Trump Finally Fired John Bolton, but Does It Really Matter?
President Trump started this week as he has so many in his tenure, distracting from one controversy by plunging headlong into another. A well-timed firing, in fact, has become a signature move for the President. Many of his nine hundred and sixty-three days in office have featured surprise oustings by tweet, angry public confrontations, and unexpected personnel developments. Even before this Tuesday, Trump had fired two national-security advisers, two White House chiefs of staff, one Attorney General, and one F.B.I. director, and had one Secretary of Defense quit in apparent protest. Trump has pushed out a Secretary of State, a Secretary of Homeland Security, a Secretary of Labor, a Secretary of Health and Human Services, a Secretary of the Interior, and a Secretary of Veterans Affairs. He is on his seventh communications director. His director of White House operations was forced out just last week, for gossiping about Trump’s children, and she was the third person to hold that job.
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The exit of John Bolton, Trump’s third national-security adviser, was not exactly unexpected, either. It had been predicted so many times during Bolton’s sixteen contentious months in the Administration that few in Washington ought to have been surprised when the moment came. Bolton has been widely and accurately reported to disagree with key aspects of Trump’s policies toward Afghanistan, Iran, Syria, North Korea, Russia, Ukraine, and Venezuela. He was feuding with Trump’s other advisers. He had all but dismantled the traditional national-security process, and he was on such hostile terms with the Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, that the two largely communicated, I was told last month, through intermediaries. But when the Presidential tweet announcing the end of Bolton’s tenure appeared, it was at once sudden and yet completely predictable, a paradox that will keep its place in the annals of Trumpian White House dysfunction, even in an Administration where firing the nation’s most powerful officials by tweet has become so common that it no longer shocks.
Dexter Filkins’s Profile of John Bolton, from the May 6, 2019, issue of the magazine.
Logistically speaking, Trump and Bolton’s acrimonious parting couldn’t have been revealed in a manner more likely to embarrass everyone involved, even as it underscored the falsehoods that riddled the President’s explanation. At 10:55 a.m. on Tuesday, the White House announced that Bolton would join a rare briefing in the press room, with his two bureaucratic rivals, Pompeo and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, to discuss a counterterrorism initiative. Barely an hour later, at 11:58 a.m., came Trump’s tweet, which did not even pretend that Bolton’s exit had been planned. The President noted instead, coldly, that Bolton’s “services were no longer needed.” What’s more, Trump said, “I disagreed strongly with many of his suggestions, as did others in the Administration,” which is why, Trump said, he had demanded and accepted Bolton’s resignation.
If that was, in fact, the case, Trump had failed to inform his staff about it. Sure enough, the dubious story was attacked minutes later, by Bolton himself, in a duelling tweet, in which he claimed to have offered his resignation on Monday, only for Trump to say, “Let’s talk about it tomorrow.” The direct quote from the President in Bolton’s tweet was a particularly deft touch. Up until now, most of those who have been fired and publicly humiliated on their way out by Trump have chosen to go silently. Not Bolton. He might as well have tweeted, “You didn’t fire me. I quit!” By Wednesday morning, “a person familiar with the situation” was putting out Bolton’s side of the story through Axios, which reported that he had met with Trump and offered to resign twenty-two hours before the President’s tweet claimed to have fired him. Soon after, more Bolton-sympathetic stories appeared, suggesting that the national-security adviser had tried to stop Trump from easing sanctions on Iran in a final blowup.
Dexter Filkins on how John Bolton got the better of President Trump.
None of this sorry tick-tock matters, of course, except as an indicator of extreme dysfunction. Bolton, whether he was fired or quit, is gone, and that is the part that we will remember. Most accounts have portrayed Bolton’s exit as a policy-driven clash between Trump’s transactional world view and Bolton’s hawkish catechism, suggesting that Trump will now be free to make the deals he so palpably craves with global bad actors, such as North Korea, Iran, and the Afghan Taliban leaders, whose invitation to Camp David and its last-minute revocation last week seems to have been the proximate cause of Bolton’s exit. What it will mean practically is that the President now has one less official to say no to him. Trump’s outside advisers touted this line as they praised Bolton’s ouster. “The world will be a much better place,” Senator Rand Paul, a Trump foreign-policy confidant who has urged the President to make a deal with the Taliban, said. At Fox News, the prime-time host Tucker Carlson, another unlikely Presidential counsellor, cheered Bolton’s dumping as a “great day for America.”
But infighting as well as ideology appear to have doomed Bolton. Pompeo and Mnuchin smiled so broadly at the press conference where Bolton was to have joined them that they might as well have written Trump’s tweet for him. “The President is entitled to the staff that he wants,” Pompeo said, adding, cuttingly, “He should have people that he trusts and values, and whose efforts and judgments benefit him in delivering American foreign policy.” When a reporter asked whether Pompeo had been surprised by Bolton’s abrupt departure that day, he grinned again, and responded, “I’m never surprised.” And, indeed, Pompeo’s break with Bolton has been one of the Administration’s central plotlines for some time, a rift not so much about ideology as about their competing views of how to accommodate themselves to a President whose preference for obsequious loyalty over honest counsel is by now well established.
The end of Bolton’s tenure had long been foreshadowed by his growing conflict with Pompeo, who has proved to be a bureaucratic operator with a singular gift for survival in Trump’s orbit, based on a strategy of never, ever publicly disagreeing with the President. In August, as I was reporting on Pompeo for a Profile, it became clear that things between Bolton and Pompeo had worsened significantly. A former White House official with whom I had spoken earlier called me back, to say that Bolton and Pompeo, who were always wary of each other and natural institutional rivals, had now become enmeshed in a “huge personality clash.” The two “are not even on speaking terms,” I was told, “and have to communicate between the N.S.C. and State through intermediaries. They literally don’t even talk to each other.”
The dispute, my source made clear, was not ideological or policy-driven but an “indication of the dysfunction” at the heart of the Trump White House. “The N.S.C. is no more, there is no process. Bolton had given up.”
The spectacle of the Trump Presidency often overwhelms our ability to process the stakes of any individual episode. But the firing of John Bolton was not just another Washington farce in what the President himself has now started calling, as he did the other day, on Twitter, “the Age of Trump.” Bolton’s exit serves as a reminder that the intensive national-security decision-making process of previous Presidents, Republican and Democrat alike, has been abandoned by Trump, subverted to the Presidential ego, and will not return for the duration of his tenure. Just last week, the French foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, was asked how he dealt with the Trump Administration’s competing foreign-policy officials and conflicting messages. “We have one interlocutor—Trump. Period,” Le Drian replied.
It’s worth remembering that, as all this played out inside the White House, the Taliban almost showed up at Camp David, in time to mark the eighteenth anniversary of 9/11. Bolton, who evidently made his vocal opposition to the idea known to the media in a way that likely hastened his firing, didn’t stop Trump from hosting them. Nor, for that matter, did Pompeo, whose State Department team has been overseeing the talks. In the end, it was only the Taliban’s decision to continue killing American soldiers while simultaneously negotiating with the United States that provided the pretext for Trump to put a stop to his own hastily conceived idea. Trump will now become the only President ever to have had four national-security advisers in three years, but he might as well consider not having one at all.
As the Trump-Bolton breakup unfolded, the biggest story in Washington, meanwhile, had nothing to do with America’s longest war, or the dismantling of its national-security decision-making process, or the infighting of its leaders. It was about a hurricane that didn’t come to Alabama, and how Trump claimed in a tweet that it was supposed to. On Monday, the news was all about Trump’s decision to alter a government forecast—with a Sharpie pen—in order to cover for an inaccurate tweet that put Alabama in the path of Hurricane Dorian. After days in the news, the scandal appeared to escalate on Monday afternoon, as the Times reported that Wilbur Ross, the Commerce Secretary, who oversees the weather service, had threatened to fire officials there if they didn’t stand by the President’s false claim.
If Trump knows one thing, it’s how to change a story line. By Tuesday, with Bolton’s sudden firing, Sharpiegate was forgotten. By Wednesday, so was Bolton. The President had moved on, and was hate-tweeting about the “naivete” of another of his appointees, the Federal Reserve chairman Jerome Powell, and his colleagues, whose sin is that they are unfirable by Trump and thus too independent of him. They are all “Boneheads,” the Commander-in-Chief tweeted, before getting into his limousine and heading to the Pentagon, for a ceremony marking the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.