With one presidential decision, America gained one of its boldest National Security Advisers, and lost one of its best cable news guests.
Roughly an hour after John Bolton, former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., was named as the replacement for the outgoing adviser H.R. McMaster, he appeared on Fox News with “The Story” host Martha MacCallum, who was loaded with great questions for a man known for his blunt assessments of the world scene and sharp views on the policies that best serve America.
She learned quickly that the new position changes everything for Bolton.
Amid stories of inner-circle discord over President Trump’s praise for freshly re-elected Russian President Vladmir Putin, she had to wonder if Bolton would speak disapprovingly of the congratulatory words that have alarmed so many, despite Barack Obama having done the same six years ago.
The advisor-designate made clear that his years of writing and speaking about countless issues have left a record he is proud of, but that his job now is to subjugate his views to the president’s. He did let on that the whole flap struck him as overblown: “I don’t consider it a significant point… I’ve said congratulations to a lot of people, foreign diplomats and officials, it’s a matter of being polite...It’s a matter of courtesy more than anything.”
Having gleaned a sliver of an answer on one issue, MacCallum plowed forward, seeking newsworthy specifics on how Bolton’s strong views might inform the advice he gave the president. “I don’t think it’s appropriate to tell you what advice I would give him,” he replied.
Would he continue to oppose the Iran nuclear deal, creating conflict with Defense Secretary James Mattis, who has shown more tolerance for it? Does he expect his views on that, or anything else, to create conflict among the Trump national security team? Should we keep the military option on the table with regard to North Korea? Is meeting with Kim Jong-un a good idea?
“Same question, same answer,” he replied. Always with a smile, Trump’s newest team member made clear his thoughts and analysis were no longer for the benefit of the general public, but for his new boss.
He did intimate that he would not be shy in that setting: “If the government can’t have a free interchange of ideas among the president’s advisors, the president is not well served.” He also shared a story revealing that if his opinion did not prevail, he would always maintain awareness of his role, as implementer of presidential will. Harry Truman’s Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, he recalled, would often describe why they got along so well: “Neither one of us ever forgot who was president.”
Then, a story from his own service: If, as an Assistant Secretary of State under George H.W. Bush, some idea of his was simply not holding sway, James Baker would remind him: “The guy who got elected doesn’t want to do it.”
So as John Bolton the spirited commentator fades from view, I take comfort in the knowledge that if his views and passions will no longer be heard by me, they will surely be heard by the president during what should be a chapter that leads to even clearer evidence that this is an administration serious about the threats of a dangerous world.
There is something else Bolton is serious about, the one area he was not hesitant in addressing—leaks, of the sort that enabled the absurd Putin congratulation uproar to become a brushfire. “I was outraged by it,” he told MacCallum, “It recalled earlier in the administration when somebody was leaking transcripts of the president’s conversations with foreign leaders. It’s completely unacceptable; you cannot conduct diplomacy, you cannot expect other foreign leaders to be candid and open in their conversations with the president if some Munchkin in the executive branch decides they’re going to leak the talking points or the transcript or any other aspect of it.”
Now there’s the John Bolton we know.
America will now come to know him with greater familiarity in his service to the nation and the administration, which will hopefully last longer than the tenure of his two predecessors.
There is healthy evidence of the wisdom of this choice in the panic of liberals who convulsed the moment it was announced. But there is also a part of the Trump base that might be uneasy, the voters who viewed him as unlikely to entangle America in further extended deployments in various hot spots.
Make no mistake, Bolton believes in the American military as a force for good around the world. He will never share the Trump view that going to war in Iraq was a mistake. But if he is to be taken at his word, he knows that he is not “the guy who got elected.” There is no evidence that his hawkish nature contains some strong urge toward new, large troop deployments anywhere.
But he shares the Trump view that the Iran nuclear deal is a disaster, and that North Korea should know every day that a military option is always on the table to address his missile adventures. That strong position, both men would say, has contributed to better North Korean behavior of late, and even the prospect of a Trump/Kim meeting.
Ronald Reagan famously said that no war in his lifetime ever started because America was too strong. If that is instructive, war is in fact less likely with a president unafraid to give voice to such strength, and a National Security Advisor willing to inform it.