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Opinion John Bolton’s new deputy is a hawk with sharp elbows, just like him

Democracy Post editor Christian Caryl says President Trump's new national security adviser is more capable than other officials. That's the problem. (Video: Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)

National security adviser John Bolton’s first major personnel choice is a well-known Republican hawk with ties to the Trump administration that date back to the transition. Bolton’s choice of Mira Ricardel as his deputy last week shows he is moving fast to consolidate control over the national-security policymaking process, and is preparing for internal battles that may emerge.

Ricardel’s ties to the Trump world date back to late 2016, when the president-elect’s team was looking hard for national security-minded Republicans who hadn’t opposed Trump during the primaries, and were willing to come aboard. An executive at Boeing at the time, Ricardel stayed out of the fray during the campaign but signed on soon after the election. She became a key White House official dealing with Defense Department personnel choices and overseeing landing teams at the National Security Agency.

That position put Ricardel in direct conflict with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who tried to recruit some former Obama administration officials and foreign-service officers, including former Pentagon official Michèle Flournoy and Anne W. Patterson, the former U.S. ambassador to Egypt.

“Mira clashed with Mattis and his team. Mattis wanted to bring in Democrats and she didn’t want to do that,” one senior Republican foreign-policy hand said. “Bolton is bringing in hard-charging individuals, like him, to try to run the show. This is Bolton reasserting his dominance and what he wants the NSC to be.”

Ricardel angled for a top Pentagon job in early 2017, several transition and White House officials told me, but Mattis blocked her. She had served as the deputy assistant secretary of defense for Europe during the George W. Bush administration under Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. She developed a reputation as a Russia hawk and was seen as a tough bureaucratic player with a strong personality.

“She’s a very tough woman, very smart, does not suffer fools well. And if you happen to be the fool, she will let you know,” said Heritage Foundation’s Steven Bucci, who served with Ricardel at the Pentagon. “She’s not terribly intimidated by much of anyone. She’s not a yes-person at all. She can have very sharp elbows when she needs to.”

That personality profile matches Bolton, who also has a well-earned reputation as an aggressive bureaucratic infighter. Ricardel’s close ties to the White House personnel office could be valuable to Bolton as he tries to fill several senior staff positions at the NSC with candidates who can get through the White House’s notoriously nitpicky vetting. On Monday, Vice President Pence named NSC Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Keith Kellogg as his own national security adviser. That means Bolton has cleared out another top spot on the NSC staff.

Ricardel also explored jobs at the State Department, but was blocked by Rex Tillerson’s chief of staff Margaret Peterlin. Eventually, she was nominated and confirmed as under secretary of commerce for export administration. “Since coming on board, she has helped keep sensitive technologies out of the hands of those who would do us harm, while also working to ensure that imports do not threaten to impair our national security,” Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said in a statement congratulating Ricardel on her move.

She will start as the No. 2 official on the National Security Council staff later this month. The White House issued a statement from Bolton noting Ricardel’s decades of experience, which also included stints working for then Senate Majority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.).

“I selected her as Deputy National Security Advisor because her expertise is broad-based and includes national security matters related to our alliances, defense posture, technology security, foreign security assistance, and arms control,” Bolton said in a statement. “I look forward to her joining our team and working together to ensure President Trump’s foreign policy agenda is executed.”

That last line is key, according to officials and those close to Bolton. One of his priorities is to reassert White House control over a national-security bureaucracy that President Trump often feels is trying to constrain him or working against his stated objectives. The president has said publicly he now has the national security team he wants, after dismissing Tillerson and H.R. McMaster, bringing on Bolton and elevating CIA Director Mike Pompeo to secretary of state.

“It’s clear Trump wants foreign policy decision-making to move at a faster pace than it did in the first year,” said James Carafano, the vice president for foreign policy at the Heritage Foundation. “Bolton wants to drive the process and Ricardel is a driver, she is not a ditherer. And that’s what the president wants.”

Whether or not it will lead to increased friction between Bolton’s team and Mattis remains to be seen. The two have already had disagreements. Mattis reportedly wanted to reduce the scale of the recent strikes on Syria. Bolton reportedly pushed for more expansive strikes than what Trump eventually approved. Mattis and Bolton disagree on the utility of staying in the Iran deal. Bolton is more hawkish on North Korea.

Bolton and Mattis made a public show of solidarity last month, when Mattis joked he heard Bolton was “the devil incarnate.” Both have an interest in a process that works well to bring good options to president. They may be able to strike a constructive balance and work well together. But a confrontation is likely.

More broadly, Bolton wants the National Security Council staff to be effective in setting the agenda and managing the process of determining foreign policy. Many inside the White House perceive Mattis’s Pentagon as too often working outside that process, and needing to be reined in.

“There are so many ways the NSC traditionally exerts control over DOD that they haven’t in this administration for a variety of reasons,” a White House official told me. “Mira is going to get the [Pentagon] under control. This is a huge battle looming.”