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Bolton out as national security adviser after clashing with Trump

President Trump fired national security adviser John Bolton on Sept. 10. The Post’s Carol Morello describes the disagreements that led to Bolton’s ousting. (Video: The Washington Post)
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President Trump announced Tuesday that John Bolton was no longer his national security adviser, ending a stormy tenure marked by widening rifts between an unorthodox president seeking a foreign policy victory and an irascible foreign policy hawk who had been deeply skeptical of much of the president’s agenda.

Trump disclosed the departure in a terse Twitter message, saying he would name a replacement as early as next week. Potential candidates include at least two conservative foreign policy commentators who have appeared on Fox News, where Bolton’s fierce attacks on Democrats endeared him to Trump nearly two years ago.

The appeal didn’t last, however, as Bolton’s opposition to elements of Trump’s approach on North Korea, Iran and Afghanistan, among other issues, put him at odds with his boss and other advisers. Trump also largely blamed his third national security adviser for overselling the strength of Venezuela’s political opposition earlier this year.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Sept. 10 told reporters that former national security adviser John Bolton was asked to resign by President Trump. (Video: Reuters)

“I informed John Bolton last night that his services are no longer needed at the White House,” Trump said on Twitter. “I asked John for his resignation, which was given to me this morning. I thank John very much for his service.”

The chaos and infighting that swirl around Trump’s White House was on immediate display, as Bolton disputed the president’s account of his departure.

“Let’s be clear, I resigned, having offered to do so last night,” Bolton said in a text to The Washington Post. “I will have my say in due course. But I have given you the facts on the resignation. My sole concern is US national security.”

Bolton also responded to Trump on Twitter. “I offered to resign last night and President Trump said, ‘Let’s talk about it tomorrow,’ ” he wrote.

Departures that made headlines during Trump’s administration

WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 21: White House Director of communications for the Office of Public Liaison Omarosa Manigault listens as Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price speaks during a HHS listening session in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, DC on Wednesday, June 21, 2017. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Bolton’s chief nemesis within the administration, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, told reporters that “the president’s entitled to the staff that he wants at any moment.”

“He should have people that he trusts and values,” said Pompeo, who readily acknowledged disagreements with Bolton.

“There were definitely places where Ambassador Bolton and I had differing views about how to proceed,” Pompeo said as he and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin spoke to reporters about an unrelated terrorism issue.

Just hours earlier, the White House had listed Bolton as being scheduled to appear alongside Pompeo and Mnuchin at the same session. Despite months of rumors about Bolton’s imminent ouster, the timing Tuesday appeared to take several senior White House officials and others by surprise.

Trump himself had joked about the perception that Bolton was on thin ice, saying in May that he appreciated hearing Bolton’s views even though he often disagreed with them.

“It doesn’t matter,” Trump said, because only he makes decisions.

Trump is likely to consider Stephen Biegun, the lead envoy on North Korea, and Brian Hook, the administration’s point person on Iran, among possible replacements, current and former administration officials said. Other potential candidates include Douglas Macgregor, a retired Army ­officer whose conservative commentary has included praise for Trump’s approach on Iran, and Richard Grenell, the ambassador to Germany and a onetime Fox News contributor, current and former officials and outside Trump advisers said.

Three other current administration figures are also in the mix, a senior White House official said: NSC officials Ricky Waddell and Matt Pottinger and Vice President Pence’s national security adviser, Keith Kellogg.

Macgregor met recently with acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney to discuss the potential of an administration job, two people familiar with the meeting said.

Bolton and Trump had been at odds on issues of substance and style.

Bolton did not like Trump’s repeated meetings with Kim Jong Un, administration officials said, and he had argued against directly meeting with Iranian officials. He also did not like the president’s repeated insistence that Russia rejoin the Group of Seven nations.

Trump regularly mocked Bolton as a warmonger, sometimes ticking off the names of countries and joking that Bolton would want to invade them, current and former senior administration officials said.

The mustachioed conservative, a fixture in Republican administrations and hawkish foreign policy circles for decades, was an odd fit from the start.

Widely read and witty, Bolton was also known as a bureaucratic knife-fighter and a difficult colleague. He had ruffled feathers in previous administrations and on Capitol Hill. He could not win Senate confirmation as United Nations ambassador in 2005, leading President George W. Bush to install him there in a temporary capacity.

Although he frequently said he had checked his own views at the West Wing door when he went to work for Trump, Bolton’s distrust of diplomatic engagement with North Korea and Iran never abated. He also had more recently been seen as an obstacle in Trump’s effort to broker an end to the Afghanistan war.

“There is no one issue here,” deputy White House press secretary Hogan Gidley told reporters. “They just didn’t align on many issues.”

Senate Republicans were caught off guard — the Armed Services Committee chairman, James M. Inhofe (Okla.), said he found out because a staffer heard the news on the radio — and several expressed concerns about losing the hawkish adviser from the president’s national security team.

“I’m very disappointed. I don’t know whether he was fired, or whether he resigned. I know what the president said; I know what he said,” Inhofe said. “Nonetheless, he’s one of my closest friends. He’s one of the most knowledgeable that I know and I’m disappointed that association has been dissolved.”

Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), a close Trump ally, said the president deserved a national security adviser “he has confidence in.”

“It’s clear to me the relationship had soured, and I hope he’ll pick a national security adviser that he has confidence in,” Graham said. “But I appreciate John Bolton. I think he sees the world for the dangerous place it is.”

Bolton, who took the job in April 2018, was Trump’s third permanent national security adviser. His deputy, Charlie Kupperman, will continue in an acting capacity.

Collapse of Afghanistan peace talks spotlights internal Trump administration divisions

Bolton brought in many friends and former colleagues to the National Security Council, which, while in keeping with past practice at the White House, was also viewed by some Trump aides as excessive. Bolton’s large entourage seemed to have deeper loyalty to him than to Trump, one former senior administration official said.

Bolton acted like “a big shot,” and Trump “got sick of it,” said that former official, who like others interviewed spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter on the record.

Bolton recently said he did not want to appear on TV to defend some of the administration’s positions, particularly on Afghanistan and Russia, according to administration officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.

“I think fundamentally President Trump and Bolton have different worldviews,” said Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

While Bolton tweeted that he “offered to resign” on Monday evening, the actual time of his offer was Monday afternoon, in a meeting in the Oval Office with the president before Trump flew to North Carolina for a political rally, according to two people familiar with the discussion who spoke on the condition of anonymity to reveal internal deliberations.

Bolton then mulled his resignation into Monday evening and gave a short letter to NSC staff on Tuesday, these people said.

A former senior official said Mulvaney, Pompeo and Pence all concluded that Bolton had leaked internal deliberations surrounding a planned meeting at Camp David last weekend in which Trump would have met with Taliban representatives as a step to ending the 18-year war in Afghanistan. Trump canceled the secret meeting via Twitter on Saturday evening.

Trump was infuriated at the idea that Bolton was trying to make himself look good, the official said.

Bolton has insisted to colleagues and confidants that he had done no such thing. Bolton’s allies viewed this charge as an attempt to “knife John on the way out,” one person close to him said, calling it “flatly untrue.”

Bolton had argued against the U.S.-Taliban negotiations for months, saying that the Taliban could not be trusted and that Trump could achieve his chief aim in Afghanistan — the withdrawal of U.S. troops — without any agreement with the militants.

Democrats seized on the latest turnover in the administration.

“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.) said in a statement. “When Ambassador Bolton’s extreme views aren’t enough for you, the United States is headed for even more chaotic times.”

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, lamented that “we’re now headed for our fourth national security adviser in less than three years.”

“This revolving door of American leadership is devastating to our nation’s security as our allies now turn to more stable nations — like China and Russia — as our foreign policy infrastructure falls apart,” he said.

Bolton was preceded by Michael Flynn and H.R. McMaster.

Flynn, a retired Army lieutenant general, resigned in February 2017 over revelations about his questionable contacts with the Russian ambassador to the United States and his misleading statements about the matter to senior Trump administration officials. He is awaiting sentencing later this year after pleading guilty to lying to the FBI.

McMaster, an Army lieutenant general at the time of his hiring by Trump, was forced out in March 2018 after enduring the ire of conservatives for months and disagreeing with Trump on some key foreign policy strategies.

Josh Dawsey, Mike DeBonis, Karen DeYoung, John Hudson, Colby Itkowitz, Seung Min Kim, Toluse Olorunnipa and Philip Rucker contributed to this report.