Analysis: Bolton departure says much about Trump

The men reportedly had personality clashes, and differed on use of military force

President Donald Trump speaks to members of the media as National Security Adviser John Bolton listens during a meeting on Aug. 20. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
President Donald Trump speaks to members of the media as National Security Adviser John Bolton listens during a meeting on Aug. 20. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Posted September 10, 2019 at 8:59pm

President Donald Trump’s announced firing of National Security Adviser John Bolton says more about Trump than about Bolton.

Tuesday’s move — Trump said on Twitter he had fired Bolton, but Bolton said he resigned — casts in bold relief several attributes of the president’s foreign policy and the president himself.

Trump is more than willing to talk to U.S. adversaries and less than willing to use America’s military. Trump is also his own man on policy matters, for better or worse. And he changes with head-spinning rapidity the people he turns to for advice — or more accurately, does not turn to.

On Capitol Hill on Tuesday, Republicans said the president has a right to pick his team, though some expressed dismay that the hawkish and bellicose Bolton was gone.

“The fact that he was a contrarian from time to time is an asset, not a liability,” said Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee. “I’m very, very unhappy to hear that he’s leaving.”
Democrats had essentially the opposite take. They were happy to see Bolton gone but concerned about the turnover at the top echelons of the administration.

“I’m shaken by the instability of American foreign policy today,” said Sen. Christopher S. Murphy of Connecticut, also a member of Foreign Relations.

World of difference

Trump’s tweeted announcement of Bolton’s dismissal was almost churlish. Trump said Bolton’s services “were no longer needed,” and that he “disagreed strongly with many of” Bolton’s suggestions.

The two men reportedly had personality clashes and they also differed on the best ways to address several foreign fronts.

On Afghanistan, Trump has been pushing a peace deal with the Taliban that would lead to phased U.S. troop withdrawals. Trump had wanted to bring Taliban leaders to Camp David on Sunday before he called it off the day before. Bolton did not like the emerging deal, or talking with the Taliban, and reportedly was excluded from meetings on the subject.

On North Korea, Bolton was more concerned about that country’s spate of recent missile tests than the president was, and Bolton was more skeptical about negotiating with North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un than Trump was.

On Iran, Bolton was said to be unhappy in June when the president called off at the last minute a military strike on that country after its forces had attacked several commercial tankers in the Persian Gulf. Bolton must have bristled when Trump said Monday he was open to talking with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.

“If it was up to John, we’d be in four wars now,” Trump reportedly once said about Bolton, according to the New York Times.

Dovish Donald

As a candidate and later as president, Trump has talked tough about dealing with America’s adversaries and he criticized former President Barack Obama for wanting to negotiate with some of them.

What’s more, Trump’s rhetoric seemed to some to reflect a comfort with using military force, even if he espoused bringing U.S. troops home from overseas battlefields as soon as possible.  

But in practice, Trump has been a dove: reluctant to drop bombs and eager to engage in negotiations, where he thinks his charm and wile will carry the day.

The other key fact about Trump laid bare by the dismissal of Bolton is how Trump follows his own instincts, not those of his advisers.

When Trump hired Bolton in March 2018, critics were concerned Bolton would sway Trump to a militaristic course. But in reality, Trump did not budge on his inclinations and may have even become, in the 17 months since then, more isolationist and more prone to believing in the power of diplomacy.  

As an aside, Bolton’s departure begs the question of why Trump hired him to begin with, given their incompatible views.

“Did Donald Trump just figure out that John Bolton was a military hawk?” Murphy asked.

Bolton was Trump’s third national security adviser after Michael Flynn and H.R. McMaster.

Charles Kupperman, a deputy national security adviser, will take over for Bolton in an acting capacity for now, the White House said.

Whoever succeeds Bolton can expect two things: he or she will have a limited impact on the president’s decisions; and the job will not last long.

Rachel Oswald contributed to this report.