John Bolton’s sudden departure from the Trump administration was inevitable. It had nothing to do with his fabled mustache or even his very real personality clash with the president. It was a matter of principle. Trump wants to write a new chapter, closing the one marked “Militarism and Maximum Pressure” and opening one called “Dealmaking and the Pursuit of the Nobel Peace Prize.” He wants a summit with Iran’s leaders and deals with the Taliban, Kim Jong Un, and Vladimir Putin on arms control. He does not care about most of the details, as long as he gets the credit.
Few of his officials are particularly enthusiastic about this pivot, but led by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, they accept it and will seek to shape it. Bolton did not accept it—with the exception of Russia, where he was playing a constructive role in advancing Trump’s goals—and played the role of a saboteur. This tension has been clear for several months, but with Bolton keen to hang on and Trump famously averse to personal confrontation, it dragged on over the summer. With a Trump summit with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani now imminent, it could not drag on much longer. And earlier this week, it came to an end.
I talked with several current or former Trump-administration officials for this piece, all of whom spoke under condition of anonymity to freely discuss Trump’s foreign policy after Bolton. These officials had different views of Bolton. Some saw him as brilliant and a surprisingly good diplomat who fell down on issues such as Iran, Cuba, and Venezuela, where he took a particularly hard line. Others were less forgiving, and argued that Bolton had failed to work well with other senior officials to advance Trump’s strategy.