Over a turbulent 17 months, President Trump and national security adviser John Bolton had disagreed on a variety of issues, from North Korea to Venezuela to Iran.
But Trump finally decided to remove his top security aide on Tuesday after a heated discussion in the Oval Office, following accusations by other officials in the administration that Bolton had leaked to the news media, tried to drag others into his battles with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo over Afghanistan, and promoted his own views rather than those of the president, according to people familiar with the matter.
Trump called Bolton to meet with him Monday afternoon as he prepared to leave for a campaign rally that night in North Carolina.
Bolton was seen by some in the administration as the source of a media report that Vice President Pence and he were allies in opposing a peace deal with the Taliban, negotiated by Pompeo’s State Department. Just before the meeting, Trump had tweeted that it was “Fake News,” designed to “create the look of turmoil in the White House, of which there is none.”
Bolton denied the charge, but the Afghanistan issue turned out to be a tipping point.
Among accumulated grievances that had been building for months, the president was annoyed that Bolton would regularly call on members of Congress to try to get them to push Bolton-preferred policies on Trump, according to a senior official who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. Many on Bolton’s handpicked staff were seen as unnecessarily confrontational with other parts of the national security bureaucracy.
Trump had been inundated with complaints, officials said. Pence and acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, who were awaiting Trump’s arrival Monday afternoon in Fayetteville, found Bolton increasingly abrasive and self-promoting.
Pompeo and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin had told Trump that his national security adviser was not helping him, officials said. Bolton had even refused, in recent weeks, to go on television and defend the president’s policies on Afghanistan and Russia.
Bolton, the president felt, wasn’t loyal. He wasn’t on the team.
After Trump made his views known, Bolton offered to resign. Trump, Bolton later insisted, said they would discuss it the next day. It was the last time he saw the president.
“He had the meeting then thought about it for a few hours, especially since the president wasn’t exactly begging him to stay on and he had had enough,” said a person familiar with Bolton’s thinking.
On Tuesday morning, Bolton handed a two-sentence letter to an aide for delivery to Trump, and left the building. “I hereby resign, effective immediately…” There was nothing about spending more time with his family, no praise or well-wishes for the president.
But just before noon, Trump stole his thunder, announcing in a terse tweet that he had fired his third national security adviser in a row. “I disagreed strongly with many of his suggestions, as did others in the administration,” Trump wrote. “I will be naming a new National Security Advisor next week.”
“It was probably coming,” said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), a Trump ally, who called it “as much a personality conflict as anything else.”
“The president had gotten into a situation where he didn’t like reading about some stuff in the paper,” Graham said, and “it got to be a breakdown of trust” that had “pretty well shut down” the policy process among national security agencies.
At the White House, those outside the inner sanctum were stunned when Trump’s tweet appeared. At the Pentagon, there were cheers. When Pompeo appeared at an unrelated news briefing shortly after Trump’s tweet, he rebuffed frantic questions about Bolton, saying he wouldn’t talk about the administration’s “inner workings.”
“There were many times Ambassador Bolton and I disagreed, that’s to be sure,” Pompeo said. “But that’s true for lots of people with whom I interact.”
Then Pompeo smiled. That smile, one official close to Pompeo said, “spoke for itself.”
A known hawk
In the wake of Bolton’s departure, a number of senior administration officials and Republicans close to the White House — all of whom spoke only on the condition of anonymity about internal White House business — offered up long lists of those who would not mourn him. They included first lady Melania Trump, Pence, Mulvaney, Pompeo, Mnuchin, countless Defense Department officials and numerous international leaders.
But at the time of Bolton’s appointment, after Trump fired Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster in April of last year, abrasiveness appeared to be what the president was looking for — a more in-your-face figure to replace McMaster’s military-like organization and policies.
Trump could hardly have been unaware of what he was getting with Bolton. A take-no-prisoners official in the administration of George W. Bush, where he strongly supported the 2003 Iraq invasion and used a seat as United Nations ambassador to push a hard line foreign policy, Bolton had spent the wilderness Obama years as a conservative think tanker and Fox News pundit. He advocated regime change in Iran, a preemptive strike against North Korea, and the severing of U.S. ties to international agreements and organizations he viewed as weak and accommodating.
His appointment, coinciding with that of Pompeo’s — one of the most virulent Iran hawks in Congress before the newly elected Trump had named him to head the CIA — to replace the out-of-
favor Rex Tillerson as secretary of state gave a new muscularity to administration foreign policy. By the end of the year, the turnover was complete with the resignation of former defense secretary Jim Mattis.
Even as he began grumbling privately about Bolton in recent months, and surveying other advisers and friends about possible replacements, Trump publicly praised his pugnacious qualities.
“He has strong views on things, but that’s okay. I actually temper John, which is pretty amazing,” Trump said during an Oval Office news conference in May. “I’m the one that tempers him. That’s okay. I have different sides. I have John Bolton and other people that are a little more dovish than him. I like John.”
Divisions over policy
Within a week after Bolton came aboard, Trump authorized a missile strike against Syria. A month later, he withdrew the United States from the Iran nuclear agreement. Both were seen as signals of Bolton’s arrival.
But Bolton also lost a lot of battles over a year and a half in office — among them, Trump’s outreach to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un; his abrupt decision to withdraw troops from Syria and accommodate Turkish concerns over America’s Kurdish Syrian allies; his friendly relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin; the president’s professed willingness to meet with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani; and the Pompeo-led negotiations with the Taliban that began in October.
Whether Bolton was responsible for the leaks — he has insisted he was not — word of his views always managed to be publicly revealed, even as Trump and others grew suspicious and started to work around him, most visibly on North Korea.
Trump came to view Bolton as a potential spoiler for a landmark nuclear deal with the isolated country and repeatedly excluded him from important meetings. During Trump’s second summit with Kim in Hanoi, Trump ordered that Bolton not be included in a dinner meeting with senior U.S. and North Korean officials.
When Trump made a surprise visit to the demilitarized zone in June, Bolton left early for Mongolia out of concern that his presence could hurt U.S. diplomatic initiatives, U.S. officials said.
U.S. officials said Bolton never believed Kim would surrender his nuclear arsenal and hoped the talks would collapse so that the United States could return to a maximum pressure campaign. He advocated persistently against an interim deal in Hanoi that would exchange some sanctions relief for partial denuclearization. When Trump walked away from that agreement, Bolton aides touted it as an achievement by the national security adviser.
Worsening relations between the United States and Iran also created tensions between Trump and Bolton. In June, after Trump decided against ordering a military attack on Iran after it downed an unmanned U.S. drone, Bolton was “devastated,” said one U.S. official familiar with the matter.
Bolton’s consistent advocating for harder economic sanctions against Iran rankled U.S. allies and went beyond the desires of Pompeo. State Department officials grew frustrated when leaks about sanctions policy deliberations appeared in neoconservative outlets such as the Washington Free Beacon. The distrust between Pompeo and Bolton’s team led the top diplomat to instruct his aides against consulting with Bolton’s team on Iran, in particular Rich Goldberg, the National Security Council’s director for countering Iranian weapons of mass destruction, said officials familiar with the matter.
Afghanistan as catalyst
On Tuesday, when word that Trump had fired Bolton exploded across Washington, Bolton told colleagues and confidants that he had never discussed Pence’s comments on anything, ever, with anyone outside the president’s policy circle. Bolton allies viewed the charge as a way to “knife John on the way out,” one person close to him said, calling it “flatly untrue.”
Bolton’s own frustrations with Trump had simmered in recent weeks as he became vexed by what he saw as the president’s policy indecision. The two men got along well on a personal level — although their relationship was somewhat distant — but Bolton began to tell friends that he had deep philosophical disagreements with Trump on the world and policy and they weren’t fixable.
Although he saw his exit as the culmination of problems rather than something out of the blue, Afghanistan was the catalyst.
Never happy with the decision to negotiate with the Taliban over a peace deal to end the war, Bolton was particularly disturbed that Pompeo had been given the lead role.
Under Pompeo, U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad had changed the parameters of U.S. policy on the issue. Several administrations had refused to talk to the militants, insisting that they should negotiate an end to the war only with the Afghan government. But Trump’s insistence that he wanted to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, and a conclusion that there would be no military victory by either side there, had led Pompeo and Khalilzad to believe that the United States should negotiate its own exit directly with the Taliban, even while using that leverage to force eventual inter-Afghan talks.
By summer, it was clear that a deal was in the making, and late last month, Khalilzad came to Washington to report that agreement had been reached to withdraw about 5,000 of the 14,000 U.S. troops, in exchange for a Taliban agreement to sever ties with al -Qaeda and ensure that no terrorist attack on the United States would ever again be launched from Afghanistan. Talks with the Afghan government, and a cease-fire, would come later.
Bolton thought it was a bad deal, as did many others. But Trump was more than intrigued at the idea of fulfilling his campaign pledge of troop withdrawals, and proposed finalizing the deal himself at a Camp David meeting he would host for Afghan government and Taliban leaders.
But as that plan came under criticism across the board, the president began to look for a way out, eventually seizing on the killing of a U.S. service member Thursday in a Taliban attack. Prodded by Bolton and others opposed to the negotiations, he decided to cancel the deal altogether, tweeting out his position on Saturday evening.
When news stories Sunday and Monday depicted Bolton as victorious, his demise became just a matter of time.
Robert Costa, Philip Rucker, Ashley Parker, Missy Ryan, Dan Lamothe and Souad Mekhennet contributed to this report.