An assessment of Bolton’s time in office, as he approaches his first anniversary in the job, reveals both the breadth of his influence and, in a few notable instances — such as policy toward North Korea — its limits.
The contradictions of Bolton’s tenure were apparent in the wake of last week’s collapsed Hanoi summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Bolton dutifully reiterated Trump’s assessment that the summit was a success. But he offered little support for that judgment or the president’s approach beyond saying in an interview with CNN on Sunday that Trump “remains optimistic.”
Asked whether the summit effort was worth it, Bolton took a pass.
“He obviously thinks it’s worth trying,” Bolton said of the president.
Asked about Kim’s insistence that he wasn’t involved in the death of American college student Otto Warmbier, Bolton declined to back Trump, who had said he took Kim “at his word.”
“My opinion doesn’t matter. . . .,” he said. “I am not the national security decision-maker. That’s [Trump’s] view.”
From all that is known of Bolton’s views and means of operating as an outspoken denizen of Washington’s foreign policy wars for decades — a high-level government bureaucrat, a political activist and a Fox News commentator — such self-effacement is startling.
But if Bolton has not always prevailed on issues dear to his heart, it is not for want of trying. He has redefined the job of national security adviser from synthesizer and transmitter of views across the government to arbiter of what he believes the president needs to hear, according to interviews with over a dozen current and former administration officials who discussed his record on the condition of anonymity so they could speak frankly. Bolton declined to be interviewed for this article.
He has cut to a bare minimum meetings in which top national security officials present and vet options for the president. In some cases, he has replaced subject experts detailed to the National Security Council from other agencies with ideological soul mates who have little experience serving at the most senior levels of policymaking.
His approach to the job and the president’s disinclination to read lengthy briefings or consult experts have afforded Bolton vast power over an often disorderly foreign policy process.
“He advocates a position and then challenges people to talk him out of it,” added one senior White House official who works closely with him.
Even as the president has rejected his advice on North Korea, Bolton has won on many core issues — such as scrapping arms control and multilateral treaties — that have fired his passion for decades.
On his watch, the administration has pulled out of major agreements with Russia and Iran. In September, he declared the International Criminal Court “dead to us.” He has fashioned a Venezuela policy that, in recent weeks, has been mostly about Cuba, a longtime Bolton target.
He has played a central role in the administration’s efforts to cut cooperation with the United Nations, an organization that Bolton has long derided as incompetent and corrupt.
Some officials said Trump grouses at times that Bolton has pursued an independent foreign policy that isn’t always in line with the administration’s “America First” agenda and has berated him for some of his public remarks on the Middle East and North Korea. He has jokingly warned Bolton not to start any wars. But there are no signs that Trump is considering replacing him.
Meanwhile, the departures of White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, strong advocates of working closely with allies, have bolstered Bolton’s position. The former Marine generals were said to have clashed frequently with Bolton, and the net result of their departure has been to further reduce the number of voices influencing the president.
Sprinting to the Oval Office
One moment from the Trump administration’s chaotic Syria debate last year highlighted Bolton’s power and how he exercises it. Trump had promised in April to pull all U.S. forces out of Syria “very soon” but then seemed to drop the matter amid Pentagon and State Department outcry that the Islamic State was not defeated.
It fell to Bolton to clarify the policy for those implementing it.
In a typical administration, the national security adviser would convene a meeting of the president and his top Cabinet officials in the Situation Room, hash out differences and settle on a strategy.
But the Trump presidency is far from typical. Since his arrival at the White House, right about the time Trump’s withdrawal demand was set aside, Bolton has insisted that the primary enemy in Syria was not the Islamic State, but Iran.
The key moment came out of a meeting last summer that remains shrouded in secrecy. Bolton told senior officials working on Syria policy that Trump, during a no-notes meeting alone with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki in July, had insisted that U.S. troops would stay in Syria until Moscow forced out its Iranian allies — an ambitious declaration that could keep the Americans there for years. With no reason to doubt Bolton’s account, officials at the Pentagon and State Department fine-tuned a strategy that made Iran’s departure a primary objective of the 2,000-strong U.S. presence.
“We’re not going to leave as long as Iranian troops are outside Iranian borders,” Bolton told reporters in September, “and that includes Iranian proxies and militias.” James Jeffrey, the administration’s newly appointed special envoy for Syria, said Trump was “on board” with that and was in “no hurry” to leave Syria.
But Trump never approved a strategy tying troop withdrawal to Iran’s departure, according to several senior administration officials. In December, he surprised many on his foreign policy team by countermanding it in a tweet: “It’s time to bring our great young people home!”
Today, it’s still unclear what Trump actually told Putin.
Bolton’s public reputation as blunt and unyielding, at least to those with equal or lesser status, preceded his arrival last spring at the White House. “I expected cloven hoofs,” said one former NSC staffer.
But when Bolton showed up for an introductory meeting, his polite interest in what this staffer’s division was working on “flew in the face of everything I had heard,” the staffer said. Going from office to office, Bolton told all that he was in a “listening mode,” agreed a former senior official who worked for Bolton and his predecessor, H.R. McMaster.
“In person, he’s a nice guy,” this official said, although it quickly became apparent that Bolton had “a completely different leadership style.” McMaster held regular “all-hands” meetings with the entire staff — sometimes called to refute rumors he was leaving or conducted with Kelly by his side to prove the two weren’t engaged in mortal combat. With the exception of an internal staff awards ceremony in September, numerous staffers could not recall any under Bolton.
Many NSC staffers said they have rarely, if ever, spoken to Bolton since he made his early introductory rounds.
“It shifted from office door is always open to office door is always closed,” one said of the change from McMaster to Bolton. To the extent that Bolton has relied on staff, he has worked most closely with the Middle East and Asia directorates, as he focused on Iran, North Korea and China, where he has long advocated more confrontational policies.
From early in his tenure, Bolton would burrow in his West Wing office with copious binders of intelligence. Arriving hours before the president, he normally shut his door to scour the day’s newspapers and daily intelligence briefing.
When Trump beckoned, Bolton would often sprint to the Oval Office. “If you stood in the lobby outside his office, you’d see him go running by,” a senior administration official said.
Unlike the president, who frequently breaks from conservative orthodoxy, Bolton, 70, touts his pristine conservative credentials and traces his bona fides back to when he was a teenage supporter of Barry Goldwater. Part of George W. Bush’s legal team during the disputed 2000 election, Bolton became a favorite of incoming Vice President Richard B. Cheney, who intervened to help him land in a senior State Department job.
Bolton frequently clashed there with Secretary of State Colin Powell and described himself as a sharp-elbowed master of bureaucratic process. “That is what makes some of my critics go truly wild,” he once told an interviewer, “because they couldn’t get me on process fouls. . . . I’m proud to say I’m a good bureaucrat.”
Fred Fleitz, who served as Bolton’s NSC chief of staff until November, said Bolton’s model as national security adviser is Brent Scowcroft, who worked for presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush. Known for bringing his bosses a range of views, Scowcroft is hailed by Democrats and Republicans as the gold standard for the job.
But many consider Bolton the antithesis of Scowcroft.
From the start, a former senior official said, Bolton “told the NSC directorates that his job was to be a senior adviser to the president.” Rather than overseeing meetings and policy discussions among principals, he told them, he planned to spend as much time as he could at Trump’s side.
Not getting their way
Bolton’s unusual approach has meant that there is little coordination of policy debates above the third-tier level of assistant secretaries or efforts at the highest levels to reconcile the different approaches advocated by the military, State Department and White House.
Formal meetings of the foreign policy “principals committee,” which includes the defense secretary, secretary of state, treasury secretary and attorney general, have been rare.
Mattis had complained repeatedly about too many meetings under McMaster. But before he resigned, the defense secretary wrote a sharply worded letter to Bolton, insisting that the paucity of meetings was crippling the policy process. Mattis was particularly upset that not a single principals committee meeting had been held to discuss U.S. withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia, the INF.
NSC spokesman Garrett Marquis said that it is “incorrect to say that there are fewer meetings overall.” In some cases, face-to-face meetings have been replaced with “paper meetings” in which top officials exchange policy documents but do not actually sit around a table and talk.
Bolton also has weekly breakfasts with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and with acting defense secretary Patrick M. Shanahan, but the meetings don’t produce records that could be used to inform experts elsewhere in the government, who often feel frozen out of the process.
Fleitz, now a Fox commentator and president of the Center for Security Policy, acknowledged there are fewer high-level meetings but dismissed the criticism. “People who disagree assume that if there were more meetings, they would get their way,” he said.
The one area of robust consultation, officials said, is third-tier meetings at the level of assistant secretaries and geographical or issue-based NSC directors. Many such meetings were held last year to formulate Syria policy, said current and former officials. But, higher-level meetings on Syria took place largely as small, informal discussions with no process to reconcile conflicting views or produce a clear decision from the president.
Often, those higher-level discussions were disconnected from the lower-level meetings and the president’s shifting thinking. “The wheel doesn’t connect to the engine,” said a former official involved in the Syria debates.
In the absence of all sitting down together — and trust that Bolton will accurately present their views to Trump and vice versa — some Cabinet officials have sought their own lines of contact with the president. The most successful has been Pompeo, increasingly a Trump favorite, who shares Bolton’s aggressive, conservative outlook but is said to guard his “alone time” with Trump.
The activists arrive
Bolton’s efforts to restructure the NSC also have led to significant changes in personnel.
Much of the NSC is filled with career officials from other parts of the government — including State, Defense and intelligence agencies — sent for a year or two as nonpolitical subject experts.
As those assignments have expired, Bolton has either left them empty or filled them with activists.
The cuts have hit the Middle East and North Africa directorate especially hard. The division, which oversees Iraq policy and the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, consisted of as many as 18 people during the Obama administration and is now about one-third that size, said two senior administration officials.
The NSC director for Latin America, Mauricio Claver-Carone, a longtime political fundraiser and pro-sanctions lobbyist on Cuba, replaced a career CIA officer.
On Iran, two staffers detailed from the Treasury Department to work on sanctions and nuclear issues had their jobs combined into one, for countering Iranian weapons of mass destruction. The office is overseen by Richard Goldberg, who worked most recently at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where he advocated regime change in Iran via economic and diplomatic pressure
Victoria Coates, who trained as an art historian and served as a top foreign policy adviser to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) in the Senate and during his 2016 presidential campaign, joined the NSC early in the administration and under Bolton directs Middle East policy.
At the highest levels of the NSC, Bolton has brought on people he has known for years and who share much of his hawkish worldview. Sarah Tinsley, director of a political action committee and a foundation that Bolton started to advance his policy views and political future, was tapped as director of strategic communications.
After his deputy national security adviser, Mira Ricardel, was forced out following a public spat with the first lady, Bolton hired Charles Kupperman, a former defense industry executive who Bolton said had advised him for 30 years but who last served in government during the Reagan administration.
Kupperman also served for years on the board of the Center for Security Policy, a think tank that has been criticized by groups such as the Anti-Defamation League for propagating anti-Muslim conspiracies, including the view that rampant Islamization and the spread of Sharia law threaten American democracy.
'Knows his place'
As a Fox News pundit and senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute during the Obama administration, Bolton earned a reputation as one of the toughest hawks in Washington. He regularly called for bombing Iran and North Korea, where his commentary made an impression on North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. During a working lunch at June’s summit in Singapore, Kim told Bolton that he was “famous” in North Korea and proposed taking a photo with him to improve his image among regime hard-liners, according to a White House official. Bolton laughed in response.
His absence at last week’s pre-summit dinner between Trump and Kim, attended by Pompeo and White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, was noted by reporters who closely monitor who is up and who is down among Trump’s top aides. But when the two sides convened the next day for an expanded meeting, Bolton was at the table.
Bolton has repeatedly said that his job is to serve the president and carry out his policies. But the tension between his conservative views and Trump’s “America First” instincts was clearly apparent in the case of Syria.
Bolton, who listened in on the call, spent the next several days gingerly trying to talk Trump out of an immediate troop departure, to no avail.
By the time Bolton accompanied Trump on a Christmas visit to troops in Iraq, the withdrawal announcement had been made. “John and I agree on all of this,” Trump said at al-Asad Air Base as Bolton looked on. “And John is . . . pretty hawkish on everything having to do with the military.”
Paradoxically, Trump described himself as “more hawkish than anybody. . . . Nobody is more hawkish than me. But I also like to use it in the right place. And, frankly, I like not using it at all.”
Trump’s eventual agreement late last month to keep about 400 troops in Syria had the support of the military, particularly for the half that are to remain in the north as what the White House called a “peacekeeping force.” The other 200 will stay in the south, where they are blocking Iran’s use of a major highway between Tehran and Damascus — a priority for Bolton.
Fleitz denied that his former boss had worked to circumvent Trump’s plans. “He never steps ahead of the president,” Fleitz said of Bolton. The reversals, he said, were the product of a president who “changes his mind.”
Others cast Bolton’s role in a different light. “He’s an Iran hard-liner,” the senior White House official who works closely with the national security adviser said. “He wants to be everywhere, all the time. He’s never going to change his spots.” But, the official said, Bolton knows his place.
“He understands he’s not the ultimate decision-maker,” the official said.