Will John Bolton Bring on Armageddon—Or Stave It Off?
The national security adviser could be our best hope for protecting the world from Donald Trump’s impulses.
On the afternoon I met John Bolton, in October, he had just arrived in Tbilisi, Georgia, and wanted to spend a few minutes at leisure. Bolton has traveled widely, but this trip to Tbilisi was his first, so I volunteered to show him the city. Having no known interests or hobbies other than work has rendered Bolton horribly energetic and impatient, and I was warned that our tour would last no more than 15 minutes. Within seconds of being introduced, we were walking through the rain down Rustaveli Avenue, so fast that his security detail broke into a lope to keep up.
Bolton had come from Moscow. The purpose of the trip had been, among other things, to inform Russian President Vladimir Putin that the United States planned to leave the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, a landmark agreement between Washington and Moscow in their phased nuclear stand-down. Signed in 1987, its key provision committed the two countries to not point land-based nuclear weapons at each other, except from a great distance.
Not long ago, most observers of foreign policy would have pronounced Bolton’s career over, and predicted that he would not reenter government unless (in some kind of King Ralphscenario) literally dozens of other Republican operatives were suddenly and tragically unavailable. But a little more than a year after President Donald Trump’s inauguration, Bolton vaulted over all his rivals.
He is now the most important figure in American national security, and because his position requires no Senate confirmation, he answers to no one but Trump. With the departure of James Mattis as secretary of defense early this year, Bolton is, incredibly, the only senior security official close to Trump who has seen how a normal White House works. (He has served in every Republican administration since 1981. Most Trump appointees have never served any other president.)
Bolton’s return to power has allowed him to pursue his great passions in life, which are outmaneuvering his adversaries, foreign and domestic, and getting America out of treaties. (“So many bad deals to kill,” Bolton once wrote, “so little time.”) Sloshing down the street in Tbilisi, he seemed to be experiencing his version of the human emotion known as happiness.
Elsewhere, others were experiencing existential dread. Leaving an arrangement partially responsible for the lack of thermonuclear war is exactly the kind of move that many feared when Bolton was appointed last March. Days before Bolton’s Russia trip, Trump had announced, after a rally, that he would leave the treaty. Few doubted that Bolton had persuaded him to do so, and that it would fall to Bolton—widely seen as the most bellicose person appointed to high office in living memory—to hash out a new plan to avoid nuclear annihilation. He and Putin both have proud, mulish temperaments. Combine them with weapons of mass destruction, and Strangelovian scenarios begin to suggest themselves.
Today, in his unstylish glasses, collared shirt, and fuzzy sweater, he reminded me of Ned Flanders, Homer Simpson’s gratingly polite neighbor and an unlikely agent of Armageddon. Because we had just met, I tried to keep things light. Most of his colleagues from the George W. Bush administration had declined to serve Trump. Why hadn’t he?, I asked. Was he a traitor to his class—the lone neoconservative to cross the Never Trump line?
Bolton eyed me for a moment, looking like he was trying to determine whether I was an imbecile. “There is a propensity of the media to put labels on people, and sometimes a propensity of people to accept those labels,” he said, choosing his words carefully. “Journalists often call me a neoconservative. That’s clearly not accurate.” He quoted Irving Kristol’s quip that a neocon is a liberal who has been mugged by reality. “I have never been mugged by reality. I was for Barry Goldwater when I was 15.” He looked amused by the idea that anyone might require conversion to come to his worldview.
“I would describe myself as pro-American,” Bolton said. “The greatest hope for freedom for mankind in history is the United States, and therefore protecting American national interest is the single best strategy for the world.” He said that America has slowly constrained its range of action, through foolhardy entanglements with international institutions such as the United Nations, and naive bilateral agreements that promised too much to America’s enemies in exchange for too little. He saw bad deals all around: The INF Treaty, which even Barack Obama’s administration said Russia had violated with impunity, was one. The Iran nuclear agreement, which Bolton has labored tirelessly to scrap, was another.
One thing liberals and neoconservatives share, Bolton suggested, is an irrational, “theological” attachment to principles—the principle that treaties and alliances are good (in the case of internationalist liberals) or that democracy must be spread at the expense of all else (in the case of neoconservatives). By contrast, he thought treaties and alliances needed unsentimental evaluation. One of the Russians on Putin’s team told him, “You strike me as a pragmatic diplomat.” “I said, ‘That’s the nicest thing anyone’s said about me for a long time.’ ” Bolton recalled, “Even in the Bush 43 administration, when we were most accused of unilateralism, I didn’t get up every morning thinking, What act of unilateralism can I accomplish today? I got up thinking, What interest of the United States are we going to advance today?”
The 2016 candidate who most embodied this pragmatism, he said, was Donald Trump. “Pro-American,” Bolton ventured, is the real meaning of Trump’s “America first” line. Pay no attention to the fact that “America first” was the slogan of Nazi sympathizers during the 1930s, and that the present-day version evokes racism and xenophobia. He calls the historical echoes “obviously controversial” but argues that the substance of the slogan today is different. “I talked with the president during the transition and several times afterward,” he says. “I thought his views were in the mainstream of Republican national-security thinking. Remember John McCain’s slogan in 2008—‘Country first’? What country do you think he was talking about?”
By now Bolton and I had marched most of the way down Tbilisi’s main boulevard, pelted by rain and, in his case, questions. I realized that I had failed as a tour guide, having managed to point out not a single sight in the city. Bolton gave no evidence of having noticed anything at all. We may as well have been on treadmills at the hotel gym. To cross the street, we descended into a narrow tunnel lined with stalls selling trinkets, cheap wine, and greasy pastries. “Look at these,” I said, gesturing at a rack of churchkhelas—tubular, lumpy confections made from grapes. They resemble (to borrow Clive James’s description of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s arms) brown condoms stuffed with walnuts.
Bolton turned his head about 10 degrees toward the rack of curiosities. But he was undistractable, and his gait barely slowed. “Look,” he said, turning back to the question. “I don’t like bumper stickers. [They’re] a shorthand for people who don’t have any time or interest for understanding what matters.” I remembered that Bolton is a lawyer, and a very good one, capable of wringing a favorable interpretation out of his president’s slogan, despite its unfortunate—and, to my mind, not plausibly accidental—connotations. “If ‘America first’ means judging national-security decisions in the context of what best protects America, then that is my view.”
Finding such a view—one that is defensible, and distinct from the most obvious meaning of Trump’s words—is a core Bolton skill, an exercise in lawyerly pragmatism with disdain for higher principle. Many will worry that Bolton’s pragmatism leaves him unrestrained, and that the world will suffer for it. But having a shrewd, amoral calculator in charge might not be so terrible. After all, blind devotion to principles can lead to catastrophe, and freedom from principles at least leaves Bolton less prone to bold and irreversible gestures. With a president not only prone to bold gestures but incapable of any other kind, Bolton’s role as national security adviser is becoming one for which no one ever thought him suited: a moderating influence.
Bolton is trump’s third national security adviser. His appointment was delayed for two reasons, both anatomical. First was the issue of his mustache, a droopy soup-strainer that made Trump initially pass Bolton over because he did not think, according to Steve Bannon in Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury, that “he looks the part.” (Trump instead chose Michael Flynn, who lasted only weeks, then H. R. McMaster, a clean-shaven three-star general, who served from February 2017 until Bolton took over last April.) The second impediment was more substantial, and had stalled Bolton’s ascent in previous administrations as well. “He is incredibly smart and capable,” a Bolton acquaintance told me. “He could have risen faster if he had just been less of a dick.”
It’s difficult to exaggerate how hard it is to earn a reputation as a dick in Washington. It’s like being known as a real nerd by fellow scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, or as the resident prude by sisters at a nunnery. In Washington, boorishness can be a virtue, if the boor in question is on your side and gets things done. (Witness the admiration for Lyndon B. Johnson, who would sit on the toilet and summon aides to talk policy while smelling his fumes, and the contempt for the pious Jimmy Carter.) But Bolton is almost universally known for being off-putting and ill-tempered. “One of the world’s cheapest people,” says an ex-colleague. “An extremely unpleasant person,” says another.
Because Bolton’s other signature quality is intelligence, former colleagues wonder how he abides his boss. In October, Trump called Bolton “Mike” at a press conference, perhaps confusing him with the golden-maned singer-songwriter Michael Bolton. (According to The New York Times, the mix-up is habitual.) At Trump’s Cabinet meetings, Bolton has been conspicuously absent from the chorus of rehearsed praise for Trump’s heroism and genius. But he also hasn’t spoken ill of Trump since he started working for him. Testifying against Bolton’s confirmation as United Nations ambassador in 2005, a fellow Bush appointee, Carl Ford, called Bolton a “kiss-up, kick-down sort of guy”—a terror to work for, but a groveler before power. Nevertheless Bolton knows a moron when he sees one. “John doesn’t suffer fools,” one acquaintance told me, speculating that his private meetings with Trump must be torture. “It warms my heart every time I think about it.”
Bolton at least sees the world in a way similar to Trump. McMaster did not. Trump chose him as a compromise candidate after Flynn resigned (having been caught lying to the FBI), only to discover that his new national security adviser’s loyalty was merely dutiful. McMaster harbored a fondness for international agreements and obligations; Trump and Bolton have no such affection. “McMaster is just defending the internationalist order America has been pursuing for decades,” a Bolton supporter told me. “Bolton has been fighting against the McMasters of the world for his whole adult life.”
The job of the national security adviser is to coordinate the National Security Council, which delivers to the president the collective national-security advice of the Departments of Defense and State and the intelligence agencies. The post has expanded and contracted with the ambition and competence of its occupants and the presidents they serve. Henry Kissinger, national security adviser to Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, combined the offices of national security adviser and secretary of state, all but running his own shadow government. His successor, the Air Force lieutenant general Brent Scowcroft, worked to turn the office back into an advisory shop. But even Scowcroft acknowledged that the job had its privileges: After representing the opinions of all, the national security adviser can give his own opinion last.
McMaster, Scowcroftian to a fault, drove his colleagues mad with consultation. “H.R. was trying to bring everyone on board,” one former NSC staffer told me. Rex Tillerson, Trump’s first secretary of state, and Mattis, his defense secretary, bristled at being summoned by a second-string appointee, and one with only three stars to Mattis’s four. (“The idea that we had too many meetings is ridiculous,” the former staffer said. “It was maybe two meetings a week to discuss the entire world.”) Meanwhile, McMaster’s staff took on the Herculean task of translating the thoughts of Donald Trump into a “National Security Strategy”—a detailed, systematic text that could be used to advise Congress and guide policy for the whole executive branch. It was a hard-fought process.
During this year of tedium, the president himself was engaged in a process of mustache habituation. Bolton became a Fox News regular. He was the smartest analyst on the channel. “If somebody says something dumb, John can take them, slice and dice, put some oil and vinegar on, and they’re done,” Danielle Pletka, an MSNBC contributor and a former colleague of Bolton’s at the American Enterprise Institute, told me. But Bolton also mastered another register, she noted—“on-camera combat in the ‘Jane, you ignorant slut’ sense.” Bolton had long expressed proto-Trumpian opinions, including a sense of identification with a silent American majority (“The great unlettered and unwashed,” he once wrote), and confidence that everyday patriots were rising up to reclaim their country. He acquired a Trumpian vernacular. For decades he had inveighed against bureaucrats (and privately called them “mattress mice,” for their tendency to infest the executive branch). Now he knew to call them “the deep state.”
Fox News’s No. 1 fan grew used to seeing Bolton on television. “John played Trump perfectly,” says Mark Groombridge, who worked for Bolton in government and out for more than a decade. “Bolton auditioned for this position for essentially a year. And he nailed that audition.” (Groombridge, a Never Trump Republican, split with Bolton in 2016, and the two no longer speak.) Bolton’s supporters acknowledge that his performance on Fox News melted the president’s heart. “So many of the people who populate this administration watched Bolton teach the country, through Fox, how to think about foreign policy,” says Matt Schlapp, a friend of Bolton’s and the chair of the American Conservative Union. “That’s why you have people like [White House economic adviser] Larry Kudlow and John Bolton in serious positions. They know how to communicate to the president in a way that he’s used to.”
The first year of the Trump administration had been lost to poor planning and lack of familiarity with government, otherwise known as rank incompetence. The president’s deputies were Clouseau-esque, and it is possible that their ineptitude saved the world from the implementation of disastrous policies. Then came Bolton. He has been called many things—vain, miserly, rage-prone—but never incompetent, and his arrival disrupted a delicate balance of idiocy.
Bolton was born in 1948, the first child of a Baltimore firefighter and a housewife. Friends I spoke with expressed doubts that he ever had a childhood, although his 2007 memoir includes photographic evidence that he was once a 5-year-old. He attended the McDonogh School, a private academy outside Baltimore, as a scholarship kid. At Yale, he resented the “smug, self-satisfied” campus leftists who cut classes to protest the Vietnam War while he focused on his studies. He was already plotting revenge for his fellow conservatives. In 1970, he told the audience at his Yale commencement, “If we do not make our influence felt [on campus], rest assured we will in the real world.”
At Yale Law School, Bolton overlapped with Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham as well as Clarence Thomas. “He’s fundamentally a lawyer,” John Yoo, a Bolton colleague and co-author who served in George W. Bush’s Justice Department, told me: He approaches problems with an eye for process and detail. And, as many have observed, he’s very good at getting his way. A favorite tactic is a swarming attack, heaping arguments on his enemies until they are buried and overwhelmed. Upon leaving law school, Bolton joined Covington & Burling, one of Washington’s top firms. He served in the Reagan administration as general counsel to USAID and, briefly, as Attorney General Edwin Meese’s liaison to Congress.
Bolton said these early years in government were his education. “Ever since I was at USAID, I studied how the bureaucracy works,” he told me. “Every department has a different culture. Working the interagency process successfully means knowing everything about all those cultures.” It means knowing who will produce a memo undermining your plan, what that memo will say, and how to make sure its author will fail. “You have to judge what you want, where the opposition to it is going to be, where the support for it will be. You mobilize the support and overcome the opposition,” he said. “That may sound straightforward. But the number of people who go into government and realize that is depressingly low.”
Missing from his vocabulary is any mention of collegiality, except to brag about its absence. He relishes his opponents’ frustration. “I don’t really care what they think about me,” he said. “I know the rules of the road. What’s really frustrating to people is that I actually follow the rules, and I still get things done.” One of his proudest moments in public service was when Senator Joe Biden, opposing Bolton’s confirmation for a job in George W. Bush’s State Department, said he was “too competent.” “I would rather you be stupid and not very effective,” Biden said.
In 1989, in the George H. W. Bush administration, he became the State Department’s assistant secretary for international organizations—the equivalent, in retrospect, of making a pyromaniac the liaison to a pile of dry twigs. Bolton kept his Zippo holstered for most of those years, but he moved subtly to reform America’s relationship with the United Nations. He observed that the United States had separate policies for numerous UN agencies: one for working with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, another for the UN Development Program, still another for UNICEF. He proposed a “unitary UN” policy, which would subsume all of these. The stated reason was streamlining. But in effect he would have downgraded the relationship, as surely as closing consulates would downgrade diplomacy with a foreign country.
Bolton caught a lucky break in 2000. When the recount of Florida’s votes in the presidential election began, George W. Bush and Al Gore sent armies of lawyers to Florida. Bush’s team was led by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, who had mentored Bolton a decade earlier, in Bush’s father’s administration. Bolton had, by chance, spent years in private practice in the 1970s litigating Buckley v. Valeo, the Supreme Court case that to this day is a controlling decision in federal election law. He was a ringer. In his memoir, Surrender Is Not an Option, he says he left for Florida in haste, but not before returning his uncooked Thanksgiving turkey to his neighborhood grocery store. (I told him I didn’t think groceries accepted returns of raw poultry. “I didn’t either,” he said, but surrender was not an option even at Safeway.)
Bolton was rewarded for his work on the recount with the office of undersecretary of state for arms control and international security. He hounded Iran and North Korea about their weapons programs and incurred invective from the latter, colorful even by the standards of Pyongyang. A foreign-ministry spokesman called Bolton “human scum” and said he lacked “an elementary faculty of thinking” and was a “bloodsucker,” “a beastly man bereft of reason.” Someone this talented at provoking conniptions in his enemies could not, in the Bush administration, be wasted in an obscure position for long. Within a year he was being considered as a possible deputy secretary.
Yet Bolton’s belligerence is sometimes misunderstood. The Bush policy decision with which he is most closely associated is the one he was least involved in planning or executing: the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Five years earlier, when Bolton was at the American Enterprise Institute, he had signed letters to the White House and the Senate urging “a full complement of diplomatic, political and military efforts” to remove Saddam Hussein. Among the 17 others who signed the letters was the neoconservative Paul Wolfowitz, Bush’s first deputy defense secretary. As a signatory, Bolton has been considered a charter member of the committee to invade Iraq. “I expect that the American role [in post-invasion Iraq] actually will be fairly minimal,” he told the BBC in 2002.
Today he pleads innocence. “People say, ‘You were responsible for the Iraq policy under the George W. Bush administration!’ I was not,” he told me. He was, instead, sidelined by others in the administration. “[Secretary of State Colin] Powell basically cut me out of Iraq. That was probably the kindest thing he ever did for me.” It is typical of Bolton to recede into the background and let others own failures. But Bolton’s allies say it is also characteristic of him to have been wary of an occupation.
“Wolfowitz wanted to go into Iraq to spread democratic values,” says a Bush-administration official involved in the war’s planning. “Not Bolton, not Cheney. It’s the difference between ‘Let’s go in there to make Iraq democratic’ and ‘Let’s go in there to kick the shit out of our enemies.’ ” Bolton never supported nation-building in Iraq, his ex-colleague Groombridge told me, although he was happy to bomb Baghdad to make America stronger and safer. “Saddam Hussein sucked,” another Bolton acquaintance told me with a shrug. “For Bolton, that was the end of the story. He cared that Saddam was an arms proliferator, but not that he cut out the tongues of his enemies.”
Fifteen years later, Bolton and Trump would utter similar comments about Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, now accused of ordering the assassination of the Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. Bin Salman might be a murderer (“Who knows?” Trump said), but America’s alliance with Saudi Arabia mattered more than a single dismembered body.
In 2005, Bush nominated Bolton to be UN ambassador. Bolton and Bush knew to brace for a confirmation fight, but the bitterness and spleen exceeded expectations, and the hearings became a spectacle. Bolton’s enemies portrayed him as a creep. Melody Townsel, a USAID contractor who’d had a legal tiff with one of Bolton’s clients, claimed that he’d stalked her around a hotel, screaming at her and making insinuations about her sexuality and her weight. Hustler magazine’s publisher, Larry Flynt, spread rumors about Bolton’s divorce. (Bolton, who denies Townsel’s accusations, has now been married to his second wife, a former official at the International Organization for Migration, for 33 years.)
Bolton’s sense of humor, more mordant than funny, was quoted against him. In 1994, Bolton noted that the UN headquarters, in New York, has 38 stories. “If it lost 10,” Bolton said, “it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.” The view that the UN is bloated and inefficient is shared by the institution’s defenders. Bolton’s sin was to phrase the thought aloud, and in language that suggested physical demolition. Senate Democrats blocked his confirmation, so Bush appointed him during a congressional recess. He served 17 months in the role.
At the UN, he exuded contempt. In his memoir he says the General Assembly hall’s architecture is “vaguely fascist.” He scoffs at the tendency to treat Kofi Annan, the secretary general, as “a secular pope,” and he calls General Assembly President Jan Eliasson “President of the World.” Neither title is meant as a compliment. Nor is the nickname “EUroids,” which he uses to describe Europeans he considers pains in the ass.
I asked Bolton whether the U.S. should leave the UN, which seems both a logical conclusion of his contempt and a policy that Trump himself might consider. He replied by quoting Jeane Kirkpatrick, who served as Reagan’s UN ambassador: “No,” she said. “It’s not worth the trouble.”
“Bolton is a sovereigntist,” John Yoo told me. “He thinks the U.S. should not be bound by international organizations, and we should not be ceding our authority to the United Nations or NAFTA.” After the Cold War, “the U.S. tied itself down with multilateral institutions, primarily run by Europeans, to constrain our freedom of action—to tie down Gulliver.” Every time the United States joins an alliance, or consents to arbitration on equal terms with, say, Latvia or Guinea, one more rope is lashed over Gulliver’s limbs.
Liberal internationalists, who tend to support the United Nations and the International Criminal Court, disagree. “I stopped teaching Bolton’s articles, because his views were so absurd,” says Oona Hathaway, an international-law professor at Yale and a Pentagon official in the Obama administration. “Now I have to teach him again.”
As a Bush official in the early 2000s, Bolton worked to torpedo the International Criminal Court, on the grounds that the U.S. should not cede its sovereignty. He achieved this goal by strong-arming more than 100 countries, one by one, into agreeing never to turn Americans over to the ICC—thus rendering the U.S. a nonparticipant in the court. Hathaway says the notion that a tiny bureaucracy in The Hague would rob the U.S. of its sovereignty is preposterous, even paranoid. America could have batted away an ICC prosecution. Many human-rights violators cannot, so on balance the court would make the U.S. more powerful and the world safer. “Global cooperation doesn’t undermine U.S. sovereignty,” she told me. “It strengthens it.”
But cooperation does mean constraint, and sometimes an international agreement will bind America to doing something it would prefer not to. “Normal human beings understand that sometimes you limit yourself—like in a marriage,” Hathaway said. “You agree to not go running the first time your spouse drives you crazy.” To Bolton those alliances are traps. “Ask the Brits what it means to get out of the European Union,” he said. Marriage can be hell. So can divorce.
Bolton sees the UN, and fans of international law more generally, as a clutch of nattering spouses, trying to get Uncle Sam to modify his behavior. The international-law professoriat is a “dangerously underworked group of people,” he told an audience in 2011, who “are dissatisfied with the political outcome that they’ve achieved in our system, and who have determined to take their arguments into the broader international context” as a way to force America to do what voters have rejected.
“Within the United States, we’re fully capable of deciding what our policies should be,” Bolton told me. “That includes environmental issues, the death penalty, gun control, abortion—all of which are hotly debated in America, and on all of which the majority position is different from the overwhelming majority in Europe.” Here his view on international law intersects with the Trumpian notion of a deep state: a corps of unelected monitors who obstruct the democratically chosen sovereign. Globalism and multilateralism, he said, constitute a way to appeal an electoral loss to “the government of the world.”
If the nsc under McMaster was a consultative body, under Bolton it has become the opposite. The “National Security Strategy,” the document that was the fruit of McMaster’s allegedly interminable meetings, is written and filed away, Bolton told me, and consulted by no one. “I don’t view writing strategy papers as big accomplishments,” he said. The measure of an NSC, he said, is what it does: exiting the Iran nuclear deal, exiting the INF Treaty, managing an end to the Syrian civil war, preparing countermeasures to cyberattacks. “The NSC is not a think tank.”
The Iran deal, however, was finished long before Bolton arrived, and the Syrian civil war is neither over nor likely to be resolved favorably for America or its allies. One of the surprises of the Trump administration is Bolton’s failure to do more, in the dramatic fashion that his enemies always feared, and that his own self-proclaimed prowess at bureaucratic manipulation would presumably allow.
Bolton worked in the background of the July 2018 Helsinki summit with Vladimir Putin, an otherwise unremarkable meeting remembered for Trump’s servility at the subsequent press conference. (Bolton, a Russia hawk who has described Putin as an enemy, repeats the administration’s claim that the president is tough on Russia.) He seems to have left North Korea to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. But that is a tactical surrender. The North Koreans still consider Bolton “scum.” And Korea is the conflict that the United States is least likely to manage successfully. Groombridge, who worked on North Korea for Bolton at the State Department, said the current policy will probably entrench Kim Jong Un and “turn him into another Fidel Castro.”
“He’s going to make [North Korea talks] fail if he can,” another ex-Boltonite says. Bolton’s record with the North Koreans suggests that he would rather have Kim as an enemy than as the condo-developing, nuclear-armed friend Trump and Pompeo are trying to create. Bolton’s motives will also be professionally self-serving, says his ex-colleague: “Why should I break my pick fighting my boss over this? When it fails, I need someone to be the one associated with it instead of me.” Last year, Bolton compared Trump’s North Korea policy to the policy that led to the fall of the Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi in 2011. Qaddafi ended up sodomized with a bayonet, then shot in the head. The comparison did not make Kim Jong Un more trusting of Trump’s overtures. If Bolton’s intention was sabotage, it may have worked.
And that possibility—that Bolton will shiv not only his enemies but also his friends—is one reason nearly everyone is nervous about Bolton’s rise. The person in whom power has been consolidated knows every trapdoor, booby trap, and strategically placed banana peel in the federal government. He says he models himself on Scowcroft. Others say he is more like Kissinger (“but without the sentimental streak”). The incessant consultation with top national-security officials has stopped. “People are saying how much they missed those calls and meetings,” a former NSC staffer told me.
In previous roles, Bolton gave career bureaucrats meaningless tasks to keep them preoccupied. He worried about the risks of having idle, undirected staffers who would usurp politicians’ power and claim it for an unelected bureaucratic class. “Policy can be made in the absence of attention, and Bolton knows that,” Senator Marco Rubio, a Bolton ally, told me. Now Bolton is so powerful that he can just fire bureaucrats, or tell them to get lost.
Or—and here the shiv flashes from its scabbard—he can call the meetings, for the sole purpose of sinking rivals. “He knows which memos have been written, by whom, and when, and he doesn’t bring up an issue unless he knows how it’s going to land,” says a Bolton acquaintance. “I’m sure when these principals’ meetings take place, he is trying to game it to get Pompeo to say this or that,” accidentally owning the failures and giving away the wins.
There are, however, conspicuously few wins to claim—unless you count averting catastrophic failure as a win. And at that Bolton has emerged as a quiet hero.
Notice a familiar rhythm: Trump says something, Bolton says he agrees, then Bolton reinterprets Trump to mean the opposite of what he said and pushes to implement his reinterpretation, presumably with Trump’s blessing. Bolton sometimes sounds less like a national security adviser than a lawyer clawing back the utterances of an uncontrollable client.
His defense of “America first” was one such maneuver, twisting a slogan of Lindberghian isolationism into the interventionist foreign policy of John McCain. Bolton told me, further, that he personally favors increased immigration into the United States, through legal means. A few months later, at his 2019 State of the Union address, Trump said the same: that he “want[s] people to come into our country in the largest numbers ever.” His administration had, up to then, made even legal immigration more onerous. (No policy change seems imminent.)
Another example is the American exit, or non-exit, from Syria. In December, Trump announced, “Our boys, our young women, our men—they’re all coming back, and they’re coming back now.” That action would concede Syria to Bashar al-Assad, and to Iran and Russia, and it would all but guarantee the defeat and possible slaughter of U.S.-backed Kurdish and Arab forces. Mattis resigned in principled dudgeon, and wrote an open letter to Trump. Bolton moved more slyly. After a brief delay, he stressed the “consistent U.S. position on standing by the Kurds and those who fought with the U.S.” He added, “There is no change to the U.S. position against the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime. Any further use will be met by a swift, strong response.”
If the U.S. position were consistent, Bolton would not have had to describe it as consistent. But he seems to have achieved the delay in withdrawal that Mattis did not. In January, when Trump himself tweeted a revision of his previous promise, Bolton tweeted, “My thoughts exactly.” He told me to expect “continued presence” in Syria and Iraq, as a bulwark against Iranian expansion and the resurrection of the Islamic State. Trump’s promise of all and noware at this point a fading memory.
And then there is NATO. Again Bolton’s directness—and good sense—in past statements have proved awkward in dealing with current political realities. In July 2016, on a Breitbart News radio program, Bolton denounced then-nominee Trump’s suggestion that the U.S. not defend fellow NATO countries. (NATO is one international accord Bolton considers worthwhile.) He called Trump’s statement “very disturbing” and “a dagger at the heart of the most successful political-military alliance in human history.”
“What I said before I joined the government is out there,” Bolton told me. “That’s what I believe. My views haven’t changed.” In January, The New York Times suggested that Trump’s haven’t either: He has repeatedly asked advisers about the possibility of leaving NATO. Yet Bolton argues that Trump’s commitment to NATO is indistinguishable from his predecessor’s. “If you look at the direction of [Trump’s] remarks on NATO since he joined office and some of the things he’s said, it’s very hard to see distance between that and Barack Obama calling a lot of our NATO allies free riders” for failing to allocate enough of their budgets for defense.
I said I doubted that European leaders would have shuddered with fear if Trump had just asked them to pay more, and not also implied that he would consent to their falling under Russia’s yoke. Bolton urged me to look at Trump’s “actual record and formal statements.” “What Trump said was ‘Are we a collective defense organization or are we not?’ Collective means collective,” Bolton said, pointing out that NATO members had started spending more on their militaries. “I view that, in real defense terms, as a major accomplishment.”
Focusing on a 1 percent rise in defense spending, I argued, is a diversion from Trump’s apparent indecision about whether NATO should exist at all. Bolton may have been growing frustrated, but he remained polite. And in noting that he no longer publicly criticized the president on NATO, he came close to being apologetic. “Being a pundit is one thing, and being in government is another thing,” he said. “If I were president, I might say things one way. But I didn’t get elected.”
Bolton turned 70 in November, and there are few higher offices to which he could aspire. During the early 2010s, he flirted with a presidential candidacy, eliciting smirks from Republicans who imagined him riding buses across New Hampshire and Iowa, earnestly listening to the opinions of snowplow drivers, farmwives, and, yes, international-law professors. Groombridge said the point of the presidential bid was more realistic: to raise his profile and make him a candidate for secretary of state. His last attempt at Senate confirmation had failed, humiliatingly. Now, however, a solid Republican majority, plus rule changes making that majority impervious to one or two defections (Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky says he’s an “automatic no” on Bolton), render confirmation possible, if Trump remains pleased with him.
But others are jockeying for Trump’s favor, and in the White House edition of The Apprentice, Bolton’s status as a finalist is never assured. He is leading the administration’s diplomatic war against the regime of Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela, as well as a delicate and escalating feud with China. Pompeo may have inherited a failed engagement with Pyongyang, but he has flexed his influence elsewhere, including in areas where Bolton might have expected to enjoy a larger role. Both men recently traveled to the Middle East, but Pompeo was greeted as the more important figure.
Bolton’s chief handicap in their rivalry is that his views, while Trumpian at times, do deviate from Trump’s. Bolton may not be a neoconservative, but he has never been averse to projection of American might overseas—that is, waging wars, when he judges them to be in the national interest. So far, the United States under Trump has begun no wars, and indeed it has stood by as Russia has chipped at the edges of Ukraine, and as Assad has subdued rebel-held territory in Syria. One way to end conflicts is to forfeit them to tyrants. Some say such a policy is appeasement; others say it saves lives. Call it the surrender option. Whatever it is, it is inconsistent with everything Bolton has ever advocated. “Bolton used to make fun of the photo of Secretary of State [Madeleine] Albright raising a champagne glass with Kim Jong Il in 2000,” Groombridge said. “I wonder how he feels about shaking Kim Jong Un’s hand in 2018 in Singapore.”
“I am the national security adviser—not the national security decider,” Bolton told me on three separate occasions. The first time he made this point, I took it to be cover, in case Trump thought Bolton was hogging credit. Later, I heard the line as a rationalization: I can give my advice, and I can disagree. But in the end, I have to execute policies consistent with Trump’s wishes.
Someday, though, the gap between Boltonism and Trumpism will grow too wide, and in straddling it, Bolton will be split up the middle. Fifteen years ago, when the North Koreans pronounced Bolton “scum,” they also noted that his president, George W. Bush, was much more conciliatory and reasonable: “In the light of [Bolton’s] political vulgarity and psychopathological condition as they are quite different from the recent remarks of the U.S. president, we have decided not to consider him as an official of the U.S. administration any longer nor to deal with him.”
The self-parodying bluster of the Koreans’ statement masks a shrewd diplomatic stratagem. Bolton may have mind-melded with Trump better than McMaster did, but inevitably the president and his national security adviser will disagree, both on style and on substance. One is an unreconstructed Cold Warrior; the other is an isolationist. One says nothing without precise calculation; the other speaks seemingly without consulting his own prefrontal cortex. As the differences between their personalities multiply, savvy enemies will simply cease to believe that Bolton carries Trump’s authority. Trump, flattered, will agree.
The other possibility, of course, is that Bolton will succeed in modifying Trump’s plans. He appears to have persuaded Trump to linger in Syria longer than anticipated. But to be a brakeman, trying to keep Trump from conducting his train straight off a half-built bridge, is the most thankless job in Trumpworld. “We become what we hate,” says the proverb. Bolton, who for a whole career has fumed over bureaucrats who try to stand between their elected bosses and destiny, is for now the shadow president of the deep state.