We are far enough into the Trump administration to know how the script usually plays out when a Cabinet officer or high-ranking staffer is on the outs with the president. First, Trump asks everyone within his orbit what he thinks of the imperiled official. Second, reports of Trump’s dissatisfaction hit the press. Third, those stories often contain incidents of Trump mocking the official on the chopping block. Fourth, Trump denies everything and claims it to be fake news. Fifth, Trump fires the person.
To be fair, sometimes the script is not that rote. Staffers like Gary Cohn and Don McGahn managed to infuriate the president but depart on their own accord. The same was true of Nikki Haley. Rod Rosenstein managed to wheedle his way back into Trump’s good graces. And sometimes the gap between Step Four and Step Five can be long and agonizing. John Kelly was on the outs with Trump for much of 2018 but managed to hang around until December.
This brings us to national security adviser John Bolton. Reports about dissatisfaction with Bolton have been percolating for a while now. As Bolton husbanded control of the national security decision-making process, resentment among other policy principals has grown. There have been multiple accounts of friction between Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that have little to do with policy and everything to do with style. After the failed transition in Venezuela, my Post colleagues Anne Gearan, Josh Dawsey, John Hudson and Seung Min Kim noted “The president’s dissatisfaction has crystallized around national security adviser John Bolton and what Trump has groused is an interventionist stance at odds with his view that the United States should stay out of foreign quagmires.”
Now, Bolton faces the dreaded confirmation of Trump dissatisfaction in the form of a Peter Baker and Maggie Haberman story in the New York Times. The good parts version:
Unlike General McMaster, Mr. Bolton figured out how to brief Mr. Trump in a more effective way, according to administration officials, but the two have never bonded on a personal level, which is so important in this White House. Mr. Trump is not fond of Mr. Bolton, according to a half-dozen advisers and associates, and he makes no secret of it in private....
One person close to Mr. Trump said the situation resembled the moment when the president turned on Rex W. Tillerson, his first secretary of state, but still took another six months or more to push him out. Others expressed doubt that Mr. Trump would get rid of Mr. Bolton before next year’s re-election campaign....
For his part, Mr. Bolton has privately expressed his own frustration with the president, according to several officials, viewing him as unwilling to push for more transformative changes in the Middle East. At the same time, his allies said he had been misunderstood, cast as favoring military action in Venezuela, for instance, when in fact they say he does not.
So, is Bolton on the way out? Color me skeptical, for a few reasons. First of all, Trump will find it difficult to get rid of Bolton through measures short of firing him. Trump will often try to humiliate an official into departing the administration. This tactic does not have a high success rate anyway, but will definitely not work on the national security adviser. As Baker and Haberman note, Bolton “does not appear to care much about being liked.” He does not crave Trump’s approval and can likely tolerate any abuse thrown in his direction.
More importantly, this is Bolton’s last bite at the policymaking apple. It would be hard for him to win a Senate-confirmable position even now, so it is national security adviser or bust for him. At 70 years old, he will hold on to power until someone physically ejects him from the White House.
Second of all, Trump is more constrained in his options that it might seem at first glance. If Trump fires Bolton, he will be on his fourth national security adviser in his first two-and-a-half years in office. That is not a good look for a commander in chief who wants to claim in 2020 that his administration is running so smoothly.
My colleague David Ignatius was spot-on in writing on Tuesday that “Trump is already in full campaign mode. In his quest for reelection, he doesn’t want to be seen to fail in anything. He wants to sound tough (popular) so long as it doesn’t get him into a war (unpopular).” This means he does not want to get dragged into a war of John Bolton’s creation. It also means, however, that he does not want the political headaches that would come with dispatching his third national security adviser in as many years. He is also unlikely to want to go through the process of finding Bolton’s successor.
My speculation would be that Bolton will be sticking around for the next few months at least. He is not going to quit. Trump’s reluctance to be seen as the captain of an anarchic ship will make him more reluctant to fire Bolton than he otherwise would be. Which means we are likely to see the president undercutting his national security adviser — and vice versa — for the rest of 2019. Meanwhile, the other great powers in the world will be popping their popcorn and settling in to watch the spectacle.