What Trump's Choice of Bolton Reveals

The president is surrounding himself with familiar faces from his favorite cable-news network—but may not find in them what he seeks.

Joshua Roberts / Reuters

Remember “bring in the grown-ups”? They have all now been carried off, with the sole exception of Secretary of Defense James Mattis.

Instead, Trump is staffing his administration and his legal team with familiar personalities from his preferred cable-news channel—much like an imperious child demanding that his crib be stuffed with his TV-cartoon favorites.

Now perhaps the most important West Wing job of them all is to be filled by John Bolton, a figure with an authentic background in government, yes—he held a recess appointment as ambassador to the United Nations from August 2005 until December 2006—but whose achievements over the past dozen years have been posted principally in the field of television punditry.

The Bolton appointment, however, could be seen as the strangest Trump surprise yet. Remember, Trump campaigned as the candidate of anti-interventionism. He sneered at the foreign-policy views of rivals like Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz: “I don’t even call them hawks,” he told three reporters from The Washington Post in September 2015. “I call them fools.” But of course, those were John Bolton’s views, too.

Trump claimed to have opposed the Iraq war. That may or may not have been true in 2003, but since 2006, Trump has repeatedly insisted that the United States would be better off today had Saddam Hussein remained in charge of Iraq. “He was a horrible guy, but it was a lot better than it is right now.”

About that point of view, John Bolton had this to say in 2013:

Let us consider a few of the prevailing myths [about the Iraq war]:

1. Iraq is worse off now than under Saddam. This charge could come only from people with a propensity to admire totalitarianism … And, in any event, the issue was never about making life better for Iraqis, but about ensuring a safer world for America and its allies.

Trump’s early supporters presented their candidate as a peace candidate. “A vote for Hillary is a vote for war,” was a major theme of the pro-Trump messaging in social media. That messaging was amplified not only by alt-right bots on Twitter, but by a celebrated columnist for The New York Times, who hailed “Donald the Dove; Hillary the Hawk.”

Bolton, by contrast, has pressed for pre-emptive military action against both Iran and North Korea. Where Trump disdains allies and submits to Putin, Bolton has the opposite instincts. On Steve Bannon’s radio show in the summer of 2016, Bolton rejected Trump’s admiration of Putin and denigration of the NATO alliance:

The point of a strong NATO alliance—it was true during the Cold War, it’s true today, faced with a belligerent Russia—is not to engage in military conflict, it is to deter military conflict, through strength. That kind of statement, that Donald Trump or any other president would consider what to do after Russia has attacked, is practically inviting the attack. If I were Vladimir Putin reading this, I’d say the coast is clear.

Yet as president, Trump has proven increasingly belligerent against everyone except Putin. Trump fired missiles into Syria in 2017, exactly as he said he would not do. He threatened to rain “fire and fury” upon North Korea and tweeted that he wielded a bigger nuclear button than Kim Jong Un. He has mused about military intervention in Venezuela. He now promises a vast military parade on Pennsylvania Avenue, to celebrate victories he has not won. It now seems clear that what Trump rejected in Bush’s foreign policy was not the use of force, but the application of force in service to democratic ideals. That has been the teaching of John Bolton for decades. It’s not a paradox that the two men have now come together.

What happens now? If the Trump White House is a dysfunctional mess, the national-security process is messiest of all. Crucial decisions like the North Korean summit are made on a whim. Trump imposes or threatens tariffs on friends like South Korea, then expects those battered allies to salute and defer on questions of war and peace. There are hundreds of promises, but no priorities; endless commitments to “get smart,” but no process to reconcile goals and means.

The task of making sense of this chaos now falls to Bolton, a man of strong and certain opinions, but not one adept at winning friends, convincing doubters, soothing opponents, cajoling foreign leaders, or governing bureaucracy. The leaks of embarrassing information will gush into streams; the departures of experienced staff will accelerate; and Bolton’s TV presence—which Trump enjoyed so long as he retained the power to hit “pause” in mid-sentence—will only exasperate this fitful president when it arrives in real life and 3-D, bearing tasks, responsibilities, and unwelcome news.