Ding-dong, John Bolton is gone!
Once in a while, even President Donald Trump makes a wise decision, and firing Bolton as his national security adviser—which he did Tuesday, tweeting, “I disagreed strongly with many of his suggestions, as did others in the Administration”—ranks as one of his best.
Still, questions abound. Why did Trump hire him in the first place? He clearly knew Bolton’s views, having heard him many times, as a Fox News pundit, call for bombing North Korea, ousting the mullahs of Iran, and scuttling every international treaty the U.S. has signed. That was why, when Trump named him to the job 18 months ago, I wrote, as the lede to my column, “It’s time to push the panic button.”
Bolton played a crucial role in urging Trump to scuttle the Iran nuclear deal and the INF Treaty with Russia. But otherwise, it turns out that—though he loves a big military parade, a skyrocketing defense budget, and batting out belligerent tweets—Trump isn’t so keen to go to war (which isn’t to say he knows how to keep from stumbling into one). So Bolton—who’s never hesitated to let his views be known, even back when he was undersecretary of state and, for a very short time, U.N. ambassador—proved to be a poor fit.
But who would be a good fit for the job? What does Trump want to do in the world? How does he want to do it? He doesn’t know—clearly he’s never given the questions much thought—and until he does, he’ll always find something in his appointees worth grousing about, which is one reason he’s gone through so many of them in his still-brief time in office.
It has been clear that Bolton’s days were numbered since early July, when Trump dispatched him to Mongolia while he and the rest of his team, including his daughter, flew to Japan for a G-20 summit and a meeting at the DMZ with Kim Jong-un. Ever since 1957, when Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev sent Vyacheslav Molotov to serve as ambassador to the remote country as part of his campaign to rid the Kremlin of Stalinist remnants, sending rivals or unwieldy subordinates to Mongolia has been a metaphor for consigning them to oblivion.
The handwriting should have been neon-bright last month when Bolton was refused a copy of the draft agreement that U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad was negotiating with the Taliban. Khalilzad told Bolton—who had opposed the talks—that he could read the draft in the presence of a senior official but couldn’t take a copy with him.
Trump wrote in his tweet on Tuesday morning, “I informed John Bolton last night that his services are no longer needed at the White House.” Twelve minutes later, Bolton tweeted his version of events: “I offered to resign last night and President Trump said, ‘Let’s talk about it tomorrow.’ ”
Bolton went still further in response to a text from a New York Times reporter, saying that he offered his resignation “last night without [Trump’s] asking. Slept on it and gave it to him this morning.”
So did Bolton resign? Did Trump fire him? Contrary to the image he invented on The Apprentice, Trump is averse to the confrontation involved in firing people, but, once someone quits, he tries to get in the first punch, so it looks like he’s taking the initiative. Right after Jim Mattis sent his letter of resignation-in-protest as secretary of defense on Dec. 20, saying that he’d leave office at the end of February, after the next NATO meeting, Trump wrote back, giving him 10 days to pack his rucksack.
Whatever the sequence of events in this firing, we may at last have in Bolton a piece of scorched debris from Trump’s inner circle disgruntled and disloyal enough to write a scathing tell-all memoir.
Trump said in his tweet that he would name a replacement for Bolton next week. (Appointees to the post do not require Senate confirmation.) Whoever takes the job would be the fourth person to do so during Trump’s tenure. Retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn was fired just days after the inauguration for lying to Vice President Mike Pence and the Justice Department (and now faces a possible prison sentence). Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster was fired, mainly because Trump found him annoying. (It doesn’t take much.)
Bolton was a terrible national security adviser—by any measure, among the worst in White House history. He is one of the very few who came to the job with a purely ideological agenda. He can’t be faulted for assuming that the president shared the agenda, but he can be condemned for wrecking the National Security Council staff, the apparatus in the West Wing that calls for interagency meetings to discuss foreign policy issues and provides the president with analysis and options. In his tenure, Bolton put forth his own recommendations with little staff support; NSC meetings were rarely held; decisions were made, or skirted, by a handful of senior officials on their own.
Trump allowed, even encouraged, this practice, seeing no need for expert analysis, devil’s-advocate questioning, or administrationwide consensus. L’etat, c’est moi would be Trump’s motto, if he knew any French. Bolton was happy to be Trump’s viceroy until, as is the danger in any autocratic system, the king grew unhappy with his advice. Hence, the mission to Mongolia—and now, once Bolton pushed the matter, the boot back to the American Enterprise Institute, the neocon think tank whence he came and from which, one can reliably predict, he will never roam far again.
Support work like this for just $1
Slate is covering the stories that matter to you. Become a Slate Plus member to support our work. Your first month is only $1.