Bolton Exits, But It’s Still Trump’s Show

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S1: When I think about national security adviser John Bolton and President Trump I think of that old Neil Simon play The Odd Couple.

S2: One’s a neat neck.

S1: The other’s a slob and they’re roommates like Trump like said in the in Bolton’s office is a mess and think why don’t you clean this up right. Exactly. Yes an Oscar and Felix situation.

S3: Shane Harris reports on national security for The Washington Post. He says I’m actually not that far off when I imagine these two as their roommates from hell.

S4: The president’s approach to foreign policy can seem chaotic. His national security adviser on the other hand the one he just fired he’s orderly controlled. Are you surprised that he’s out.

S5: Not at all. No. I mean I think that this relationship it just seemed doomed from the start. I mean it very much was an odd couples situation. I mean to the point where the president didn’t even really make any pretense about that. I mean he joked about how he didn’t like John Bolton’s mustache and that’s just one of the things that turned him down turned him off. The last time he was thinking about him for the job.

S4: So personality wise this was not really a good fit. But Sheen says there’s something else.

S5: Well there were stories about Bolton like literally having his door closed at seven times which I think is sort of an apt metaphor for the way he tended to run the National Security Council which is he just sort of locked himself away in his office and really didn’t communicate very much and tried to run it sort of it for this kind of centralized base of power.

S4: This is the opposite of what a national security adviser is supposed to do. Cheney compares the job to leading an orchestra. It’s all about connecting different agencies listening to different constituencies.

S6: Bolton just didn’t do that. He didn’t have meetings which are commonplace as part of this process for months and months into the beginning of his tenure. That was one of the first real warning signs was you would hear people saying Bolton hasn’t had a principals committee meeting or there hasn’t been a deputies committee meeting. It would just seem to me that from the beginning this was going to be a really really bad match. And anyway I’m sort of surprised that it lasted as long as it did. But it doesn’t surprise me that it went out kind of in a flame to with both of them saying no throwing shots at each other Trump saying I fired him at Bolton saying No I quit. These are two guys who seem to want to have the last word.

S3: Today on the show what John Bolton did and didn’t do as national security adviser. Now that he’s out where does American foreign policy go from here. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next. Stick with us.

S7: John Bolton left the administration on the heels of this reporting that there was a deal with the Taliban that was scuttled. Can we quickly tell the story of what happened there.

S5: Well what we know about it is the most recent that we know about it is the president announcing over Twitter on Saturday that he had unbeknownst to everyone invited the leaders of the Taliban. And we think the leaders of the governing Afghanistan to fly out to Camp David where they were going to have this big meeting and hammer out this peace deal that President Trump’s negotiators principally through the State Department have been working on for so long.

S7: It sounds like John Bolton’s nightmare.

S5: It’s totally John Bolton Xavier. I mean this is really I mean John Bolton who is somebody who was I think deeply offended and opposed when Donald Trump decided to go have a sort of grip and grin with Kim Jong un at a summit. I mean remember that you know the North Korean regime has been one of John Bolton’s you know sort of main enemies for much of his career in foreign policy and here is the president of the United States going out and smiling with Kim Jong un and elevating him to a level with the presence of United States. Bolton made no pretense about being dissatisfied with that I mean even going so far as when asked about it saying basically look I don’t make the policy I’m just here to serve the president. So he wasn’t even trying to fake it that much that he was opposed to this. So the idea that the heads of the Taliban an organization that harbored and enabled al-Qaida which murdered 3000 Americans on September 11th 2001 would come to Camp David. I mean this you know more than symbolic place. This is the meeting place of great peace negotiations. The Camp David Accords you know we think about this this storied position that has an American history to see these these fighters come to Camp David days before 9/11. I’m sure just said Bolton’s hair on fire and Bolton was skeptical of the entire peace plan with the Taliban. Anyway we know that he had told the president as recently as we think that the Friday before Labor Day. You don’t have to cut a deal with these people you can still do a troop withdrawal make good on your promise the American people to bring troops home from our longest war the one in Afghanistan and not sign a deal with them one over this past weekend.

S3: The cabinet was sort of called upon to go on the Sunday shows and explain and defend the president. But John Bolton was conspicuously absent.

S8: Right. I think that that and maybe looking back now we can sense that maybe this was the beginning of the end that Bolton was certainly not going to go out there and defend this. And to be in to be fair to Bolton Pompeo Mike Pompeo the secretary of state is the one who had really been the architect of this deal behind the scenes so I think it would have fallen to him to do that anyway. And he did go out on all the five major Sunday shows.

S5: But Bolton I think had probably reached a point at least on this deal where you know he was not only not going to go out and advocate for it. It’s not even clear to me that he was really that deeply involved in it. We had some great reporting from my colleagues here at the Washington Post recently that when John Bolton recently asked to see a copy of the draft for the Afghanistan Taliban peace plan he wasn’t allowed to see it and then someone said well you can see it but you just can’t leave with it. You have to like basically sit in a room while someone watches you read it because they were afraid he would leak it and try and damage the prospects for the plant. So there was no trust on the part of the State Department team negotiating this in Bolton they saw him somebody. I think that you know come hell or high water was going to do what he could to scuttle that plan.

S3: Can we talk a little bit about John Bolton’s relationship not just with the president but with the other people involved with foreign policy and sort of around the White House because one of the things that was so funny about him leaving the White House today was that he was supposed to be at a briefing at 130 p.m. and that was announced and then everyone realized Oh he’s out and it looked like Mike Pompeo was pretty pleased during this briefing. He was smiling a lot. Can you just talk a little bit about what his colleagues thought of him.

S5: John Bolton is not a beloved figure. Throughout his career the stories that you hear are people saying he’s difficult to work with. You know he’s obstinate. He can be intractable. He has this pension for you know sort of you know being you know quite cutting in his remarks both publicly and privately. He’s just not a pleasant person to work with. By many accounts some people thought that that was an asset that he would that made him somebody who would just get the job done be damned what other people thought. But when you’re in a role as senior as the one that he had where you’ve got to be able really to influence the president’s thinking based on your ability to influence all those other people that trying to get in there and courier the president’s favor and persuade him. You kind of want to be that last person in the room who gets to talk to the president and really shape the opinion that he has and the policy he’s going to take. And you know it’s sort of I think one reason why Bolton was seen as such an odd choice for this is that he’s combative and most national security advisers. I think that who have been successful in that job are probably ones who are more diplomatic. Would you know I mean I mean people who know how to sort of get along with others and to a certain degree can be not just policy wonks but can be politicians can be people who know how to finesse the process and how to get people to buy into an idea or if they can’t get them to all be on the same page can at least present the president with. Here are your best options and here’s what I think that you ought to do.

S3: So interesting it really raises this question of like what was this guy doing all this time because John Bolton was there for more than a year. And you know there was some reporting that he’d really been sidelined completely from the team and earlier this summer the president of course went to North Korea shook hands with Kim Jong un and it’s not that John Bolton was there but Tucker Carlson was right.

S5: And I think this is one of the questions that I and a lot of people have been asking who cover this space John Bolton. Why are you here. What do you hope to achieve in a White House in which you’re very right. He had been I think marginalized quite early on it was pretty clear that he didn’t have a lot of juice. He tried to sort of you know hoard all this power himself. That didn’t work. And so what did he hope to gain particularly when not only is Donald Trump firm and his insistence that we not engage in more foreign wars Donald Trump would go out and publicly mock John Bolton as a war monger you know and say things like health care listen to you can we’d be on wars everywhere. And so you just see the president undercutting his national security adviser it certainly made me wonder why is he hanging around and I think you know one answer to that may be that I think that Bolton probably decided Look I’m going to you know give it the best shot I’ve got. I’m here in the room. I might be able to exercise some influence over policymaking but it Ray it raises this really you know kind of still to me befuddling question of you know what could you be more useful in some other way. I mean could he be more useful on the outside and how much punishment and humiliation is one person really willing to take just to say that sure you know the White House national security adviser.

S7: Yeah I mean I guess I wonder how you judge the wins and losses for someone like John Bolton because he definitely went head to head with the president on a lot of things. But he also did accomplish some real goals. So how do you think he thinks of his time in the White House.

S8: I would guess that he would probably count President Trump withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal as a top achievement. He was more than just skeptical of it. I mean he regarded it in many ways like President Trump does as it is a horrible deal. So I think he’ll count that as a win and maybe a big enough win to justify the entire process of you know humiliation and frustration that he went through.

S3: Can we talk about where John Bolton’s leaving things as he walks out the door because he’s leaving just as a number of situations when it comes to foreign policy are hot or at least lukewarm. I mean you have North Korea where we don’t quite know what’s happening but certainly Trump is interested in developing that relationship in some way and having some kind of win there. You have Venezuela where you’ve had this simmering situation with two presidents and it’s really unclear where that’s going to go. And of course you also have Iran where you know we scuttled our nuclear deal with them and the president has offered to meet with them but it’s unclear where that’s going to and these are all situations that you theoretically would want a national security adviser to be being involved with sort of steering the ship.

S8: Yeah I think that’s right. And all those things that you said are true those are crisis spots. If you look though at the three now advisers that Trump has had in that position I would argue that they’ve essentially all been weak. None of them have really been steering the ship. You know Mike Flynn the first one. I mean it lasted I mean a matter of literally a matter of days before he had to resign after lying about his interactions with the Russian ambassador during the transition and ultimately pleading guilty to lying to the FBI. So he was out and then you know you had H.R. McMaster coming in who I think was very focused on strategy and focus on plans and getting things in place which is important but that didn’t necessarily give him a lot of clout and a lot of juice and he didn’t go too far with President Trump. And then Bolton came in and we’ve talked about all the ways that they didn’t sit well with each other. So when you think about it I mean he’s had three national security advisers none of whom have been particularly effective. One big reason for that though is that Donald Trump runs Donald Trump’s foreign policy. He is someone who operates by gut by instinct. He does listen to people around him and what they have to say it doesn’t mean he takes their advice. He certainly didn’t take the advice of his advisers. You know the wisdom of meeting with Kim Jong un and North Korea he constantly contradicts what the CIA and the intelligence agencies say about whether Iran is complying with its end of the nuclear agreement that that we’ve now pulled out of. So really it raises the question Could any one really be an effective national security adviser with a president like Donald Trump who may sit there and listen to you. But at the end of the day he is making the decision that is different from the way other presidents have operate. Yes they make the decision at the end of the day. But it’s really after taking on board and incorporating and thinking about the policy and the implications of what they’re being told by their advisers Trump just doesn’t operate that way. And frankly you see him working now with so many different acting secretaries and acting directors. You know it seems sometimes like half the national security establishment is filled by temps. And that seems to suit the president just fine.

S7: So does it matter that John Bolton lost his job. I mean I guess we’re used to thinking of this position as kind of like the governor like you know someone with their hand on the wheel which is clearly not what it is. So does it matter that John Bolton is out.

S8: I think it matters that he’s out and I think it matters that there’s never really been an effective national security adviser because there is not a national security process in this administration. There never has been. Bolton just didn’t even pretend to want one. So as was in some way he was he was you know being honest about what the reality is in the Trump administration. But you see the effects of this kind of policymaking by whim. It is chaotic. It’s shambolic. It’s inconsistent and there’s a reason for that. It’s not just because Donald Trump is sort of you know an ID who reacts to the world and has these theatrical tendencies and thinks that he can persuade dictators to do what he wants them to do by force of personality. It’s also that there’s no process there’s no one really setting things up to make sure that the president has the information that he needs to go out and make good decisions again not the genius took that advice anyway but this is the way that policy gets done in this administration. It’s kind of a one man band and I think that you see the results of that. You know I think that when Donald Trump was campaigning you know he positioned himself as this this figure who was going to come in and make deals because he knew how to do it and politicians that preceded him were naive and the policy process was broken. Well he’s had you know going on three years now to show us what the sort of the Trump style of foreign policy making is. And it’s objectively it’s a mess.

S3: Well so President Trump says he’s going to nominate someone new next week.

S8: Any ideas about who that might be at this point I’m less interested I guess in who the president is going to be picking as opposed to what type of person is he going to pick you know say what you will about put Mike Flynn aside. He was there so briefly that it’s hard to evaluate you know him as as a person functioning in the White House H.R. McMaster and John Bolton had real national security chops. They had experience. They were people who were not afraid to speak their mind. And I think they took the role of being the honest broker as the national security adviser is often called if you get took that you know pretty seriously maybe not so much the brokering part in Bolton’s case but they took seriously the job. So what I’m looking for is the president going to pick someone who is a kind of loyalist cheerleader who has the same ideas as the president or is he going to pick somebody who believes in the process and believes in that position of national security adviser as one that needs to be strong and independent.

S9: Yes loyal to the You’ve been faithful to the administration’s policies but somebody who’s going to speak truth to power Shane Harris thank you so much for joining me. It was my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

S10: Shane Harris covers intelligence and national security for the Washington Post. All right. That’s the show. If you were a listener in Texas a little bit of news for you and a couple of weeks I’m going to be in Austin taping a conversation with Senator Jeff Flake. We’re gonna make it into a show but you can hear it a little bit early if you swing by. It’s all part of the Texas Tribune Festival. Come check it out. I would love to say hey the show is produced by Mary Wilson Jason de Leone Daniel Hewett And Mara silvers. I’m Mary Harris. We’ll talk to you tomorrow.