John Bolton Is Ready to Go Rogue
Donald Trump has made a powerful enemy at a vulnerable moment—but history suggests the president still has the upper hand.
A difficult relationship that wasn’t working finally ends. A war of words over just who got fired and who quit clouds the final departure. An unconventional commander in chief pushes for unconventional policy views. And a high-profile advisor goes off into the wilderness with not just a bone to pick but an audience clamoring to hear all about it.
If Alexander Haig’s stormy tenure and stormier exit as Ronald Reagan’s secretary of state in June 1982 sounds familiar, that’s because it is. John Bolton’s messy firing from his job as national security advisor in early September is not a new story in Washington. But even if presidential advisors have been fired before, with the heightened pitch of today’s moment, many are now eager to hear Bolton’s gripes—even those that are sour grapes.
But Haig’s story suggests an important lesson to keep in mind as one observes Bolton’s public reemergence and potentially expanding role in the unfolding Ukraine scandal: His criticisms, however damning, might not matter as much as many hope. That’s because, before any of us listen to Bolton’s message—including his speech Monday on North Korea at the Center for Strategic and International Studies—we must remember the messenger matters almost as much.
The problematic partnership between Haig and Reagan started with a problematic letter of recommendation. Shortly after the 1980 election, former President Richard Nixon sent an 11-page memorandum to then-President-elect Reagan about priorities and personnel. Among recommendations for every major cabinet post, Nixon pushed hard for Haig, his former National Security Council staffer and final White House chief of staff, to be secretary of state. In addition to Haig’s intelligence and strength, the former president assured the incoming president: “He would be personally loyal to you and would not backbite you on or off the record.”
Despite that assurance, Haig was not an easy sell to Reagan. Haig was closely tied to Henry Kissinger, who had made the then-colonel a military aide at the start of the Nixon administration and become a target of Reagan’s criticism for détente with the Soviet Union. Haig was also tied to Watergate, which was a recent memory to many. And he was opinionated about the world, more experienced in federal government and national security matters than Reagan, and deeply ambitious—a “Haig for President” committee had tried unsuccessfully to draft him into the presidential race in 1980.
As a result, after Reagan appointed Haig as secretary of state, few in the White House inner circle ever warmed to him as a colleague. If Haig’s heavy-handedness in conversations with Reagan, growing public profile (Time put him on the cover under the headline “Taking Command”), and comments about serving as Reagan’s “vicar of foreign policy” raised eyebrows during the early days of the administration, his mistaken assertion in the White House press room—after the March 1981 assassination attempt on the president—that “I’m in control here” solidified the growing distrust. According to one vice presidential aide, the secretary of state was “a cobra among garter snakes.”
Even then, when Haig strayed from the White House’s line on, for example, Israel (on which the secretary of state was seen by some as too soft), he’d get bitten all the same: criticized by National Security Advisor William “Judge” Clark and others in person or via leaks to the media. The acrimony came to a head after Palestinian assassins tried to kill the Israeli ambassador to the United Kingdom in June 1982 and Israel launched a massive invasion of Lebanon, where the Palestine Liberation Organization was headquartered. Although Haig’s forcefulness had long been a concern for Reagan’s White House, many thought he was too timid in the face of the aggressive Israeli invasion.
A frustrated Haig demanded a meeting with the president and arrived in the Oval Office on June 24 with a list of grievances about Clark and Reagan’s policy process as well as a letter of resignation. Although Haig never actually handed the letter over, Reagan decided after the meeting to accept it all the same. The next day, the president handed Haig a note that read “Dear Al: It is with the most profound regret that I accept your letter of resignation” and publicly nominated George Shultz, a former Nixon cabinet official, as secretary of state.
Free of the administration, Haig plotted his next moves. According to the Washington Post, he joined the Hudson Institute, a think tank, to complete a project on the future of Europe. He sat on the boards of MGM and other companies and consulted for Amway and United Technologies. And he gave speeches at $20,000 a pop. In all, friends assumed Haig was making about $1 million a year from an office near the corner of 15th and L Streets in Northwest Washington, D.C.
But Haig also knew he had a story to tell—well two stories to be exact. Haig did not yet want to write his big memoir because he suspected there was still a lot of life yet to live. Recounting Watergate in the early 1980s, when its wounds were still so fresh, also had questionable appeal. And besides ending on a downer—the confused resignation/firing under Reagan—did not seem like the right note on which to end a life of public service. Instead, Haig decided to write not a life story but what he deemed a more marketable book.
The result was Caveat: Realism, Reagan, and Foreign Policy. The 367-page tome was not so much a warning but an attack. Haig opened up about his departure from the administration. He criticized Reagan’s foreign-policy choices. And Haig criticized the process with which Reagan and his ham-handed team made those decisions. In one evocative passage, he compared the White House to a ghost ship, “[Y]ou heard the creak of the rigging and the groan of the timbers and sometimes even glimpsed the crew on deck. But which of the crew had the helm?”
Caveat’s publication date, however, suggested another agenda as well. Published in April 1984 with a big publicity push, just as Reagan’s reelection campaign was getting underway, the book appeared to suggest that voters needed to know the real truth before they decided whom to support on Election Day. Yet a few months later, voters reelected Reagan anyway: He won in a 49-state landslide.
Haig’s ignored warning eventually proved prophetic, however. When the Iran-Contra affair—in which some of Reagan’s national security advisors and National Security Council staff pursued a scheme to sell weapons to Iran and illegally funnel the proceeds to Nicaraguan Contras—exploded in Washington in 1986, it became clear that Reagan was barely at the helm. Congress’s own investigation concluded, “If the president did not know what his national security advisors were doing, he should have.”
Though Haig was right in the end, Reagan won not only in 1984 but in the history books. Thanks to the work of the staunch advocates among his inner circle and the Republican Party, the late president is celebrated as a visionary foreign-policy leader, one who won the Cold War. Iran-Contra, no matter its current relevance, became if not a footnote than an outlier amid the conservative mythology about Reagan and his national legend. Meanwhile, if Haig is remembered at all, he is remembered for what he got wrong (his misbegotten “I’m in control here” declaration) and why. Caveat was not Haig’s last word—he ran for president in 1988 and published a big memoir in 1992—but he was never able to secure a happier ending or forgiveness for appearing so ambitious in crisis.
There are more than a few similarities between Bolton and Haig. They are both known for hard-lined views and hard-won reputations for their sharp elbows in government. As a result of the latter, they both rose far farther than anyone would have predicted early in their careers. For the same reason, it is no surprise both had disputed and disreputable ends. Their exits appear to have left a wounded pride: Having sought for most of their adult lives the power to serve the country, both Haig and Bolton were left behind as events and Washington moved on.
Now, as Bolton considers his moves and his memoirs—and as the scandal around Trump’s strong-arming of Ukraine unfolds—the question is whether he will take a different path through the wilderness or at least meet with a more successful result. One difference with Haig suggests that Bolton may. Indeed, compared with a career public servant like Haig, whose rise once punctured never again gained altitude, Bolton has been counted out before.
Neither garter snake nor cobra, Bolton has been compared by his opponents to a “tapeworm”: He’s resilient. Despite playing a forceful role in the recount effort that won George W. Bush the presidency, Bolton’s reward came much later with a U.N. ambassador post first denied by congressional opposition. Early in the Trump administration, he was again passed over for plum posts in part because his mustache reportedly bothered the president. Becoming Trump’s national security advisor is just the latest evidence that Bolton has the ambition and the know-how to stay in the picture—and Washington’s stomach.
Bolton appears to understand that his ability to do so again will depend on his policy differences with Trump. Shortly after his departure, he texted reporters, “My sole concern is US national security.” Over the course of his 17-month tenure, Bolton made clear he had policy differences with Trump on Iran, North Korea, Venezuela, and Afghanistan. None of Bolton’s opinions should have surprised Trump, nor should the president’s have shocked his onetime national security advisor—any Washington observer knew about them. But by sticking to his own views, Bolton can now make a hard policy case against the president, as he did Monday on North Korea, without saying the name “Trump.”
Bolton, however, will have a harder time making an argument on process, no matter that Trump’s White House looks every bit like a ghost ship. The former national security advisor came into office well aware that Trump was unconventional. Bolton chose to not even try to make the formal interagency system of meetings and memorandums conform to the president or the president to the system, and he instead relied on informal, smaller sessions with Trump. Unleashing the president did not work much better, as made abundantly clear by the memo summary of Trump’s call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (which NBC news reported yesterday Bolton did not participate in or support).
The Ukraine issue offers perhaps the biggest opportunity for Bolton to exact revenge or exert continued influence—or both. As opposed to Haig, whose warnings took more than two years to prove prescient, Trump is currently being consumed in scandal over his misuse of the presidency and what looks like an illegal foreign-policy scheme. Bolton has never had so many potential admirers in Washington: Some have speculated that Bolton is already contributing to reporting on the story, awaiting the right time to strike, or just enjoying the moment.
Still, as a lawyer and longtime Washington hand, Bolton will surely approach the scandal with caution. According to reports, the National Security Council—a seeming reference to Bolton—was clear in its opposition to any halt in military aid to Ukraine. Supposed opposition and broad denials may only carry Bolton so far: if the national security advisor did not know what his president was doing, he should have.
Just two weeks into the wilderness and one speech down, Bolton appears more like Haig than former Defense Secretary James Mattis, who has awkwardly tried to avoid discussing Trump at all on his book tour, or onetime Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who has disappeared altogether. Two weeks ago, Bolton made cryptically critical comments about Trump at an off-the-record event for the Gatestone Institute in New York and is reportedly already looking for book deals.
Whether anyone listens to Bolton’s caveat is the most important question. Trump’s rush to claim credit for firing the national security advisor suggests that the president knows what he might say and wants to portray it as sour grapes. Perhaps more important to the worth of the former national security advisor’s claims: Unlike Haig, Bolton and the rest of the country knew just what he was signing up for when he went to work for Trump. Even if Bolton helps to eventually hasten the end of this presidency or at least warns of what’s ahead, no one should soon forget he chose to serve Trump in the first place.
John Gans, who served as chief speechwriter at the Pentagon until 2017, is the director of communications and research at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perry World House. He writes about the Reagan and Trump National Security Councils in his new book, White House Warriors. Twitter: @johngansjr