National Security Council staff usually stumble onto White House grounds every morning around 7, before most of the Beltway has had its first cup of coffee. The gate closing behind them clangs loudly: a Pavlovian noise that cues staffers that they are on duty, another day of managing the best and worst of American foreign policy responsibilities as well they can.
Next month, John Bolton, President Trump’s national-security-adviser-to-be, will start shaping those days.
On the NSC staff, you have only a little power, far short of the smoky rooms and Machiavellian fantasies of “deep state” conspiracy loons. You are among the people who gather from across the government to parse big ideas for the president, and you write the first drafts of national security choices that own real estate in your dreams for years. Often, the best you can offer the president is not what is right but what is fair: a fair representation of the agencies arguing over policy; a fair airing of bad options; a fair accounting of the people who will die without intervention or with it.
You own the first draft. Once the professional staff is done, Bolton will own the final version that gets to Trump — and how different the versions are will be up to him.
The national security adviser has no statutory role, no legislated requirements on his or her conscience, but his or her aides take up their responsibilities every day, rung in by the clang of that gate, under the optimistic presumption that their boss will aim toward that fairness, if nothing else. Easy decisions get made elsewhere in the government, everyone jokes on the NSC staff, and it’s tolerable to work 14-hour days while struggling to head off genocide, hostages, famine or terrorism, only because you trust your boss to advise the president in that spirit of fairness. In the best national security teams, your ego and even your greatest ideas take a back seat to generating the widest range of good advice from across government for the president. Commanders in chief can pick up proposals they like from Fox News — and are well within their rights to make bad choices — but it’s the full and fair accounting of all consequences of those proposals that separate presidents from pundits.
All those NSC staffers woke up Friday morning to a hundred hot takes calling their future boss a warmonger and declarations that none of their deliberative work will matter when he arrives on White House grounds with his own plans, ostensibly aligned with the president’s. And they will still diligently show up next month. Neither they nor we should expect any national security adviser to come to the job as a blank slate, with no offensive opinions or questionable baggage. The base case for national security advisers — the “Scowcroft Model” — presumes that they will generally suppress their own views in support of a decision process for the president, acting as an honest broker who may privately dream of preventive strikes or cutthroat diplomacy but who will nonetheless fairly and transparently air the concerns and preferences of his or her colleagues around the national security apparatus.
Is that how Bolton will do the job? Apart from his policy views, he is the first “adult” in the Trump administration to start with a formidable grasp of the policymaking apparatus and how it can be utilized or manipulated. If he wants, he’s better positioned than almost anyone who came before him in the northwest suite of the West Wing to set up a policy system that counters his worst instincts — or sharpens them.
When I worked at the NSC, from 2011 to 2014, staffers were aware that no one would know our names unless we messed up, historically and badly. Most of the time, fortunately, we remained anonymous. But on a good day, the people close to the president do know your name, and they call on you to troubleshoot, to convene, to live your small purpose of fairness as best you can in ugly and terrible moments. This administration has presented another option: Your name may be known far more publicly for offending the sensibilities of some ally of the president or by straying outside the parameters of acceptable Trumpian staffing. Bolton can call on these staffers for advice or leave them hanging out to dry.
People show up to work on the NSC, from the top job on down, understanding that it’s meant to be the hardest job in the world. It’s their Big Show, their time to put points on the board, but their only tools are that willingness to show up every day and night without the baggage of their past beliefs, affiliations or fixed policy prescriptions. That basic fairness makes the functioning of the NSC a plausible ideal. Telling the boss what they want to hear, on the other hand, is a walk in the park and hardly worthy of the credentials and pomp offered to prior men and women in that role.
Bolton will have to decide whether he is up to giving the president the hard truth when an easy hedge might get him and his team home before dinner.
When NSC staffers depart their jobs, there is a long tradition of farewell emails, which cite their best and worst days, and almost universally recall the last time they will hear that gate close behind them. Many include Tony Snow’s ode to transitions in the White House — “that grand, glorious, mysterious place where Lincoln walks at night, and our highest hopes and dreams reside” — as the reason they showed up, even when it was hard.
John Bolton arrives next month. Washington has already scripted his tenure. It is up to him to decide whether the predictable and easy suits him, or whether he can defy expectations. His staff will be waiting for him on the more difficult path.