Global Power

ROAD TO NOWHERE?: Eighteen years after Sept. 11, the United States was finally preparing to end the longest war in American history. That is until President Trump abruptly canceled a meeting with the Taliban and the Afghan government via Twitter, disrupting a year's worth of talks. 

The collapsed negotiations are emblematic of Trump's erratic foreign policy two-and-a-half years into his administration, alternating between practical deal-seeking in places like North Korea, Afghanistan and the Middle East; and open hostility in China, Iran and Venezuela. None of his initiatives in those places have yet to bear significant fruit.

After national security adviser John Bolton resigned on Tuesday — or was forced out by Trump, depending on whose Twitter feed you believe — the president's haphazard approach is once again under fire. 

  • “It's clear that his approach is not working in two fundamental ways,” Ivo Daalder, the former U.S. ambassador to NATO under President Obama, told Power Up. “Internally he disdains process — and anyone who has spent any time in government knows that process is key. [Ex-President] Eisenhower once said that a good process may not guarantee a good policy. But a bad process guarantees a bad policy.” 
  • Trump's transactional approach: “He thinks he can get into the room with someone and he can get a deal. And it turns out he can't because he doesn't know the details and doesn't know that these deals aren't like selling a house — they're about relationships and that takes time, effort, and knowledge,” Daalder said.

🚨: While the well-publicized tensions between Trump and Bolton were long simmering over broad ideological differences, the departure of Trump's third national security adviser set off alarms among congressional Democrats who opposed the hawkish Bolton to begin with: 

  • “John Bolton was the wrong choice and the silver lining to this instability is that there will be fewer people whispering war chants in the president’s ear,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said in a statement“But no one of any quality is going to take a job in the nation’s national security cabinet so long as everyone’s head is permanently hovering slightly above the chopping block.”
  • “Today’s action by the president is just the latest example of his government-by-chaos approach and his rudderless national security policy,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) added. “When Ambassador Bolton’s extreme views aren’t enough for you, the United States is headed for even more chaotic times.”
  • Bolton's exit has also sparked concern that an important bumper between the president and bad actors in the foreign policy realm no longer exists in the Trump White House: “Mr. Bolton saw his job as stopping Mr. Trump from making unwise agreements with America’s enemies. 'While John Bolton was national security adviser for the last 17 months, there have been no bad deals,' a person close to Mr. Bolton said minutes after the president’s announcement on Tuesday, reflecting the ousted adviser’s view,” per the New York Times's Peter Baker. 

But there are others who predict that Bolton's exit won't make that much of a difference in an already chaotic White House:

  • “To me the question was always when, not if,” Mark Groombridge, a former top adviser to Bolton at the State Department and United Nations, said of his resignation, pointing to policy differences between the two. Groombridge questioned the utility of serving as Trump's NSA “when you already know exactly what he's going to say.” 
  • “Who is going to want to replace him? It's going to be some empty suit — there's no question about that,” he added. 
At The White House

THE BOLTON TICK-TOCK: My colleagues Karen DeYoung, Josh Dawsey and John Hudson report that Trump "finally decided to remove his top security aide on Tuesday after a heated discussion in the Oval Office, following accusations by other officials in the administration that Bolton had leaked to the news media, tried to drag others into his battles with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo over Afghanistan, and promoted his own views rather than those of the president, according to people familiar with the matter." 

But Afghanistan was only the tipping point, per Karen, Josh, and John: 

  • Self-serving: "Among accumulated grievances that had been building for months, the president was annoyed that Bolton would regularly call on members of Congress to try to get them to push Bolton-preferred policies on Trump, according to a senior official who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations."
  • "Many on Bolton’s handpicked staff were seen as unnecessarily confrontational with other parts of the national security bureaucracy."
  • Complaints: "Trump had been inundated with complaints, officials said. Pence and acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, who were awaiting Trump’s arrival Monday afternoon in Fayetteville, found Bolton increasingly abrasive and self-promoting."
  • Failed the Trump loyalty test: "Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin had told Trump that his national security adviser was not helping him, officials said. Bolton had even refused, in recent weeks, to go on television and defend the president’s policies on Afghanistan and Russia. Bolton, the president felt, wasn’t loyal. He wasn’t on the team."

The response: "At the White House, those outside the inner sanctum were stunned when Trump’s tweet appeared. At the Pentagon, there were cheers. When Pompeo appeared at an unrelated news briefing shortly after Trump’s tweet, he rebuffed frantic questions about Bolton, saying he wouldn’t talk about the administration’s 'inner workings,'" per Karen, Josh and John. 

  • “There were many times Ambassador Bolton and I disagreed, that’s to be sure,” Pompeo said. “But that’s true for lots of people with whom I interact.” 

  • "Then Pompeo smiled. That smile, one official close to Pompeo said, 'spoke for itself.'"

MISS YOU: NBC News's Carol E. Lee, Courtney Kube, and Kristen Welker reported yesterday that Trump reached out to his former national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, as he soured on Bolton. 

  • "In phone calls to McMaster — the first of which took place last fall — Trump told his second national security adviser that he missed him, according to two people familiar with the conversations. It’s a sentiment the president has also expressed to White House aides, they said. Trump has solicited McMaster's advice on various national security challenges, even asking McMaster whom he should nominate to lead the Pentagon, they said." 
  • "At least one of Trump's calls with McMaster focused on Iran, an issue over which Trump and Bolton have clashed because the president felt his national security adviser was pushing him into a military confrontation." 
  • "He must be getting pretty far down on his call list because McMaster is not at the top," another former White House official told NBC of the outreach. 

Who will replace Bolton?: Trump said he'll announce Bolton's successor next week and Bolton's deputy will take over until then. As for replacements, the New York Times's Katie Rogers reports

  • "The expanding list of possibilities, generated by those hoping to promote their allies or harm their enemies, included Fred Fleitz, Mr. Bolton’s former chief of staff; Keith Kellogg, a retired lieutenant general and a former acting national security adviser; Jack Keane, a retired Army vice chairman currently advising the vice president on national security; Robert Blair, an adviser to Mick Mulvaney, the acting chief of staff; and Robert C. O’Brien, the administration’s hostage envoy who called Mr. Trump the greatest hostage negotiator in American history."

Per CNN's national security team: 


The Campaign

WHAT THE 2020 DEMOCRATS WOULD DO: How would the remaining 20 Democrats handle America's longest war? Here's what the 10 candidates who will be on the debate stage Thursday have to say.

Our colleagues Kevin Uhrmacher, Michael Scherer, Kevin Schaul and Anne Gearan have a detailed look at where the rest of the field stands on whether or how to remove troops from Afghanistan.

  • Joe Biden: Promises to bring troops home by the end of his first term. Any residual presence would be focused on counterterrorism. 
  • Elizabeth Warren: Promises to bring troops home by the end of her first term. It is unclear whether there would be any residual forces.
  • Bernie Sanders: Promises to bring troops home by the end of his first term. He has not ruled out leaving any residual forces.
  • Kamala Harris: Promises to bring troops home by the end of her first term. It is unclear whether there would be any residual forces.
  • Pete Buttigieg: Promises to bring troops home by the end of his first year. Told CBS News he would leave a "highly limited" force with "special operations or intelligence capability like we might have in any number of places around the world." would maintain a residual "special operations presence."
  • Andrew Yang: Hopes to bring troops home by the end of his first term. Told the Times “it's impossible to know that for sure" on whether he could withdraw forces by then.
  • Cory Booker: Hopes to bring troops home as quickly as possible. Cautioned our colleagues he would "not set during a campaign an artificial deadline."
  • Beto O'Rourke: Promises to bring troops home by the end of his first term. It is unclear whether that includes residual forces. A campaign spokesperson told Power Up the former congressman thinks “The United States should be supporting a peace process that brings all parties to the table, including the government in Kabul, Afghan women, and civil society."
  • Amy Klobuchar: Promises to bring troops home by end of his first term; unclear whether there would be any residual forces. Supports negotiating with the Taliban and Afghan government, but harshly criticized Trump for going about it in a haphazard manner.
  • Julián Castro: Promises to bring troops home by end of his first term; unclear whether there would be any residual forces.
At the Pentagon

'OH MY LORD, THE WHOLE PLACE WAS BURNING': Here's an inside look at what happened at the Pentagon 18 years ago today after American Airlines flight 77 deliberately crashed into it, excerpted from Garrett Graff's “The Only Plane in the Sky” released yesterday:

“Similar to the experience at the World Trade Center, the massive scale of the Pentagon and its unique shape meant that while many occupants felt the explosion, most didn’t immediately realize either what happened or the gravity of the situation. For staff in the other parts of the building, including Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, the impact was felt — though few guessed what had caused it.”

  • Joe Wassel, communications officer, Office of the Secretary of Defense: “Something had struck the building. The first words out of my mouth were 'That wasn’t good.' I got up and started walking pretty briskly — but walking — to the secretary of defense’s office.”
  • Donald Rumsfeld, secretary of defense: “We were sitting in my office when the plane hit the building. The building shook and the tables jumped. I assumed it was a bomb.”
  • Victoria 'Torie' Clarke, assistant secretary of defense for public affairs: “I thought there must have been a car bomb. What’s extraordinary to me is that we knew that two commercial airliners had hit the Trade Center, a terrorist attack, and smart people were guessing it was al-Qaeda. Yet when something bad happened here, it didn’t occur to us that it was another airliner. That’s how unfathomable it was. It never occurred to us that it was another plane.”

On the destruction inside the Pentagon: 

“Stairwells were like waterfalls. There were body parts floating around. I saw a foot, a torso, a lady hanging upside down from a chair. Someone’s head sitting on a file cabinet, totally burned. I found people sitting at a conference table totally charred. I found a man standing with his arms up in defense, leaning against the wall. Apparently, he saw it coming. He was totally burned. I went floor to floor on the collapsed fourth corridor side and yelled to see if anybody was still alive. I didn’t find anyone. 

  • Capt. Robert Gray, Technical Rescue, Station 4, Arlington County Fire Department: “Jet fuel was in everything. It was laying on the film on the surface of the water that we were walking through, so it made the gear smell.”
  • Lt. Comm. David Tarantino, physician, U.S. Navy: “The flames and the smoke were too intense by that time, and even the rescue crews couldn’t really penetrate into the buildings. Not too many people were brought out after that.”
  • Gray: “It was really remarkable because you’d be on the second or third floor and you’d find a room that was absolutely pristine. It’s surrounded by complete destruction. The duct work down on the floors, the file cabinets completely ripped apart. And then one room just like this, where there’s not even but a light layer of smoke on the wall. The flags, magazines sitting on the desk. It was how the gas mixed with the air and vented through the buildings under pressure, and then blew certain areas up and preserved others.”

From the book:

“In the minutes after the Pentagon attack, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld found himself torn between his official role — which called for him to lead the nation’s response — and his human desire to examine the crash scene and help the injured men and women under his command. 

  • Aubrey Davis, officer, Protective Service Unit, Defense Protective Service, Pentagon: “The secretary was walking fast, and we were walking fast with him. As we proceeded down that hallway, a colonel ran up with a cut on his forehead and said, 'Sir, it’s dangerous, don’t go down there.'”
  • Gilbert Oldach, officer, Protective Service Unit, Defense Protective Service, Pentagon: “We were in smoke and finally saw that light. The doors were open and the sun was coming in. You could see the light."
  • Rumsfeld: “I saw the field out there sprayed with pieces of metal.”
  • Davis: “I remember the secretary reaching down and picking up a piece of the plane with the name of the aircraft or something on it. He said, 'This is American Airlines.'”
  • Rumsfeld: “Oh my Lord, the whole place was burning. People were being pulled out and stretchers were being carried to ambulances.”
Outside the Beltway

REPUBLICAN WIN NARROWLY IN NORTH CAROLINA: "Republican Dan Bishop pulled out a narrow win in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District on Tuesday, giving the GOP a victory in a district that President Trump won easily in 2016 but which proved to be a fierce battleground in unusual back-to-back House campaigns," our colleagues  Mike DeBonis and Laura Hughes report.

  • Trump's last-minute visit: "Bishop’s victory came one day after Trump and Vice President Pence campaigned in the district to help boost the state lawmaker in the surprisingly competitive race in a district Trump won by 12 percentage points in 2016," Mike and Laura write.
  • Democrats warned the GOP shouldn't be so happy: "Tonight’s razor-thin result in this ruby-red district solidifies the fact that Democrats are pushing further into Republican strongholds and are in a commanding position to protect and expand our House majority in 2020,” said Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.), chairwoman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.