WASHINGTON (SBG) — After a little more than 14 months in office, President Donald Trump has struggled to assemble a national security team that is to his liking.
On Thursday, the president announced that Gen. H.R. McMaster would be stepping down as national security adviser and Amb. John Bolton would become the third man to hold the position.
The announcement came as a surprise to Bolton, he said in a Thursday night interview. He had been in a dialogue with the White House for weeks and there was public speculation that President Donald Trump's relationship with McMaster was strained.
In an official statement released on Twitter, Bolton "humbly" accepted the offer, saying he looks forward to working with President Trump "in an effort to make our country safer at home and stronger abroad."
Bolton will join President Trump's National Security Council on April 9, bringing decades of experience with him, both inside and outside of government. Trump recently said he is "very close to having the Cabinet and other things that I want." With the decision to tap John Bolton, some wonder what it is about the outspoken ex-diplomat the president wants.
A HAWK ON THE NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL
Bolton has served under each of the past three Republican presidents. He sat on the board of conservative think tanks including the American Enterprise Institute, the Gatestone Institute, the Project for a New American Century, and in recent years, founded his own political action committee and started the Foundation for American Security and Freedom.
Bolton came to public attention most notably as part of the tight-knit circle of neoconservatives in the George W. Bush administration. Bolton was a close confidant of Vice President Dick Cheney and fostered relationships both inside and outside of government with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Undersecretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, Cheney adviser Lewis Libby, and other prominent neocons.
In the Bush administration, he served as undersecretary of state for arms control helping build the case and review the intelligence that led to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. After more than a decade in Iraq and regional instability that supported the rise of ISIS, Bolton affirmed, "I still think the decision to overthrow Saddam was correct."
Then in 2005, he was given a recess appointment to become the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and resigned from the post 16 months later after it became clear the Senate would not confirm him. In a Senate hearing to consider his nomination, a former State Department colleague, Carl Ford, described Bolton as "a kiss-up and kick-down sort of guy" who will not tolerate those who disagree with him.
For better or worse, his style has been described as "blunt." In a backhanded compliment, The New York Times editorial board wrote on Friday, "The good thing about John Bolton, President Trump’s new national security adviser, is that he says what he thinks. The bad thing is what he thinks."
During his time Washington, he proved adept at navigating the complex and burdensome government structure, showing a "penchant for bureaucratic rough play."
Bolton explained that one of his chief responsibilities as national security adviser will be "making sure that the bureaucracies out there get the [president's] decision and implement it" rather than blocking decisions they don't like. "I know my way around the corridors in Washington and I think that role will be important."
Both in government and in his private life after, Bolton has hued closely to the neoconservative doctrine. He has consistently supported the global preeminence of U.S. leadership through its military might, supporting a robust defense posture and defense spending.
Like President Trump, Bolton has expressed deep skepticism of multilateral institutions. He once quipped that the United Nations building could lose ten stories and "it wouldn't make a bit of difference" and suggested that if he were to redesign the Security Council "I'd have one permanent member: the United States."
He began openly calling for regime change in Iraq as early as 1998. And he proposed regime change in Iran as recently as 2016, saying in a Breitbart interview, "The only longterm solution is regime change in Tehran."
In the past two decades, he has advocated bombing Iran, overthrowing the Syrian regime and toppling the government of North Korea. Earlier this month, Bolton penned a Wall Street Journal opinion piece on the "necessity" of a preemptive strike on Pyongyang.
"Given the gaps in U.S. intelligence about North Korea, we should not wait until the very last minute," Bolton wrote. "That would risk striking after the North has deliverable nuclear weapons, a much more dangerous situation."
When asked about his record during a Thursday interview on Fox, Bolton was unapologetic about his "substantive views." But he suggested that his comments as a private citizen are "behind" him.
"I've never been shy about what my views are, but frankly what I've said in private now is behind me, at least effective April 9," Bolton said.
He added, "The important thing is what the president says and what advice I give him."
WILL BOLTON INFLUENCE TRUMP?
Barry Pavel, director of the Atlantic Council's Scowcroft Center and former National Security Council staffer under George W. Bush and Barack Obama, is skeptical that Bolton will leave his past views "behind" him.
"I don't think the leopard changes its spots that quickly. So his instincts and longstanding principles and policies that have guided him throughout his career will continue," Pavel said.
There are concerns that Trump's decision to tap Bolton is part of a broader shift to a more aggressive foreign policy position. In recent months, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and National Security Adviser McMaster were seen as moderating influences on the president.
Mattis and to some extent White House chief of staff John Kelly are the only members of the so-called "axis of adults" who are left after Tillerson was fired earlier this month, and Trump nominated CIA Director Mike Pompeo to take his place.
Pavel said the appointment of Bolton is very similar to the nomination of Pompeo. "The president is moving to someone who, at least in certain ways, shares more of his views than the predecessor."
One obvious concern is that those shared views are decidedly hawkish. "I think they both share very hardball views of how to handle Iran and North Korea," he said of two hot spots that will be high on the national security adviser's list of immediate priorities.
In North Korea, President Trump is expected to meet the country's leader Kim Jong Un by May. The meeting was announced after months of behind-the-scenes work at Tillerson's State Department and a "maximum pressure" campaign that relied heavily on U.S. allies and partners.
Bolton suggested the face-to-face meeting could be an opportunity for "diplomatic shock and awe." In a recent WMAL radio interview, Bolton said Trump could personally deliver the ultimatum of "total denuclearization...or we'll start thinking of something else."
In Iran, President Trump will likely have the support of his secretary of state and national security adviser when it comes to recertifying the nuclear agreement. Both Tillerson and McMaster advised Trump not to tear up the deal.
Bolton has been in-sync with Trump who called the nuclear agreement "the worst deal ever" and warned in January that he would not recertify the deal in May unless it was renegotiated.
As Trump threatened to scrap the deal, Bolton egged him on, writing in the Wall Street Journal, "Every day Washington lets pass without ripping the deal up is a day of danger for America and its friends."
Putting Bolton and Pompeo in top national security positions could provide the U.S. more leverage to handle the two challenges, Pavel said, it could also lead to the kind of "precipitous action" taken in the Bush administration.
"A concern [about Bolton] is a somewhat too easy predisposition to the use of force, which is not always the best first resort. It should be the last resort," he advised. "Any such thoughts regarding Iran or North Korea would be extraordinarily damaging to the security of the United States and our allies on a global basis."
Based on his record of public service and private comments, Bolton is going to be a hawk and appeal to Trump's more aggressive impulses. But appeal is not the same as influence in the Trump White House where the president is known to surprise even close advisers with sudden decisions.
The national security adviser is often the last person in the room when a president makes a decision. But as Trump said on the campaign trail, "My primary consultant is myself."