Donald Trump is frequently sarcastic but rarely funny. I confess, however, that Trump tells a pretty good joke to open Jonathan Swan’s Axios story characterizing the relationship between the president and his national security adviser, John Bolton: “President Trump made small talk with the Irish prime minister as they sat in the Oval Office in mid-March, accompanied by a handful of senior American and Irish officials. Trump ... turned with a half-smile to his hawkish national security adviser John Bolton, according to two sources who were in the room. ‘John,’ Trump asked, ‘Is Ireland one of those countries you want to invade?’ ”

It’s funny because Bolton might have publicly advocated for the United States to invade more countries than anyone else inside the Beltway. But the joke also reveals that Trump is fully aware of Bolton’s policy preferences, and occasionally likes to mock them. Which is why Trump’s rationale for keeping Bolton around, as explained by Swan, makes such little sense.

Later in the story, Swan articulates why Trump has no intention of firing Bolton:

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Trump has a strongly held theory of Bolton’s value, according to senior administration officials and advisers to the president, including people who have privately recommended to Trump that he fire Bolton. Seven sources who have discussed Bolton with Trump told me the president says having Bolton on his team improves his bargaining position and gives him a psychological advantage over foes like Iran and North Korea.
“Trump thinks that Bolton is a key part of his negotiating strategy,” said the same person who described Trump as “touchy” about Bolton. “He thinks that Bolton’s bellicosity and eagerness to kill people is a bargaining chip when he’s sitting down with foreign leaders. Bolton can be the bad cop and Trump can be the good cop. Trump believes this to his core.”
A former senior administration official who remains close to Trump said Bolton’s presence on the team “makes other people know that there is going to be that type of voice in the room.”

As rationales go in the Age of Trump, this is not an insane one. The good cop/bad cop gambit has been discussed in American foreign policy circles long before Trump was elected president. Looked at a certain way, John Bolton resembles the role of a bad cop in his bellicosity (put a cop’s uniform on him, and his mustache alone makes him look like he belongs on a basic cable policy procedural). For Trump to think that Bolton could be a negotiation asset is not his dumbest foreign policy idea.

Astute readers will likely notice that I am using a really low bar to judge Trump’s thinking here. Trump has a lot of dumb foreign policy ideas. Just because this one is not among his worst ones does not make it good either. Indeed, the closer one examines Trump’s logic, the quicker it dissipates.

The most obvious problem is the simplest: What evidence is there that Trump has secured a bargaining advantage from either Iran or North Korea in the 16 months that Bolton has been around? Neither country has offered any material concessions to the United States during this time. Once you brush away the superficial differences, neither country seems particularly interested striking a bargain. There is no denying that the Iranian economy is weaker than it was a year and a half ago, but this has simply caused Iran to act in a more belligerent manner. It is hard to detect Bolton’s effect on any of this.

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A related problem is that Trump has already made it clear in both crises that his threats are all bluffs. He talked a lot about “fire and fury” in 2017, convincing many, myself included, that he was stumbling into war. Ever since he accepted Kim Jong Un’s invitation to meet, however, he has made it clear that he will limit U.S. responses to DPRK provocations. Even as Bolton declared recent North Korean ballistic missile tests to be in violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions, Trump downplayed it. A similar dynamic has played out in the Persian Gulf over the past few months, with just an extra soupçon of incoherence.

If the bad cop never gets his way when it matters, then he is not much of a threat now, is he?

The related problem is that for the good cop/bad cop routine to have any chance of working, they must be consistent in their performances. This administration has been anything but consistent. As I wrote in September 2018: “Galaxy Brain advocates might argue that uncertainty is a good thing in high-stakes international negotiations, or that Trump and his advisers are playing grand “good cop/bad cop” routine on the world. These things, however, are small potatoes compared with the ability to credibly signal and credibly commit. And this administration has been abjectly awful on both these diplomatic dimensions.” Iran and North Korea are likely to rebuff any proposed deal with the Trump administration, for the simple reason that Trump has displayed no sign that he can stick to any international deal.

Swan’s story does a very good job of dispelling the rumors that Bolton plans to leave the Trump administration, but I think we already knew that. It certainly highlights why Trump thinks Bolton is useful. The problem is that in the real world, Bolton is not of much use at all. Some of that is due to Bolton, but most of it is due to the president of the United States.

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