President Trump’s appointment of John Bolton as national security adviser created a unique sense of shock at the State Department, where many diplomats rehashed anecdotes about his aggressive management style and prolific broadsides against the culture of the American diplomatic corps.
Bolton, a former ambassador to the United Nations, has for years derided the State Department as a backwater of “appeasers” and “high-minded” careerists in various books and television appearances since he left government.
His professional rehabilitation follows the turbulent 14-month tenure of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, another critic of the State Department who spent much of his time trying to downsize and reorganize an institution he viewed as bloated and inefficient.
The difference between the two men, diplomats acknowledged, is that the arcane ways of government that perplexed and ultimately stymied Tillerson will not pose a similar challenge for Bolton, who comes to the job with a granular understanding of the levers of power.
“I would say micro-granular,” said Mark Groombridge, a longtime adviser for Bolton at the State Department and United Nations. “His style will be to run an imperial NSC where the State and Defense departments are there to implement White House policy.”
A spokesman for Bolton declined to comment.
In his new job, Bolton will not directly oversee the State Department, but his powerful perch at the National Security Council will offer opportunities to shape and influence policy and personnel at Foggy Bottom.
Bolton became famous inside the department as a skillful bureaucratic tactician, an outspoken Iraq War advocate and an ardent critic of multilateral institutions and treaties. His recurring calls to bomb Iran and North Korea contrast sharply with the Foreign Service’s dictum of first exhausting diplomatic options before recommending military force.
Bolton’s advisers and former colleagues say he has a good relationship with Secretary of State-designate Mike Pompeo, whom he advised in Congress. But they said Bolton is unlikely to take a back seat to the former Kansas congressman on the issues he cares about most: Iran and North Korea.
“While currently in the lead, the State Department’s Office of Policy Planning will definitely become irrelevant on Iran,” said Andrew Bowen, a former colleague of Bolton’s at the American Enterprise Institute.
“Bolton is also likely to play a leading role on North Korea, an issue he’s devoted much of his professional career toward,” Bowen said.
How Bolton will fit into a combustible Cabinet ecosystem of strong personalities, including Pompeo, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Nikki Haley, the ambassador to the United Nations, is unclear, but contemporaries of Bolton said he should not be underestimated.
“He’ll work to put loyalists in key vantage points and marginalize those he distrusts,” Matthew Waxman, a former colleague of Bolton’s in the George W. Bush administration, wrote in a recent Lawfare column.
When it comes to installing allies, Tillerson has left Pompeo and Bolton with ample opportunities, given his failure to put his own political appointees in place. Eight of the top 10 State Department jobs are vacant, and some of the people Tillerson managed to get nominated, such as Susan Thornton and Eric Ueland, could have their nominations pulled.
“Tillerson clearly didn’t understand the importance of installing political appointees across the department,” Groombridge said. “But Bolton understands that personnel is policy, and he’ll be in a position to weigh in.”
Individuals close to Bolton said they expected him to “clear house” at the NSC and remove staffers viewed as allies of H.R. McMaster or the previous administration. People spoke about Bolton on condition of anonymity to speak freely about future planning.
In his 2007 memoir, “Surrender Is Not an Option,” Bolton demonstrates a detailed understanding of the State Department and a disdain for many of its inhabitants. He and his allies concocted disparaging and wonky epithets for his colleagues, such “EAPeasers” a moniker he uses five times in his book to describe U.S. diplomats he viewed as soft on North Korea. (The word is a portmanteau combining “appeasers” and the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, or EAP.)
Groombridge said he and his boss also referred to career diplomat Christopher Hill, who led the six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear program, as “Kim Jong Hill.”
“Needless to say we didn’t like Chris Hill,” Groombridge said.
Following Bolton’s appointment Thursday, a group of U.S. diplomats swapped stories about Bolton over drinks at the Hive Bar, a go-to diplomatic watering hole one block from the Harry S. Truman Building. A particular topic of interest was Bolton’s workplace demeanor, which became the source of public attention during his 2005 confirmation process to become U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
Most notably, Bolton reportedly browbeat an intelligence analyst who disputed his view that Cuba was intent on building an advanced biological weapons program.
Carl Ford, a self-described Republican and a top State Department intelligence official at the time, testified before Congress about the encounter and called it indicative of Bolton’s verbally abusive style, calling him “a quintessential kiss-up, kick-down sort of guy.”
In his memoir, Bolton called the intelligence analyst in question “sensitive” and dismissed Ford’s testimony as “over the top.”
A government subcontractor also accused Bolton of throwing a tape dispenser at her and chasing her down the halls of a Russian hotel in 1994 when he worked as a lawyer.
“Bolton hounded me in such an appalling way that I eventually retreated to my hotel room and stayed there,” said Melody Townsel, the USAID subcontractor. “Mr. Bolton, of course, then routinely visited me there to pound on the door and shout threats.”
In his book, Bolton denied this allegation, saying that “in fact, I had met her once in a room full of people, thus constituting our entire personal contact.”
While nursing a beer at Hive Bar last week, one State Department employee joked that he wasn’t too worried about allegations that Bolton hurled office supplies at colleagues. “You’re fine as long as you’re not within throwing distance of him,” he said.