Many of us heaved a semi-sigh of relief when Trump announced John Bolton for national security advisor. “Whew,” we thought, “at least he did not try to put Bolton up for Secretary of State.” It was going to be difficult enough having this cold-eyed firebrand at the elbow of our terrifyingly unpredictable president, but at least it was in the NSA’s role of an advisor not a doer. Filling the NSA job had proved to be a disaster for Trump. This appointment would be the fourth individual to fill the post in less than 15 months, and Trump desperately needed to get it right. Bolton missed out on the first round of Trump’s appointments but had obviously been pacing the halls waiting for a call. So, one hoped, Bolton might be safe. He’s a loudmouth war hawk, but he cannot get us in much trouble from an advisor’s seat, we thought, as long as we have responsible grown-ups out in front, running Defense and State.
But the 70-year-old Bolton has been involved in insider politics close to 40 years. A graduate of Yale (’71) and Yale law (‘74), he practiced law for a few years and then, with Reagan’s arrival, he moved into the revolving doors of the capitol political arena. He began moving back and forth, from a variety of positions in Justice and State when the Republicans were in, then to conservative think tanks, connected law firms and Fox News when they were out, steadily climbing the ladders of power with each move. His top post previous to Trump’s election was Ambassador to the United Nations under a recess appointment by George W. Bush. He did not serve long, for he was forced to resign when it appeared that he would not be confirmed by the Senate.
According to a white paper presented to Trump’s transition team, the National Security Advisor position was supposed to be “as an honest broker of policy options for the President in the field of national security, rather than as an advocate for his or her own policy agenda.” He was to be the eyes and ears of the administration, identifying the hot spots around the world and winnowing out the essential details to keep the president fully informed. He was not expected to be out in front shooting his mouth off, nor was he expected to be seen traveling around looking like he had any authority over anything. That there is a huge difference between an “advisor” and an” advocate,” is apparent when one considers that the advocate roles all require Senate confirmation while the advisor role does not.
But there is no sign that either Bolton or Trump ever read the NSA job description. Bolton was never content to stay behind the curtain and speak only to the ear of the president. Within weeks he could be found searching out microphones, cameras and podiums everywhere to air his views on a variety of topics. An off-hand remark to the Federalist Society leapfrogged Bolton over Pompeo into the middle of a sticky issue with Pakistan. Bolton met with Israel’s Netanyahu at the prime minister’s home in Israel that had the trappings of a state dinner. At one time or another, Bolton has declared himself opposed to the Iran nuclear treaty, in favor of a pre-emptive strike against North Korea, in favor of assisting regime change in Syria, in favor of toughening the U.S. stand against China, to include military options, and declaring that the International Court at the Hague was officially dead to the U.S.
Recently, Bolton, not Pompeo, declared that Russia should get out of the Ukraine, return Crimea, stop using assassination tactics, and quit interfering with U.S. elections. It was Bolton who stepped forward to walk Trump’s words back when he got ahead of himself on troop withdrawal from Syria, and Bolton and Pompeo together went on the fence mending tour through the Middle East. It has not become unusual to see Bolton and Pompeo issue joint statements of policy on U.S. matters.
The recent departure of Mattis marks the last of those considered by many to be the adults in the room, at least with regard to foreign policy. With the exception of Bolton, the men at these essential posts are now second-string deputies or inexperienced sycophants leaving no one to step up with the gravitas to speak truth to power. Bolton has become it, the man, the trusted counselor with open access to a willing ear. This, to the extent that several of the cognoscenti compare it all to be in the same category and in the same manner as a prior trusted relationship.
The word is that Bolton-to-Trump has become the same as Cheney-to-Bush -- times two.Happy New Year.