The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A hostage negotiator, an embattled ambassador, a nuclear envoy: Who might replace John Bolton?

White House national security adviser John Bolton walks to Marine One while President Trump was departing the White House in May 2018. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Placeholder while article actions load

Two days after President Trump unceremoniously announced on Twitter that he had dismissed his national security adviser this week, he said that John Bolton had made “some very big mistakes.”

“John wasn’t in line with what we were doing,” he said.

A replacement for Bolton will be announced as soon as next week, Trump said Wednesday, adding that at least five people are interested in the job — people he described as “very highly qualified, good people I’ve gotten to know over the last three years.”

Trump hasn’t publicly named any candidates for the job. But because this is Washington, there’s already plenty of speculation about who they might be. Some hypothesized that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has managed to maintain a positive relationship with Trump, could be asked to hold both jobs at once.

Here are some of the other names that have circulated as potential Bolton replacements.

Stephen Biegun, lead envoy on North Korea

Stephen Biegun was vice president of international governmental relations for Ford when Pompeo tapped him to join the State Department last August as lead envoy on North Korea.

And he and Bolton have since held differing opinions on how to approach landmark negotiations on the peninsula. As The Washington Post reported in February, Bolton “fiercely opposed” Biegun’s plans to use diplomatic incentives to urge North Korea to dismantle its uranium and plutonium enrichment facilities, preferring to use a maximum-pressure policy.

On Wednesday, Trump said Bolton’s ideas on how to handle North Korea had contributed to him losing his job.

If selected to replace Bolton, Biegun would come to the role with prior National Security Council experience. Under the George W. Bush administration, he served as the council’s executive secretary and as a senior staffer to Bush’s national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice. Biegun also previously served as national security adviser to former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.).

And Biegun is used to bringing big foreign policy ideas to those with little experience in them. In 2008, while working on then-Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) presidential campaign, he was charged with briefing vice presidential running mate Sarah Palin on foreign policy issues.

Brian Hook, U.S. special representative on Iran

Bolton, well-known as an aggressive Iran hawk, pushed for hard-line measures and devastating sanctions against Iran. So when Trump tweeted news of Bolton’s departure, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani seemed to signal that Iran saw it as a potential win.

“Americans have to realize that warmongering and warmongers are not to their benefit,” Rouhani said on Iranian TV. “They should not only abandon warmongering but also abandon their maximum-pressure policy.”

So what would they think of Brian Hook, the Trump administration’s point person on Iran, as his replacement?

Hook may not be quite as hawkish as Bolton, but he said last week that more sanctions against Iran are on the way and that the State Department “can’t make it any more clear that we are committed to this campaign of maximum pressure.”

The U.S. government has already leveled sanctions against a number of firms, individuals and shipping vessels they say are involved in an Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps network that violates U.S. sanctions by shipping Iranian oil to Syria. And the Financial Times reported that Hook personally contacted an Indian ship captain suspected of smuggling oil and offered him millions of dollars to redirect his route and hand over the ship. Four days later, Washington sanctioned the tanker.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif called the offer “outright blackmail.”

The State Department later said that it had indeed “conducted extensive outreach to several ship captains,” the Guardian reported.

Before taking over the Iran post, Hook served as a director of policy planning staff at the State Department. A former Bush administration official, he spent much of President Barack Obama’s tenure managing a consulting firm. Hook also advised former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney on foreign policy.

Douglas Macgregor, a retired Army ­colonel and conservative commentator

In a 2018 episode of Fox News’ “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” one of Trump’s preferred shows, retired Army Col. Douglas Macgregor said it was a good thing that “President Trump hasn’t listened very much to his advisers,” crediting any progress Trump had made on recent international relations to Trump’s own personal decisions.

“God Bless the president,” Macgregor said. “He doesn’t listen to these people.”

Now, Macgregor might be in the running to become one of them. He has written five books on military strategy and could come to the job with a more restrained U.S. policy than some of Trump’s other close advisers — including Bolton.

In the same Fox News segment, Macgregor said that “anyone who threatens the United States with this man in the office should seek psychiatric care."

“They’re crazy, because Donald Trump means what he says,” he said. “He will fight to defend the United States.”

As The Post reported earlier this week, Macgregor recently spoke with Trump’s acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, about a possible role in the administration.

Richard Grenell, ambassador to Germany

It didn’t take long after Richard Grenell landed in Berlin last year to take up his new post as U.S. ambassador for him to ruffle his host’s feathers. An hour after the U.S. Embassy’s official Twitter account confirmed his arrival, Grenell tweeted that “German companies doing business in Iran should wind down operations immediately.”

In Germany, the comments were widely perceived as an impolite order from a visiting diplomat. He has continued to irk politicians there, with Wolfgang Kubicki, a top opposition lawmaker, saying in March that he was behaving like “a high commissioner of an occupying power."

In a meeting with Vice President Pence earlier this year, German Chancellor Angela Merkel told him that Grenell’s style “took getting used to,” the Wall Street Journal reported.

Grenell, a close ally of Bolton’s who has clashed with Pompeo, also very briefly served as a spokesman for Romney’s 2012 presidential run. Grenell made regular appearances on Fox News and served as a spokesman for the U.S. mission to the United Nations during the George W. Bush administration.

He has also been a regular customer of Trump’s businesses, according to internal documents from Trump’s D.C. hotel that were obtained by The Washington Post. They showed that Grenell was listed among the “VIP Arrivals” for June 22, 2018 — and indicated that he was a repeat customer whose past stays had earned him a “gold” status on the company’s Trump Card loyalty program. That status appears relatively rare: The Post reviewed VIP Arrivals logs showing more than 1,100 reservations at the Trump hotel in 2018, and only 10 of the guests were listed as having gold status. Another one of the gold-level members — Kelly Craft, a GOP fundraiser whose family is heavily invested in the coal business — was recently named by Trump as his ambassador to the United Nations.

Robert C. O’Brien, special presidential envoy for hostage affairs

Earlier this year, Trump tweeted a quote calling himself the “greatest hostage negotiator that I know of in the history of the United States.” He didn’t say who called him that, but then-White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said it could be attributed to Robert C. O’Brien, Trump’s hostage envoy. O’Brien had previously said Trump had “unparalleled success” in bringing home hostages.

Before serving as a hostage specialist for Trump, O’Brien, the founding partner of a Los Angeles law firm, helped run the State Department’s justice reform initiative in Afghanistan, training Afghan lawyers and judges.

In Europe, O’Brien is best known for his recent visit to Stockholm to monitor the trial of U.S. rapper A$AP Rocky and two of his associates. Trump’s decision to deploy his hostage affairs envoy to a trial held in an allied nation sparked ridicule and anger in Sweden, where the sight of O’Brien on the calm streets of inner-city Stockholm appeared bizarre to some and offensive to others.

When a Swedish court released all three defendants — before finding all of them guilty — O’Brien framed the decision as a “very good night for the United States of America and for the Kingdom of Sweden.”

Swedish observers vehemently disagreed with that assessment, arguing that Trump’s attempts to interfere with the independence of Sweden’s judiciary reflected the president’s disregard for rules and his ignorance in regard to foreign allies. Trump, said O’Brien after Rocky’s release, was “quite pleased with that result.”

David Fahrenthold contributed to this report from Washington, Rick Noack from Berlin.

Read more:

A nonprofit paid to rent Trump’s D.C. hotel ballrooms. Its headliners: Pence and Pompeo

Bolton out as national security adviser after clashing with Trump

John Bolton’s turbulent tenure comes to a Trumpian end