenants.

Trump’s nominal chief foreign-policy advisor may have little impact on the broad direction of U.S. foreign policy, but he still needs a deputy capable of executing his policies. And after defenestrating three national security advisors in less than three years, Trump also needs to find a candidate willing to work under the permanent threat of humiliation or exile.

Some Washington insiders believe Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will further expand his power and become dual-hatted as secretary of state and national security advisor. But assuming that doesn’t happen, nine names have emerged as top contenders for the job, according to current and former officials, Republican lawmakers close to the president, and sources close to the White House. They include:

Douglas MacGregor. An idiosyncratic defense analyst, MacGregor began publicly auditioning to replace Bolton with an appearance Tuesday night on Tucker Carlson’s primetime Fox News show. A retired Army colonel, MacGregor has been mentioned as a possible successor to Bolton, and he cast himself on Tuesday as the man to execute the policies Trump has articulated but has been prevented from implementing, as Carlson put it, by lieutenants who have undermined him at every turn. He is far removed from the foreign-policy establishment, but by endearing himself to Carlson, who has Trump’s ear, he may also be able to mount an outside candidacy for the job of national security advisor. (Bolton’s television appearances, more so than his long experience in previous Republican administrations, landed him on Trump’s radar.)

Stephen Biegun. Biegun, Trump’s envoy to North Korea, is a veteran Republican foreign-policy expert who served in George W. Bush’s National Security Council and as a foreign-policy advisor to members of Congress. Current and former officials describe Biegun as an adept manager who could bring back to the NSC deliberative processes and meetings that are crucial to the day-to-day work of policymaking that Bolton shunned. But Biegun’s name has also been floated for several other high-profile jobs: replacing outgoing U.S. Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman or Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan.

Richard Grenell. The U.S. ambassador to Germany is a personal favorite of Trump’s, and he frequently emulates the president’s brash diplomatic style from his perch in Berlin. He has angered German officials on several occasions, once criticizing Berlin’s military spending as insufficient, and another time admonishing German companies doing business with Iran. Grenell, who is openly gay, has also tried to defend the president’s record on LGBT rights, despite Trump’s efforts to roll back rights for gay and transgender people, including in the military.

Keith Kellogg. Vice President Mike Pence’s national security advisor, Kellogg, has been with the Trump administration since the beginning, helping oversee the transition into the White House. Kellogg went on to serve as a deputy to Bolton’s predecessor, H.R. McMaster, but with Bolton’s arrival was pushed out and moved on to advise Pence instead. Kellogg is reportedly beloved by Trump, but as a deputy it was unclear exactly what role, if any, he played in shaping policy. Kellogg is a retired lieutenant general in the U.S. Army and served as an advisor to L. Paul Bremer, a senior diplomat in Iraq after the 2003 invasion.

Matthew Pottinger. A highly influential, low-key member of Trump’s national security staff, Pottinger handles the Asia portfolio on the NSC and is considered one of the architects of the administration’s hawkish policies toward China. A former journalist and Marine Corps officer, Pottinger is considered a competent technocrat who’s free of the ideological baggage that burden many of Trump’s other advisors. He cut his teeth as a journalist in China, where he was harassed by the authorities. He joined the Marine Corps in 2005 and served in Afghanistan under Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, Trump’s first national security advisor, who resigned in disgrace and is currently awaiting sentencing for lying to the FBI.

Brian Hook. Hook, another Republican foreign-policy expert with experience in the George W. Bush administration, served as director of policy planning under Trump’s first secretary of state, Rex Tillerson. Under Tillerson, Hook wielded enormous influence over the State Department. After Pompeo replaced Tillerson, Hook was tapped to be envoy on Iran issues—one of Trump’s top foreign-policy priorities—and has forged closer ties with the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, as Kushner works on an Israeli-Palestinian peace plan. But Hook was also on the receiving end of a scathing tirade Tuesday evening from Tucker Carlson. One senior administration official said the Carlson segment could take Hook out of the running. Carlson called Hook an “unapologetic neocon” and accused him of criticizing the president behind closed doors while abroad.

Robert O’Brien. Trump’s ambassador and special presidential envoy for hostage affairs usually prefers to remain behind the scenes, but two sources familiar with the discussions said he is also on the shortlist to replace Bolton. A successful Los Angeles trial lawyer, O’Brien got the most notice during the Trump administration for his involvement in a successful bid to rescue the rap star A$AP Rocky from a jail in Stockholm, where he was accused of assaulting a man on the street. After calling on the Swedish prime minister to release the rapper, whose birth name is Rakim Mayers, Trump dispatched O’Brien to attend his trial in Sweden.

Rob Blair. A national security aide to acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, Blair emerged this year as one of Bolton’s chief antagonists in the White House. A relatively low-profile figure in the White House, Blair’s appointment as national security advisor would further increase the influence of Mulvaney, who has taken on an expansive portfolio of responsibilities amid unprecedented personnel turnover in the Trump administration.

Jack Keane. Keane is a retired four-star Army general who served as vice chief of staff of the Army and played a behind-the-scenes role during the U.S. surge in Iraq in 2006 and 2007. Keane is considered influential with Trump, who at least twice considered him for the job of defense secretary. Keane is said to have played a key role in convincing Trump to call off retaliatory attacks on Iran at the last minute with multiple appearances on Fox News, where he speculated than Tehran’s downing of a U.S. military drone may have been an accident rather than a provocation. But Keane may not be keen to take a job in the Trump administration—he reportedly declined Trump’s offer to take the top Pentagon job.

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman

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

 Twitter: @EliasGroll