The script is familiar: Leaks from White House staffers and others with supposedly good sources in the West Wing start whisper a high-ranking official has lost President Donald Trump’s confidence. Anecdotes in which the notoriously irascible commander-in-chief expresses frustration with the advice he’s been getting and his lack of personal chemistry with the object of the speculation.
What follows is the media’s anxious wait for an instance in which the president will contradict or pour scorn on something the hapless official has said or done. Once that happens, it’s only a matter of time — and usually not all that much time — before the victim is frog-marched out of his office and added to the rogue’s gallery of fired and resigned Trump officials that The New York Times helpfully publishes any time there’s a significant personnel change.
In other words, National Security Advisor John Bolton is a dead man walking even if he doesn’t know it yet. That’s the conclusion that the mainstream media was drawing last week once Trump said he didn’t think North Korean missile tests violated United Nations resolutions and went out of his way to say that he wasn’t interested in regime change in Iran. The produced a front page feature in The New York Times that practically dripped with anticipation about Bolton’s imminent defenestration. Columns in the Washington Post chimed with headlines like “Bye, Bye Bolton.”
The week ended with Bolton still in place as the president headed off for a state visit to Britain. But the foreign policy establishment and Obama administration alumni who were helping to orchestrate the media buzz about his doom were unfazed, certain that, in time, the notoriously brash Bolton would annoy or cross the president one time too often and their bête noire on Iran and other issues would finally be evicted from his unlikely hold on power.
Anyone who makes hard and fast predictions about the Trump administration is on a fool’s errand, so the chorus may eventually be proved correct. Yet this time, the familiar script about the revolving door at key White House offices may not be right. As much as Trump may not love Bolton, there is good reason to believe that he not only values him — the president may have also figured out that on this potential change in personnel, he’s being trolled by the so-called foreign policy “experts” he despises.
Trump Needed a Team That Would Drop the Iran Deal
Bolton’s path to the post of national security advisor was not a likely one. Along with just about everyone who had served in past Republican administrations, he was deeply critical of Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign. Moreover, Trump’s flirtation with isolationist policies and retroactive opposition to the Iraq War would have made Bolton a natural target for the president’s contempt. Bolton served as undersecretary of state in the George W. Bush administration before a stint as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and was a strong supporter of the war that Trump still holds up as the greatest mistake in American history.
But Bolton is as well known for his opinions on Iran as he is for his involvement in the Iraq war. Although he has frequently spoken in favor of regime change in Iran and bombing the Islamist regime’s nuclear assets — positions that would run afoul of Trump’s instinctual dislike of entangling the United States in another Middle East war — he has been an opponent of President Barack Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran.
Trump’s fervent opposition to Obama’s appeasement of Iran contradicts his desire to stay out of Syria and seek better relations with Russia. But his desire to scrap the nuclear deal and renegotiate a pact that would eliminate the sunset clause that will eventually enable Iran to get a nuclear weapon and to force Tehran to give up its support for international terrorism has been a consistent theme of Trump’s foreign policy views.
Yet over the course of his first 15 months in office, he was frustrated in his desire to scrap the nuclear deal by a foreign policy team that thought they were there to act as the adults in the room constraining the president’s irrational policy whims. Both Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and National Security Advisor General H.R. McMaster consistently frustrated Trump on Iran, seeking to put off indefinitely the president’s desire to withdraw from the weak pact and arguing that the re-imposition of economic sanctions on the Islamist regime wouldn’t work.
But in April 2018, Trump fired the so-called adults and hired two men who would seek to implement his policies rather than thwart them. With the accession of Mike Pompeo as secretary of state and Bolton as national security advisor, the days of his staff seeking to argue that Obama’s nuclear deal should be left in place were over. Within weeks, the United States finally pulled out of the pact and sanctions on Iran began to be re-imposed.
Dropping the Iran Deal Is Working
Freed of the constraints his staff put on him, Trump’s plans to deal with Iran unfolded without a hitch.
Contrary to the predictions of the foreign policy establishment that Tillerson and McMaster had not argued against, unilateral U.S. sanctions almost immediately began to place enormous pressure on Iran, limiting its ability to fund, among other things, its terrorist auxiliaries in Lebanon and Syria. Moreover, as Bolton had predicted all along, America’s European allies were compelled to go along with the sanctions since their threats to find a way to evade them flopped. In 2019, Pompeo and Bolton made good on their plans to lift the last remaining exemptions allowing nations to buy Iranian oil, closing the noose around their economy.
The charge that Bolton is pushing Trump into war is primarily the function of Iranian and Obama sympathizers seeking to reinforce the former president’s old media “echo chamber” talking point about there being only two choices on Iran: appeasement or war. Trump understands that the only way to pressure Iran into submitting to his demands is to not fall from their bluffs or to listen to those “experts” who negotiated the nuclear deal in the first place. He also seems to comprehend that staying the course on his policy provides a path to weakening Iran without war.
Moreover, in contrast to McMaster, who had the advantage of a glittering military resume but failed to engage Trump, Bolton reportedly seems to have found a way to regularly brief the president without boring or straining his patience.
John Bolton Is Also Hard to Replace
This did not mean Bolton was a perfect match for Trump. The president worries about the possibility for a military conflict with Iran and frets about his advisor’s bellicose nature. Nor did Bolton’s famously brusque manner, which has earned him enemies at every step of his long government career dating back to the President George H.W. Bush administration, endear him to a president who is well known to like being flattered.
Neither Bolton nor Pompeo are supporters of Trump’s effort to use some of flattery of his own to cajole North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un. Trump’s willingness to contradict Bolton on North Korea’s missile tests, which, contrary to the president’s willingness to downplay the issue, are illegal, is a sign that the president may listen to his advisor but doesn’t let himself be talked out of any of his favorite ideas, no matter how foolish (as his effort to win over the North Koreans is) it might be.
Is the ever-restless Trump liable to tire of his national security advisor? Probably. But Trump also knows that until he hired Pompeo and the pugnacious Bolton, he was helpless to get his foreign policy agenda implemented. Finding a replacement as tough-minded will be difficult. If he fires Bolton he knows it will not be easy to replace him with someone else with policy experience who has the will to stay the course on Iran.
An even stronger argument against the expectations of Trump’s detractors is that Trump knows his opponents are gunning for Bolton. Trump’s stubborn nature provides as much motivation for his actions as his pique. So long as The New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN, and all the former Obama administration officials on TV are clamoring for Bolton’s head, the national security advisor may be safe.
Reverse psychology notwithstanding, the president may have grasped that he needs Bolton as much as he does Pompeo. Relationships with Trump are not forever commitments. But if Trump wants to avoid further sabotage from self-proclaimed adults seeking to manipulate him, then the best course he can take is to stick with Bolton.