With John Bolton, Trump's White House gets a 'bad cop' for foreign policy

Hunter Walker
White House Correspondent

WASHINGTON — President Trump’s new national security adviser, John Bolton, is known as one of Washington’s biggest war hawks. While liberals quickly suggested Bolton’s ascendance to the West Wing could lead the U.S. into armed conflict, a source familiar with the president’s thinking told Yahoo News that Trump might simply be bringing on an aggressive voice to play “bad cop” to his “good cop” with America’s rivals.

“It’s not like Bolton and DJT agree on a lot. Bolton is a hawk, but Bolton’s style works,” the source said using the president’s initials.

The source also noted that Trump, an avid cable news watcher, enjoyed Bolton’s appearances on Fox News. Bolton was in the West Wing on Thursday afternoon within an hour of appearing on the conservative channel. He has regularly advised Trump since the president took office last year.

Bolton’s appointment was announced shortly after he arrived at the White House. He will be replacing Gen. H.R. McMaster, who is resigning. The move is the latest in a series of high level personnel changes at the White House. McMaster’s exit comes on the heels of a spate of departures including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the president’s top economic adviser, Gary Cohn, and White House Communications Director Hope Hicks.

Bolton has previously served in the presidential administrations of Ronald Reagan and both Bushes. He is currently a Fox News analyst and has held positions at multiple conservative think tanks. Bolton, who did not respond to requests for comment for this story, earned his hawkish reputation by, among other things, advocating for the war in Iraq long after it largely fell out of favor, and calling for Iran to be bombed as that country entered nuclear negotiations with the U.S. In 2005, when President George W. Bush nominated Bolton to be U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, liberals quickly called attention to comments Bolton made a decade earlier suggesting multiple floors should be lopped off U.N. headquarters in New York City.

(L-R) U.S. President George W. Bush listens to John Bolton speak after being appointed to be ambassador to the United Nations during an event at the White House August 1, 2005 in Washington, DC. (Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

That disdain for diplomacy could seem to be at odds with Trump, who has claimed he can be a uniquely qualified dealmaker on the world stage. Bolton’s arrival comes as Trump is negotiating a meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un by May. According to the Trump ally who spoke to Yahoo News, this historic meeting played a role in Trump’s decision to bring on Bolton, as the president sought to have his “team in place” as he deals with Pyongyang.

The White House has attributed North Korea’s willingness to sit at the negotiating table to a “maximum pressure” campaign that included Trump’s threat to rain down “fire and fury like the world has never seen” on North Korea if it put Americans in danger. Bolton’s presence on Trump’s national security team could be designed to keep up that pressure as the president engages in talks.

Democrats and liberal groups are clearly unconvinced Bolton’s impact on America’s foreign policy posture will be limited to rhetoric. Sen. Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, took to Twitter to suggest Trump is assembling a “war Cabinet” with Bolton and, if confirmed, former CIA Director Mike Pompeo as secretary of state.

“Bolton played a key role in politicizing the intel that misled us into the Iraq War. We cannot let this extreme war hawk blunder us into another terrible conflict,” Markey wrote.

Activists gather on the west side of the US Capitol Building on Capitol Hill on June 7, 2005 in Washington, DC, to protest the nomination of John Bolton as US ambassador to the United Nations. (Photo: Brendan SmialowskiAFP/Getty Images)

Jon Rainwater, executive director of the antiwar organization Peace Action, released a statement claiming Bolton’s appointment suggests there is an increased “likelihood of military action on the Korean Peninsula.”

“Whether or not Trump follows through with his plan to meet with Kim Jong Un, Bolton’s appointment to this central role at the national security council strongly suggests Trump intends to sabotage the budding diplomatic opening, declare that diplomacy failed and pivot back to war,” Rainwater said.

Bolton will be Trump’s third national security adviser in a little over 14 months, following the departures of McMaster and Mike Flynn, who was fired after misleading the vice president about his contacts with Russian officials. Flynn has since pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI and is now cooperating with special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the Kremlin’s role in the 2016 election.

The news that Bolton would replace McMaster was first reported by the New York Times, but there have been indications for some time that McMaster’s departure was imminent amid tensions between him and the president. Senior White House officials had openly discussed moving McMaster to a high-ranking Army post. McMaster had faced criticism that he was not presenting Trump with the results of interagency consultations and was instead giving the president his own views. That put him at odds with the secretaries of state and defense and worried foreign diplomats whose lines into the administration ran through Foggy Bottom and the Pentagon.

Shortly after the news broke on Thursday evening, the White House released a series of statements, including one from an unnamed administration official that framed McMaster’s departure as a mutual decision between the general and the president. The official said “the two have been discussing this for some time,” but the “timeline was expedited as they both felt it was important to have the new team in place, instead of constant speculation.” According to the official, Trump asked McMaster to “stay on until mid-April to ensure a smooth transition” and the general agreed.

“After 34 years of service to our nation, I am requesting retirement from the U.S. Army effective this summer, after which I will leave public service,” McMaster said in a statement.

National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, right, sits with Energy Secretary Rick Perry during a meeting between President Donald Trump and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the Oval Office of the White House on March 20, 2018, in Washington. (Photo: Evan Vucci/AP)

Trump praised McMaster for helping to “develop our America First National Security Strategy, revitalize our alliances in the Middle East, smash ISIS, bring North Korea to the table, and strengthen our nation’s prosperity.”

In his early days as national security adviser, McMaster removed several more officials who were allied with Flynn and former chief strategist Steve Bannon, both of whom had reputations as hard liners on foreign policy. Unlike Trump and Bolton, McMaster advocated against quickly abandoning the current nuclear deal with Iran. Both Bolton and McMaster have taken an aggressive approach to North Korea and mused about the possibility of a preemptive strike against the rogue nation.

It may be hard, however, for Bolton to articulate a clear position in the turbulence of Trump’s White House, where so many top officials have come and gone and the president often makes contradictory comments and quick decisions. When Yahoo News asked a diplomat with a major U.S. ally for comment on Bolton, they made a crack about how previous officials have been unable to definitively express the president’s views.

“I look forward to a different person telling us he doesn’t know what the president will do,” the diplomat said.

— Additional reporting by Olivier Knox.  

(Cover photo thumbnail photo: Alex Brandon/AP)