In mid-January, President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, took a call from the boss.
“Did you see the tweet?” the president asked Bolton.
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A few minutes earlier, Trump had casually threatened to “devastate Turkey economically” should it defy his warnings not to attack Kurdish fighters in Syria allied with the United States. Bolton saw the tweet before taking the call, though he didn’t know it was coming.
Normally a threat against a NATO ally by an American president would rattle any top White House aide. But for Bolton it meant vindication. He had just returned from a tumultuous trip to Turkey, during which he stood accused of losing Turkish cooperation against ISIS and undermining Trump’s plans for a troop withdrawal from Syria. Some foreign policy pundits were even murmuring that Trump’s third national security adviser might not even reach the one-year mark of his tenure, a familiar parlor game in Washington in the Trump era.
But in his nine months on the job, Bolton has learned to expect the unexpected from President Trump. It was only a few weeks earlier, in mid-December, that the president shocked his national security team — and prompted the resignation of his well-regarded defense secretary, James Mattis — with his abrupt call for a full withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria.
The announcement was a blow to Bolton, who months earlier had devised a Syria strategy that would keep U.S. troops in the country indefinitely as a bulwark against Iran. Soon after Trump’s about-face, Bolton jetted to Israel and Turkey on a cleanup tour. His message: America’s 2,000 troops would only leave after key conditions are met, including the Islamic State’s total defeat.
Suddenly, a man once seen by Washington’s foreign policy elites as a dangerous enabler of the president’s worse impulses had taken on a surprising new identity: the adult in the room. It’s an unfamiliar role for Bolton, who made his name in Washington as an uber-hawk known for his mastery of international legal arcana and his hair-raising calls for military action in places like Iran and North Korea.
A few days following his return, and Trump’s menacing tweet, I met with Bolton in his corner office in the West Wing of the White House. Bolton’s sparse office was dotted with mementos of his decades in government, including a dummy hand grenade mounted on a paperweight — a gift from his staff at the U.S. Agency for International Development in 1983. It is inscribed to “The Truest Reaganaut,” a nod to his devotion to the rock-ribbed conservatism of his first presidential boss. Much of our candid conversation was off the record, but gave the sense of a man comfortable in his skin, indifferent to — even thriving on — criticism and at peace with the challenges and limits involved in working for Trump at what is otherwise his dream job.
When I met him, Bolton’s year was off to a bumpy start. His foreign trip, which I had joined, ended in acrimony when Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, angry over the Kurdish issue, not only refused to meet with him but denounced him in a speech to parliament. The New York Times wrote that Bolton’s diplomatic mission “reflected the disarray that has surrounded the president’s decision” — a widely held view that implicitly condemns his management of Trump’s foreign policy. The media cast Bolton as working at cross-purposes with the president, trying to put Trump’s withdrawal order back in the bottle even as the military announced it had already begun.
Seated across from me on a pale yellow couch, Bolton showed no sign of strain. Instead he showed the pugnacious self-confidence and disdain for critics familiar from his punditry on Fox News, where Trump came to admire his acerbic commentary about the Obama administration. Bolton marveled at the idea that he could be stupid enough to undermine Trump’s Syria policy.
“I am the national security adviser,” he told me. “I am not the national decision maker. And the privilege of being here about to advise the president gives me and other senior advisers the latitude to tell him what we recommend he do. But, ultimately, he is the one who makes the decision,” Bolton said. “Nobody who has ever served in government at a senior level has any misunderstanding of whose views are actually going to control.”
To his critics — and he has more than most in Washington — Bolton is an enabler. His fired predecessor, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, was an establishment man who tried in vain to contain the president and his impulse to upend the Western world order. Bolton is often a cheerleader for, and sometimes benefits from, Trump’s wrecking-ball instincts.
The president, for instance, complained for some 18 months after taking office about the Iran nuclear deal. McMaster, backed by other since-departed officials like former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and former Defense Secretary James Mattis—dubbed the “Axis of Adults” by Trump’s detractors in the foreign policy punditariat—managed to keep him from walking away from the Obama-era agreement. It was only one month after Bolton replaced McMaster that Trump pulled the plug on the deal, to the horror of America’s closest European allies.
It was clear from our encounter that sticking it to the Iranian regime—a government he’s called “the world’s central banker for terrorism since 1979” — is one of the proudest achievements of Bolton’s professional life, commemorated by a picture hanging on his office wall. A gift from Ivanka Trump, it is a framed Wall Street Journal cartoon published shortly after Trump exited the nuclear deal. It shows Trump, with Bolton right behind him, squaring off across a chessboard against Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. Scrawled on the bottom is a note from the president, “John, Great Job.”
On an adjacent wall is the framed executive order — drafted by Bolton — withdrawing the U.S. from that very deal, along with the pen President Trump used to sign it.
Together the mementos represent more than an isolated policy victory lap. They are realization of a 30-year career in which Bolton’s fierce unilateralism, long seen by Washington foreign policy elites in both parties as fringy and dangerous, is now the beating heart of America’s foreign policy under Trump. Since taking office Bolton has quietly engineered a U.S. retrenchment from the international system — from pulling out of international bodies such as the U.N Human Rights Council and the International Criminal Court to scrapping arms-control treaties with Russia.
“John is really smart, he is really experienced and he knows how to get things done,” said Stephen Hadley, national security adviser to George W. Bush and a former colleague of Bolton’s. “He relishes being a defender of the things in which he believes and is putting it all to the service of this president.”
That’s exactly what worries Bolton’s detractors. “A lot of things happen without the involvement of the president, and the national security adviser sits on top of all that policy,” said Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser to President Barack Obama. “Bolton strikes me as someone with an incredibly ideological worldview, perhaps more than any national security adviser I can remember. The concern I have is he is using the chaos of this administration and a president who is disinterested to advance his own ideological agenda by running roughshod over the agencies. With the smaller issues it may not be important, but on an issue like Iran, there is a potential for this to escalate very quickly.”
But the ongoing whiplash over Trump’s Syria policy is a reminder that Bolton is not perfectly in sync with the president. Who can be? Trump tries out ideas on advisers, friends and even guests at Mar-a-Lago before making decisions, only to change his mind on a dime. Often Bolton makes a judgment call based on what he thinks is the direction Trump wants to go, asking forgiveness instead of permission.
“Bolton may think he is Machiavelli pulling the strings of power, but John Bolton has to know that Trump can have one more call with Erdogan and it’s over,” says David Rothkopf, a former Clinton administration official who wrote Running the World: The Inside Story of the National Security Council and the Architects of American Power. “The system breaks down at Trump.”
One sign that Bolton is relishing being back in the fray is the unusual amount of travel he is doing. On recent trips to places like Russia, the Middle East and Latin America, he has at times seemed more diplomat than White House adviser.
On my late December trip with Bolton to Israel and Turkey, we traveled in a government 757 used by the vice president. For the first time in his tenure, Bolton took a group of reporters along with him. That was surprising: He is notoriously disdainful of Washington reporters who cover his work through a political lens. But on his plane, dressed in khakis and a blue sweater, Bolton wasrelaxed and candid with the seven journalists aboard, including his longtime friend, conservative columnist Hugh Hewitt, even posing for pictures.
in the nine months since joining the Trump White House.
“The man is always working. Always,” said Hewitt. “His capacity for focused work is like his capacity for information: apparently limitless.”
He may work hard, but his critics say his approach to his job is a dangerous break from tradition and accuse him of decimating the traditional policymaking process in which all agencies meet to discuss options to present to the president. Numerous officials have complained that the number of “principals” meetings of Cabinet officials and “deputies” meetings at the White House, once a regular occurrence, are now rare. White House officials counter that Bolton has tried to cut out the bureaucratic red tape produced by endless meetings and make decision-making more “efficient”—a request they say that came from Mattis and from Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state. But officials across the administration say the decrease in those all-hands meetings to hash out key issues, such as how to approach President Trump’s meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin, has left agencies in the dark about final decisions and led to confusion, griping and leaks that are unhealthy for U.S. policy.
What his critics do not say is that Bolton doesn’t know to work the levers of power. Every administration faces complaints about highly centralized decision-making in the NSC. But Bolton’s knowledge of government bureaucracy, coupled with a president whose interest in the finer points of policymaking is low at best, has enabled him to consolidate power to an unprecedented level.
A history buff, Bolton littered our discussion of how the National Security Council works with references back to the Roosevelt and Eisenhower administrations and through JFK and LBJ. Kennedy, for example, dismantled Eisenhower’s strict military structure and ended up with a thin national security team during the Cuban missile crisis, Bolton noted.
He showed me a gold-framed painting above his desk of President George H.W. Bush sitting at his desk in the Oval Office surrounded by his vice president, national security adviser and secretaries of state and defense as they discussed plans to expel Iraqi forces from Kuwait in 1990. It epitomizes, Bolton said, close-knit high-level decision-making favored by Bush and Brent Scowcroft, his national security adviser— and serves as a model of how he approaches his job today.
“There is no one right way” of advising the president, he said. “There are lots of different ways. It depends on the personality of the president. Different presidents have different ways of doing things. And if you insist on a particular formula at the only right way you get tuned out.”
McMaster ran a more traditional policy process, a slow-moving operation in which lower-tier subject experts tee up white papers, decision memos and recommendations for their bosses to filter for the president. But many Trump officials, including Bolton, considered it ineffective and designed to constrain the president. Now, Bolton says, he and a few other Cabinet members often meet with Trump in the Oval Office where he says there is “an absolute free exchange of ideas.”
That highly centralized version of White House policymaking, however, frightens many foreign policy professionals who consider Trump dangerously ignorant and reckless, and worry that further scaling back the deliberative national security process could result in terrible decisions — and, in a worst case, an unwanted military conflict with an adversary like Iran or North Korea.
One senior administration official who has dealt with Syria policy said the idea of a “kitchen Cabinet” of select presidential advisers only works if those who are tasked with executing the policy are given clear instructions — something the official said isn’t happening. And even when instructions are delivered, the official added, Trump often contradicts them.
Some top officials at the State Department and Pentagon have grown so distrustful of the NSC and frustrated at the lack of coordination on critical issues such as Syria and Afghanistan that they are holding small interagency meetings of their own to better synchronize U.S. policy. One recent session at the Pentagon, to discuss implementing the president’s Syria withdrawal orders, was attended by Gen. Joseph Votel, the commander of U.S Central Command, as well as officials from the State Department and other agencies.
Bolton is known for populating the administration with his allies and either sidelining or purging his detractors, who he maintains were not ideologically aligned with president. And he is unapologetic about his reputation as a bureaucratic infighter in pursuit of his policy goals. “John will never use a blunt instrument when a sharp, pointy one is available,” joked a former colleague and longtime friend. It was meant as a compliment.
Even diplomats and U.S. officials who vehemently disagree with Bolton’s views do not underestimate his effectiveness. At his 2001 confirmation to be undersecretary for arms control, Joe Biden, then the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told Bolton, “My problem with you over the years has been that you are too competent. I would rather that you be stupid and not very effective.”
Bolton has another ornament hanging in his office: a picture of former Baltimore Colts quarterback Johnny Unitas playing in the 1958 NFL championship against the New York Giants. The game was the NFL’s first to go into sudden-death overtime and is widely known as “The Greatest Game Ever Played.”
The photo is revealing of Bolton’s self-image. Although he became a Yale-trained lawyer, Bolton grew up in Baltimore, the son of a firefighter in a working-class Catholic family. He considers the photo of Unitas a daily reminder of how a blue-collar kid from a blue-collar city can go toe-to toe against anyone, including the then-“fancy” New York Giants.
You might say the 1958 Giants are today’s Washington’s foreign policy establishment, which generally looks down on him as obnoxious, obstinate and possessed of dangerous ideas about the unilateral use of American power: Bolton has argued in recent years for bombing Iran and wrote a Wall Street Journal op-ed weeks before becoming national security adviser arguing that the U.S. has the legal right to strike North Korea first.
Throw in a mutually adversarial relationship with the media — reporters complain that his NSC is the least transparent in memory — and he has plenty in common with his boss.
“Every president needs a team and a process that matches the president’s leadership and decision style,” said Hadley. “And for this president’s unique style, John as national security adviser is probably as good a fit as you could have for this president.”
“These are two men who understand they have very strong personalities,” said Mercedes Schlapp, Trump’s director of strategic communications. “But there is an incredible respect between the two of them.”
Bolton and Trump also share heavily overlapping worldviews. Both have an innate suspicion of multilateral institutions, seeing them more as mechanisms for pinning down the American Leviathan. Trump has given Bolton license to assail international treaties and organizations, including the International Criminal Court, which he savaged in his first major foreign policy address last September as subjugating American sovereignty in a way that is “antithetical to our nation’s ideals.”
A longtime Cold Warrior, Bolton has even found a way to align his deep suspicion of the Kremlin with his boss’s deep suspicion of traditional diplomacy. He took great delight in flying to Moscow to tell Putin personally that Trump will pull out of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty, a 1987 arms agreement that bans all ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with a range of about 3,000 to 3,500 miles. Pompeo formally announced the U.S. withdrawal from the Treaty on Friday, citing Russian violations, a move by the foreign policy establishment with alarm.
Bolton defines himself as an “Americanist” who believes the U.S. should be left to defend its interests unconstrained, and that questions of power are for policymakers, not lawyers. He does believe in some multinational alliances, such as NATO, and proudly cites the Proliferation Security Initiative, a 2003 global effort he spearheaded to stop the spread of weapons of mass destruction by coordinating the nonproliferation activities of more than 70 countries.
“The question is,” he told me. “Looking at an international organization, does the American presence in that international organization benefit us more than it harms us?”
Bolton has delivered those views in several forceful speeches laying out the Trump administration’s foreign policy and has undertaken a number of high-profile diplomatic missions that typically fall to the secretary of state, facts Pompeo aides say has not been lost on Trump’s top diplomat. (“If I’m the secretary of state sitting and looking at some of the speeches he has given or trips he has taken, there are moments I might think, ‘That’s my job, not yours,’” one Pompeo aide said of Bolton. “But these aren’t turf fights over policy and so it’s not something they are going to get divorced over.”)
Bolton and Pompeo speak often and share similarly hawkish views, particularly on Iran. But they are said to be equally protective of their respective relationships with the president. With an office just yards from the Oval Office, Bolton enjoys a lot of face time with Trump. State Department officials say Pompeo rarely takes aides to his meetings at the White House, cherishing his own private time with the boss. And while Pompeo, who has flirted with a Senate run in his home state of Kansas, sees his political future tied to Trump, Bolton is more interested in using the job to shaping the world in his image.
Thomas Wright, a fellow at the Brookings Institution who has been critical of Bolton’s skeptical view of international law, argues that even as a national security adviser, he “still sees things in a legalistic way, not as a strategist of U.S. foreign policy interests.”
A few weeks before taking the job, Bolton wrote an op-ed making a legal case for a preemptive strike against North Korea, which Wright noted did not take into account how North Korea would respond. “He wants to prove America can do something, but never really stops to think if it should,” Wright said.
One area of the world where Bolton is having outsized impact: Latin America — a fact underscored last week when he popped up at a White House briefing to announce sanctions on Venezuela’s oil industry. The appearance caused a minor diplomatic kerfuffle when a photographer captured the front page of a yellow notepad Bolton was clutching to his chest, facing outward. Scrawled across the top in small print, were two lines: “Afghanistan > Welcome the Talks,” an apparent reference to ongoing peace negotiations with the Taliban, and “5,000 troops to Colombia.”
The implicit warning: “all options remain on the table” to oust the country’s socialist president Nicolas Maduro from office, after the U.S. last week declared his presidency illegitimate and recognized opposition leader Juan Guaido as Venezuela’s interim leader.
Bolton, whose harsh assessment of Latin America’s leftist autocrats goes way back, signaled a tougher approach to the region in a speech last November, branding Venezuela as part of a “troika of tyranny” and “triangle of terror” along with Cuba and Nicaragua, whose leaders he blamed for causing “immense human suffering and regional instability.” Vowing the U.S. would take “direct action” against their regimes, Bolton lobbed an ominous warning that “their day of reckoning awaits.”
Yet one former top administration official who handled Latin American issues praised what he called Bolton’s “remarkable” patient, multilateral approach toward isolating Venezuela in the region. In November, Bolton visited Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro to ask for his help in pressuring Maduro—personal diplomacy that paid off when Brazil joined the U.S. in recognizing Guaido, along with Colombia, another right-leaning government Bolton has cultivated.
Facing resistance from career diplomats at the State Department concerned about the policy, Bolton formed a united front with Pompeo, supporting his appointment of Elliott Abrams, a fellow hawk with whom he worked in the George W. Bush administration, as an envoy to help steer the policy.
The episode shows a perhaps underappreciated diplomatic side of Bolton—though the former top administration official also warned that the sort of military intervention President Trump has reportedly contemplated would be “disastrous” for U.S. interests in the region.
“What many of us have long known about Ambassador Bolton, the world is now seeing firsthand with the broad, multinational coalition that is supporting democracy and a constitutional transition of power in Venezuela,” said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), an influential voice on Latin America policy and a Bolton ally. “He is a serious, thoughtful individual focused on ensuring America’s safety and advancing President Trump’s agenda. John and his team have been an incredible addition to this White House.”
Bolton also has shown an ability, increasingly rare among the president’s advisers, to influence his boss. Though Bolton was opposed to withdrawing U.S. forces from Syria, he appears to have won, at least for now, the president’s support for protecting the Kurds and keeping a small number of American troops in southeast Syria to monitor the flow of Iranian arms and forces.
Still, there are obvious friction points. I asked Bolton how he could square his obvious antipathy to negotiating with North Korea with the eagerness of Trump, who shows off fawning letters he’s received from Kim and is due for another summit with the North Korean leader despite few signs that Pyongyang has shelved its nuclear ambitions.
“You know, going in there are some things that you are going to agree with and some things you are not going to agree with,” Bolton observed in a rare moment of self-reflection. “So you have a choice. You can serve in the government or you can stand outside. My view is: For the privilege of this job, I am willing to take my losses along with the wins. And if you don’t understand how that is the way it goes, then I think you just don’t understand government.”
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