President Trump said Thursday that he was naming former ambassador John Bolton, a Fox News commentator and conservative firebrand, as his new national security adviser, replacing Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster.
Despite the kind words, Trump and McMaster never clicked on a personal basis and often seemed at odds on matters of policy related to Iran and North Korea.
The appointment of Bolton, which doesn’t require Senate confirmation, could lead to dramatic changes in the administration’s approach to crises around the world.
His appointment is certain to scramble the White House’s preparations for a proposed summit by the end of May between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Bolton is a fierce North Korea hawk who, in his prolific writings and television commentary, has said that preemptive war would likely be the only way to stop North Korea from obtaining the capability to attack the United States with a nuclear missile.
Bolton has touted “the legal case for striking North Korea first” in an editorial in the Wall Street Journal. In a subsequent interview with Breitbart News, Bolton warned that the North was on the cusp of being able to strike the continental United States and raised the specter of Pyongyang selling nuclear devices to other hostile actors such as Iran, the Islamic State or al-Qaeda.
“We have to ask ourselves whether we’re prepared to take preemptive action, or live in a world where North Korea — and a lot of other people — have nuclear weapons,” he said.
Bolton, who had dismissed negotiations with North Korea as a waste of time, moderated his views slightly after Trump announced he would sit down with Kim. He described Trump’s decision as “diplomatic shock and awe” and suggested that the encounter between the two leaders would be short and largely devoid of traditional diplomacy.
“Tell me you have begun total denuclearization, because we’re not going to have protracted negotiations,” he imagined Trump telling the North Korean. “You can tell me right now or we’ll start thinking of something else.”
Bolton has been even more hawkish than Trump on Iran, pushing for the president to withdraw from the nuclear agreement that the United States and five other world powers reached with Tehran during the Obama administration.
In January, Bolton told Fox News that Trump should dump the nuclear deal, reimpose economic sanctions on Tehran, and work toward an overthrow of the government there.
“There’s a lot we can do, and we should do it,” Bolton said. “Our goal should be regime change in Iran.” He similarly called for bombing Iran in a New York Times editorial in 2015.
McMaster’s departure and Bolton’s ascension will come about one month before a deadline for Trump to decide whether the United States will remain a party to the deal.
Bolton, 69, served in the George W. Bush administration in a key arms-control job. Then-Secretary of State Colin Powell said he was strongly encouraged to take Bolton by Vice President Richard B. Cheney, who shared Bolton’s belief in American military power.
Bolton required a recess appointment for his next position as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations after Democrats and several Republicans blocked his nomination in 2005.
His critics cited a brusque and sometimes belittling manner with colleagues and underlings and his many put-downs of the United Nations itself. Those included an oft-quoted remark that no one would notice if the high-rise U.N. building lost several of its floors. He resigned the following year after Democrats had taken control of Congress and it was clear he could not be confirmed.
During his brief run at the U.N., Bolton was often at odds with then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. She told colleagues that Bolton undermined her and went behind her back to Cheney, his old friend and patron.
Those old grievances resurfaced before Trump took office, when as president-elect he considered selecting Bolton as deputy secretary of state. That job would have been subject to Senate confirmation, and opposition to the potential choice was swift and bipartisan. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) vowed to block it, and the nomination never materialized.
Trump’s selection of Bolton as his national security adviser drew raves from more hawkish members of Congress. “Selecting John Bolton as national security adviser is good news for America’s allies and bad news for America’s enemies,” said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.).
Democrats and some Republicans reacted with concern that Bolton’s hawkish positions could lead to more conflict. Bolton’s positions on Iran and North Korea “are overly aggressive at best and downright dangerous at worst,” said. Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.).
White House officials said that Trump made the final offer to Bolton on Thursday afternoon and then called McMaster a few minutes later and thanked him for his service.
A senior White House official said that Trump did not want to embarrass McMaster publicly as he had done with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who learned of his dismissal through a presidential tweet.
McMaster thanked Trump for the opportunity to serve in the White House, though his tenure has been dogged by recent rumors that he would be soon fired.
“Everyone in the White House knew that,” said a senior official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “It was the same as Rex. Everyone knew their days were numbered, so people didn’t take them seriously.”
McMaster came to the Trump administration with a highly accomplished combat record in Iraq and a reputation as one of the Army’s best thinkers on the subject of battling insurgents and the future of war.
His struggles with Trump were often personal. When the president would receive his morning schedule and see that he was expected to spend 30 minutes or longer with McMaster outside of his intelligence briefing, Trump would complain and ask aides to cut it back, according to two people familiar with the matter, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
At times, Trump would tell McMaster that he understood an issue largely to make him stop talking, these people said. “I get it, general, I get it,” Trump would say, according to two people who were present at the time.
Some days, Trump would tell his staff that he did not want to see McMaster at all, one of these people said.
McMaster’s biggest win — and area of greatest influence — was the war in Afghanistan, where he persuaded the president to nearly double the size of the U.S. force to 15,000 troops. But Trump, who said he went against his instincts when he approved the surge, never seemed to buy into the new strategy and resented McMaster for pushing it on him, U.S. officials said.
McMaster is credited with improving morale and bringing order to the National Security Council following the forced departure of his predecessor, Michael Flynn, early last year. But at the NSC, McMaster often struggled to steer the foreign policy debate. He lacked the backing of Trump and had a tense relationship with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. Efforts to push Mattis to produce military options that Trump had requested for Iran and North Korea often went unanswered from the Pentagon.
One big question going forward is how Bolton will work with Mattis, who has often tried to restrain Trump’s more impulsive and unconventional instincts on foreign policy matters.
White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly and Mattis both pushed Trump to remove McMaster, with Kelly leading the effort. But Kelly and Mattis are said to be skeptical of Bolton, according to a senior White House official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Trump often praised Bolton’s commentary and defense of the president on Fox News even as he expressed skepticism about the pundit’s mustache.
In a Fox News interview minutes after the president’s tweet announcing his appointment, Bolton said he was surprised to receive the offer from Trump on Thursday.
“I think I still am a Fox News contributor,” Bolton told the host.
“No, you’re not apparently,” she replied.
Anne Gearan, John Hudson, Karen DeYoung and Robert Costa contributed to this report.