Given that the answer to the question “Is Trump lying here?” is almost always “Yes,” I’m inclined to believe Bolton.
In any case, the fact that Bolton became Trump’s national security adviser in the first place was always strange, given their different perspectives on national security. While Trump talks tough and likes to muse about committing torture and even genocide, his one redeeming impulse is a reluctance to get the United States mired in extended military engagements, particularly in the Middle East.
Bolton, by contrast, never met a foreign policy challenge he didn’t think could be solved with a new war, or at least some vigorous bombing. This is particularly true of Iran, where he has been a longtime advocate of overthrowing the government. In 2015, he wrote an op-ed titled “To Stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran.”
And as tensions have escalated with the Iranian government in recent days, it’s been clear that Bolton has continually pushed for more aggressive steps while Trump has resisted. One of the questions many of us had was whether Bolton and other hawks like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo might succeed in manipulating Trump into a new war on Iran that he was plainly disinclined to launch.
That never happened, but we’re still in a very bad place with regard to Iran. Three years ago, we had an agreement that constrained Iran’s ability to proceed with what was widely assumed to be an effort to acquire nuclear weapons, an agreement painstakingly negotiated with the help of Britain, France, Germany, China, Russia and the European Union. But because it had Barack Obama’s fingerprints on it, Trump decided it was bad, so he broke it. And now, completely predictably, the Iranians are violating their part of the deal and expanding their nuclear capabilities.
Bolton no doubt saw that as good news, because it meant that the war with Iran he sought for so long might actually be getting closer. But even with him gone, the chances that Trump will be able to find his way to what everyone knows is necessary — a new version of the old deal, in which Iran accepts new limits on their nuclear program in exchange for the United States stopping its ongoing effort to destroy their economy — aren’t great.
Trump, as we’ve learned over and over again, is the world’s worst negotiator. There’s no deal he can’t screw up, either before it begins or after it’s signed. He also has a supremely awful record as a selector and manager of staff. The man who hired Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort, Stephen K. Bannon, Scott Pruitt, Ryan Zinke, various members of his own family, assorted criminals and incompetents and approximately 75 White House communications directors is not too likely to make a brilliant pick for his fourth national security adviser.
But if nothing else, we should acknowledge that the country avoided catastrophe by reaching the end of Bolton’s service without having to suffer through yet another ill-conceived war. As appalling as Bolton’s thirst for blood is, he was undoubtedly a knowledgeable and clever bureaucratic schemer; if he couldn’t maneuver Trump into a disastrous war, his successor is unlikely to be able to do so either. Trump never should have hired him in the first place, but at least he’s gone.