Long­time hawk ac­cused of leaks, dis­loy­alty


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 Bolton­pre­ferred 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-of­fa­vor 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.

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