Donald Trump tweeted this morning that he had fired his national security adviser, John Bolton, and that Bolton’s “services are no longer needed at the White House.” The cold language was not accidental, and it was a strategically odd way to fire a man best known for being hell-bent on revenge against those who have crossed him. This is not how you release a valued counselor who has rescued you from repeated embarrassment, but whose views have gently deviated from your own. This is how you fire the pool boy. This is how you fire the guy you overheard cracking wise in the break room about your haircut. This is how you fire someone who has strong opinions, and who has gradually made clear that one of those opinions is that you are a complete imbecile.
Bolton is a prideful man, and in the past few months that pride has been severely tested. In June, when Iran shot down an American drone, Bolton—who has a long history of aching to bomb Iran—advised the president to respond with force. Only the counsel of others, including Joint Chiefs Chairman General Joseph Dunford, prevented American sorties from reaching their targets. In the matter of North Korea, which Bolton has, for the past 20 years, urged U.S. presidents to treat with maximum distrust, Trump again ignored his advice. The president not only met bilaterally with the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, but line-danced across the DMZ with him, becoming the first U.S. president to, in effect, recognize his authority, by entering his territory as his guest. (Bolton pointedly avoided participation in that meeting and went instead to tend to more pressing geostrategic affairs in outer Mongolia.)
Then there was Tucker Carlson, a figure without precedent in American politics. On the June 21 broadcast of Carlson’s show, just as Bolton was urging a military response to Iran, Carlson devoted a long segment to comparing Bolton to a “tapeworm” that had infested the Republican security establishment and that now was feasting on the ample guts of Trump himself. Carlson has reportedly served as an informal adviser to Trump, and his show sometimes seems intended for an audience of one (the occupant of the Oval Office). Days after that show, when Bolton was packing his bags for Mongolia, Carlson accompanied Trump to Korea. By all evidence, the president preferred his advice to the advice he was getting in-house.
The question I asked at the time—how long can Bolton put up with this?—now has an answer. “I disagreed strongly with many of his suggestions, as did others in the Administration,” Trump tweeted after firing Bolton and before thanking him for his service. Bolton, in his own tweet minutes later, sounded stunned: “I offered to resign last night and President Trump said, ‘Let’s talk about it tomorrow’”—implying that Trump’s tweet amounted to saying, “You can’t quit—you’re fired!” (No doubt the dispute about whether Bolton was fired or quit voluntarily will affect Bolton’s COBRA coverage. But that is a matter for White House HR.)
Because Bolton has expressed himself with such pungency and clarity over the course of decades in public life, we know what he thinks, and it is easy to discern the nature of his disagreements with the president. Bolton thinks that self-described enemies of the United States—especially nuclear proliferators such as North Korea and Iran—should be punished, rather than rewarded; that friendship with such regimes is dangerous and dishonorable; and that willingness to project American military force is a necessary precondition of lasting peace. Trump, we now know definitively, disagrees with each of these propositions. He will happily strike deals, and his proposed move in North Korea is to lure Kim with visions of condominiums and resorts overlooking the Yellow Sea.
Earlier this year I wrote a profile of Bolton. In my interviews with him, he sometimes prefaced a statement with “The president thinks,” or “It’s the president’s view that.” This preamble, I came to understand, most often meant that Bolton was about to say something that he personally thought was nonsense. “It’s the president’s view that he will meet with anyone, at any time,” Bolton once told me, poker-faced. Indeed, Trump was willing, until the last minute, to meet with the Taliban at Camp David, on the eve of the anniversary of the September 11 attacks. He has met with Kim twice. Trump’s willingness to hold talks may or may not be wise, but there is little doubt that Bolton considers it comically naive. He would prefer that Trump line up the world’s dirtbag dictators and read them a riot act for a new century, with a guarantee of humiliation and ruin for anyone who defies America and its allies. This riot act would not mention luxury condos.
With Bolton gone, the Trump administration is now almost free of influence and advice from the old Republican Party. Neither the so-called neoconservative wing of the party, which had influence under George W. Bush, nor the Cold War Republicans, who held power before him and of whom Bolton is a late example, remain, with the exception of Attorney General William Barr. Also absent is anyone other than Barr with pre-Trump White House national-security experience. Instead, we have an ex-lobbyist, Mark Esper, at Defense, and Mike Pompeo at State. Pompeo spent 1986 to 1991 in the Army, but just 10 years ago was selling oil equipment at an obscure company in Wichita, Kansas.
Most Trump appointees have left quietly, and have begun murmuring their discontent only after a decorous interval. Bolton’s dismissal has come after an unusually long prelude of disrespect, both by Trump and by favored allies such as Carlson. And the tweet itself must sting. Obviously it was intended to. Bolton might not observe the same period of silence. In talking to his former associates, I heard many marvel at his energy. He wakes up before dawn to plot against his adversaries. He accepts every invitation to write op-eds and go on television to ridicule those who disagree with him. Trump has, in firing Bolton, made an enemy of a man incapable of rest and letting grudges go. Tomorrow morning he will wake up and start plotting, as he usually does. It’s 3 a.m. Do you know who your ex–national security adviser’s enemies are?
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