President Trump said Wednesday that ousted national security adviser John Bolton made “some very big mistakes,” citing his views on a panoply of foreign conflicts, his sour relations with North Korea dictator Kim Jong Un and his clashes with other top national security officials as reasons he had to go.
“John’s known as a tough guy,” Trump said disparagingly. “He’s so tough he got us into Iraq. That’s tough.”
He added, “John wasn’t in line with what we were doing.”
Bolton initially declined to comment in response to Trump’s remarks. He then texted back a few minutes later: “I will have my say in due course.”
Several Bolton allies said privately that he was closely watching the news coverage of his exit and the president’s comments, and has not ruled out further remarks as events unfold.
One of the Bolton allies, speaking on the condition of anonymity to talk candidly, called the president’s criticisms “odd” and “off” but said Bolton was not surprised by Trump’s latest outburst after working alongside him and becoming familiar with his behavior.
“He is quiet — for now,” this ally said, noting that Bolton could write a book or give a major television interview, among other options.
Bolton already has shown a willingness to fight back against Trump. Within minutes of Trump saying he had forced Bolton to resign Tuesday, the former national security adviser offered a different version — that it was his idea.
One senior administration official close to Bolton described him as frustrated with the president’s vacillating positions, his willingness to meet with any world leader without conditions and dysfunction within the administration.
The Oval Office criticism of Bolton, who was Trump’s national security adviser until Tuesday when he was dismissed abruptly by tweet, was part of a pattern by the president of trashing former officials he perceives as disloyal or a future threat. He labeled ousted secretary of state Rex Tillerson “dumb as a rock,” repeatedly lampooned former attorney general Jeff Sessions, attacked former White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci as having “zero credibility” and expressed displeasure with former defense secretary Jim Mattis.
Trump’s criticisms of Bolton on Wednesday encompassed decades of government service, from his enthusiastic support for the 2003 invasion of Iraq during the George W. Bush administration to his brash rhetoric during sensitive negotiations with the North Koreans in 2018.
Bolton’s views were well known on many issues when Trump picked him as national security adviser last spring; he has served in government for several Republican administrations. The president, however, liked his flattering appearances on Fox News and appreciated his perceived toughness.
In explaining Bolton’s departure, Trump suggested that North Korea was a large reason for his decision to fire Bolton. “He wanted nothing to do with John Bolton,” Trump said of Kim, whom the president routinely characterizes as a friend. The comments seemed to suggest that he cared about the dictator’s opinion in choosing his top staff.
Bolton went to Mongolia during Trump’s last summit with Kim, after the North Korean leader said he did not want Bolton present.
Trump also made clear he had not forgotten Bolton’s remarks from April 2018 when he said the White House was considering the “Libya model” for achieving the full denuclearization of North Korea.
That remark outraged the North Korean government given the fate of Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi following his surrender of Libya’s nuclear program in the early 2000s. Within years, his government was overthrown, and he was killed by Western-backed rebels.
“We were set back very badly when John Bolton talked about the Libyan model,” Trump said. “And he made a mistake, and as soon as he mentioned that — the Libyan model — what a disaster.”
Despite Trump’s meetings with the North Korean leader and his promises of progress, Kim continues to launch missiles, and the president’s desire for a landmark nuclear deal has yet to be realized.
The president also said he disagreed with Bolton on Venezuela, his main policy portfolio in his final months. Bolton promised that Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro would be swiftly ousted from power shortly after the U.S. imposition of sanctions on Venezuela’s state oil company, but Maduro has hung on amid a worsening humanitarian crisis.
“I disagreed with John Bolton on his attitudes on Venezuela. I thought he was way out of line, and I think I’ve proven to be right,” Trump said.
The president did not specify what he would have done differently or whether Venezuela policy will change with Bolton’s departure.
Trump reiterated his willingness to speak without preconditions to Iran’s leaders, another area of disagreement with Bolton. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani urged the United States on Wednesday to “abandon warmongers and warmongering policies,” in an apparent reference to Bolton, though officials in Tehran reiterated their position that sanctions must be lifted as a prerequisite to any talks.
The president also alluded to Bolton’s tensions with senior national security officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Bolton was disliked in many quarters, including the East Wing, the staff secretary’s office and the vice president’s office, for his outbursts and sharp elbows, according to current and former administration officials.
“You’re not getting along with people. And a lot of us, including me, disagree with some of your tactics and some of your ideas,” Trump said he told Bolton.
Trump had told allies in the past that he liked the sharp disagreements and that he actually tempered Bolton.
The president said that he had five people who want to be the next national security adviser and that he would make an announcement next week. He did not name the candidates.
Several of Bolton’s allies were also pushed out of the administration, including Garrett Marquis and Sarah Tinsley, his main spokespeople. “It was an honor to serve my country,” Marquis said in a statement Wednesday.