Many will rightly celebrate the departure of the US national security adviser. But however welcome the news, it reflects the deeper problems with this administration
No sensible observer of international affairs could lament Donald Trump’s announcement that he has fired John Bolton as his national security adviser – though in typically combative style, Mr Bolton insists that he quit. Whatever the precise manner of his departure, plenty of people in Washington, including lifelong Republicans, are cheering. Many others around the world will celebrate. This is a rare presidential outcome that can be welcomed even by those who despise Mr Trump and all he stands for.
The political demise of the reckless uberhawk who bears so much responsibility for so much appalling American foreign policy in the past, and who had attempted to steer the president towards so much more, is welcome. When he entered the administration last spring – as the president’s third permanent national security adviser in 14 months – he had been arguing forcefully for “preemptive” attacks on North Korea. There was an obvious clash of wills with Mr Trump: unlike the president, he believes in aggressive foreign intervention and an international military presence to match. One fear was that his indisputable tactical skills within the government machine and sheer relentlessness might allow him to prevail.
The other fear, which proved more accurate, is that the damage would come from the way his view of allies, long-term partnerships and international treaties aligned with the president’s: neither appears to believe them useful or desirable. His visceral opposition to arms control agreements helped to see off the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty; might his exit provide some faint hope for a renewal of New Start?
The cancelled summit with the Taliban at Camp David, announced by Mr Trump at the weekend, was immediately suspected as the trigger for Mr Bolton’s exit. He had reportedly been cut out of key meetings on Afghanistan and was known to oppose the deal. That was the right judgment, but for the wrong reasons (civilians long for peace after decades of war and there was real if cautious hope about the negotiations, but this extremely limited agreement fell woefully short). But the White House has said that there were “many, many issues”. The two men are known to have clashed on North Korea and Iran, with Mr Trump this summer calling off an airstrike on Iran at the last minute. Nor was the president impressed by Mr Bolton’s hostility to Russia, or by the failure to deliver what he had anticipated as an easy win: the attempt to dethrone Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela.
However satisfying it may be to see him leave, whoever is picked to succeed him may not be much of an improvement. No one should cheer the chaotic and dysfunctional nature of this administration. Its boss revels in divisions and factionalism among his staff, which allows him to continue governing by his whims, kneejerk reactions and vanity. It is neither normal nor desirable for the national security adviser to be excluded from meetings about Afghanistan – even if it is a relief, when the individual concerned is (or was) Mr Bolton. It is more likely that he was fired because he dented his boss’s ego than because his advice was so bad: Mr Trump liked Mr Bolton’s bellicose style when he saw it on Fox News, not when it clashed with his own intentions.
The national security adviser may have been the most ferocious of the voices urging Mr Trump to turn up the pressure on Iran, but he was certainly not alone. Mr Bolton’s presence in the White House was frightening. But its continued occupation by the man who hired him is much more so.
Who Could Replace John Bolton?
By Katie Rogers* – The New York Times
President Trump is on the hunt for the fourth national security adviser of his presidency. Here is a short list of possibilities.
President Trump on Tuesday announced the departure of John R. Bolton as his national security adviser, the third person to hold the job since the beginning of the Trump administration. Though the White House has said Mr. Bolton’s current deputy, Charles M. Kupperman, will take over in the interim, Mr. Trump has said he will announce a successor next week.
A guessing game immediately began among the president’s formal and informal advisers about who still left in the president’s orbit might get the job.
The expanding list of possibilities, generated by those hoping to promote their allies or harm their enemies, included Fred Fleitz, Mr. Bolton’s former chief of staff; Keith Kellogg, a retired lieutenant general and a former acting national security adviser; Jack Keane, a retired Army vice chairman currently advising the vice president on national security; Robert Blair, an adviser to Mick Mulvaney, the acting chief of staff; and Robert C. O’Brien, the administration’s hostage envoy who called Mr. Trump the greatest hostage negotiator in American history.
As the administration begins to resemble a game of reverse musical chairs — too many open slots without enough loyalists to fill them — a short list of plausible replacements emerged.
The acting Adviser
Charles M. Kupperman
Mr. Kupperman, a former Reagan administration official and defense contracting executive, is a longtime Bolton associate. Known by many national security officials by his nickname, “Kupperware,” for his blandness, Mr. Kupperman, 68, was appointed in January as deputy national security adviser under Mr. Bolton.
Shortly after Mr. Bolton left the White House on Tuesday, Hogan Gidley, a deputy White House spokesman, told reporters that Mr. Kupperman would serve as Mr. Bolton’s acting successor. Acting officials have a way of sticking around in this administration for indefinite lengths of time, but Mr. Kupperman’s track record as someone ensconced in Mr. Bolton’s inner circle could shorten his tenure.
Still, the president appreciated Mr. Kupperman’s just-the-facts style compared with Mr. Bolton’s often ideologically charged delivery: If Mr. Trump had to have a national security brief concerning long-term planning, he preferred it from Mr. Kupperman as opposed to Mr. Bolton, according to a person with knowledge of that process.
The representative to North Korea
Stephen E. Biegun
Mr. Biegun, the United States’ special representative for North Korea, had a firsthand window into the clashes between Mr. Bolton, who never wavered from a hawkish, hard-line stance on North Korea, and the president, who has tried to use a charm offensive to persuade Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, down a path to denuclearization.
Mr. Biegun is considered a capable technocrat rather than a big-ideas person, unlike Mr. Bolton, who had firm ideological views that shaped his policy positions. Recently Mr. Biegun has been in closer alignment with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Mr. Trump than with the hard-line, anti-North Korea views of Mr. Bolton.
In a speech at the University of Michigan last week, Mr. Biegun, 56, said that he did not question Mr. Trump’s choice to play down evidence that Mr. Kim was building an advancing arsenal.
“The challenge is to find a way through diplomacy to resolve it,” Mr. Biegun said. “The president has made it clear that short-range missiles don’t make him happy, but it’s not going to disrupt our efforts in order to engage diplomatically to resolve the very issues that we are referring to.”
This summer, Mr. Biegun was initially floated internally as a possibility to succeed Jon Huntsman Jr., who resigned in August as the administration’s ambassador to Russia. That job ultimately went to John Sullivan, the deputy secretary of state under Mr. Pompeo.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment about whether Mr. Biegun had recently interviewed with the president for the job of national security adviser.
Mr. Biegun also served as an executive secretary of the National Security Council under President George W. Bush. In August 2001, Mr. Biegun was with the president, then on vacation at his ranch in Texas, when Mr. Bush received a daily brief containing an article with the title “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.”
The administration’s Iran representative
Brian H. Hook
Mr. Hook, 51, is also said to be in contention to succeed Mr. Bolton. He is the administration’s special representative for Iran and a senior adviser to Mr. Pompeo.
Mr. Hook, a lawyer brought into the State Department under Rex W. Tillerson, is one of the remaining survivors from that era. An administration official familiar with Mr. Hook’s relationship with Mr. Trump said that the two “interact on Iran” and that “the president is happy with how the strategy is going there.”
He would also probably have the support of Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, who has tried to push his allies into high-profile administration positions before. But Mr. Hook could already be engaged. He has stepped up to take on Mr. Kushner’s Middle East portfolio as Jason Greenblatt, the co-architect of the administration’s peace plan for that region, prepares to leave.
Another Fox News fixture
Mr. Trump is almost certainly familiar with Mr. Macgregor, a retired Army colonel who has written several books on reorganizing the military. But more important to Mr. Trump, he also appears frequently on one of the president’s favorite Fox programs, “Tucker Carlson Tonight.”
In June, when Mr. Trump decided at the last minute to call off a round of strikes against Iran, he had listened to Mr. Carlson’s assertion that a strike could prove politically fatal. A frequent guest on the show that week was Mr. Macgregor, who backed up that rationale.
Reached by telephone on Tuesday afternoon, Mr. Macgregor seemed to expect the call. “It’s no comment, no comment, no comment,” he said, declining to say whether he had talked to the White House about Mr. Bolton’s job.
Either way, solid television performances may not be the safest route to Mr. Trump’s good graces. The president had also liked the look of Mr. Bolton’s fiery Fox News performances before he hired him for the national security adviser post.
The wild card
Mr. Grenell, the American ambassador to Germany, is personally liked by the president. At times, he has emulated Mr. Trump’s brash diplomatic style. Shortly after beginning his post in Germany, he elicited the annoyance of politicians there by admonishing any German companies doing business with Iran.
Mr. Grenell, 52, who is gay, is perhaps best known for enthusiastically defending the president’s position on gay rights, even as the Trump administration has taken steps to roll back civil rights for gay and transgender people. He has also led an effort to decriminalize homosexuality around the globe.
Throughout his tenure, Mr. Grenell has told his allies that he has been considered for several high-ranking positions — this year, his name was floated as a prospective nominee for ambassador to the United Nations, a position that Kelly Knight Kraft, the ambassador to Canada at the time, ultimately filled. He expects to be interviewed for Mr. Bolton’s job, according to a person with knowledge of the planning process.
The really wild card
Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster
General McMaster, who was ousted last year weeks after a furious tweetstorm from Mr. Trump over his comment that there was “incontrovertible” evidence of Russian election interference, has received at least one phone call from the president on matters of national security, according to a report from NBC News and confirmed by The New York Times.
The chances he is offered the job? “Less than zero,” according to a person familiar with his historically fraught relationship with Mr. Trump.
In any other administration, that would mean he wouldn’t have a chance.
Another possibility from the McMaster era could be Ricky Waddell, a former deputy national security adviser who left the White House last year. In an interview on Tuesday with Fox News, Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, said that Mr. Trump had mentioned Mr. Waddell by name, along with Mr. Hook and Mr. Kellogg.
Adam Goldman, Edward Wong and Maggie Haberman contributed reporting.
*Katie Rogers is a White House correspondent in the Washington bureau, covering the cultural impact of the Trump administration on the nation’s capital and beyond. @katierogers