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President Donald Trump ousted national security adviser John Bolton on Tuesday, saying he and the hawkish aide had "disagreed strongly" on many issues and suggesting that Bolton had collided with other Trump advisers, too.
The decision came after widespread reports that Bolton tried to stop Trump from inviting leaders of the Afghan Taliban to Camp David for peace talks. Trump ultimately scrapped the idea, but multiple people familiar with the issue said the news reports about Bolton’s dissent — believed to have been planted by Bolton aides — infuriated Trump.
Bolton’s ouster leaves yet another vacancy in the upper echelons of the Trump administration, where many roles are either unfilled or filled on an acting basis, including several that deal with national security issues. It also means Trump could hear fewer dissenting voices on major moves he wants to make on the national security front, such as talking to the leaders of Iran.
The president himself didn’t get too specific in his tweets announcing Bolton’s departure, though he indicated it was not a spur of the moment move.
"I informed John Bolton last night that his services are no longer needed at the White House," Trump wrote. "I disagreed strongly with many of his suggestions, as did others in the Administration, and therefore ... I asked John for his resignation, which was given to me this morning. I thank John very much for his service."
Bolton offered a conflicting account on Twitter minutes after Trump's posts. "I offered to resign last night and President Trump said, 'Let's talk about it tomorrow,'" he wrote online. Bolton did not respond to a request for comment.
The news caught many in the administration off guard. Shortly before Trump’s tweets, the White House had announced that Bolton would appear at a briefing later Tuesday with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. The two Cabinet secretaries, both of whom had their own frustrations with Bolton, appeared together, and in good spirits.
I offered to resign last night and President Trump said, "Let's talk about it tomorrow."
— John Bolton (@AmbJohnBolton) September 10, 2019
People familiar with the issue said Trump grew frustrated over time with news stories about divisions in the administration that he was convinced were peddled by Bolton and his media surrogates.
Over the weekend, as reports in The New York Times and other outlets laid out the back-and-forth within the administration over whether to invite the Taliban to Camp David, Trump — as well as other officials like Pompeo — grew upset at what they were sure were leaks from Bolton and his aides.
“When the New York Times story came out, it was pretty clear that Bolton or his people had his fingerprints all over it, that it wasn’t his idea to meet with the Taliban, that it was Pompeo’s. That was the end of business. It was petty and stupid,” said a Trump confidante familiar with the president's thinking.
A second person confirmed that explanation, saying that it was part of a pattern of leaks believed to have come from Bolton’s camp that highlighted dissent in the president’s inner circle.
"The fundamental problem here is the president had a national security adviser who was unwilling to accept the decisions made by the president," this person said. "When they contradicted his opinion, he worked to undermine them."
"It’s safe to say that the entire administration that is on the national security team has talked to the president about their frustrations," the person added.
On Monday night, Bolton and Trump met in the Oval Office before the president took off for a rally in North Carolina, according to White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham.
It was at that meeting that Trump asked for Bolton's resignation, she said. Asked whether the tenor of the conversation was negative, Grisham replied: "I mean, he was asked for his resignation..."
Bolton's resignation letter, dated Tuesday, was terse: "I hereby resign, effective immediately, as Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs. Thank you for having afforded me this opportunity to serve our country."
Some administration officials appeared pleased when they appeared Tuesday afternoon. When Pompeo was asked whether he was blindsided, he quipped, "I'm never surprised," and broke into a grin.
"The president's entitled to the staff he wants at any moment," Pompeo added, saying that when Trump "makes a decision like this, he's well within his rights to do so."
Asked by one journalist whether the president's national security team is "a mess," Mnuchin shot back: "Absolutely not. That's the most ridiculous question I've ever heard of."
White House deputy press secretary Hogan Gidley said Charles Kupperman, the deputy national security adviser, will replace Bolton on an acting basis.
From the start of his tenure, Bolton frustrated many of his peers by largely dispensing with the traditional national-security decision-making process — holding fewer formal high-level meetings to hash out issues and keeping many topics within a tight circle of aides. Officials at the State Department and the Pentagon often felt blindsided or left out of what process there was. Bolton also has clashed with staffers for Trump's acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney.
A former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Bolton came in to the White House espousing hawkish foreign policy views that were often at odds with Trump on issues like Iran and North Korea.
Trump has acknowledged the differences between him and Bolton in the past, but he’s suggested he’s found it useful to have a “bad cop” like Bolton in his corner, especially when facing nemeses like the Islamist regime in Tehran, which Bolton advocated overthrowing before joining the White House.
“John Bolton was Trump’s way of trolling Iran, curating an element of the unpredictable. But he had no power. John Bolton was more of a mascot,” a second Trump confidant told POLITICO.
Still, Bolton's dissent apparently grated on Trump’s nerves. The president has been keen on trying to strike a peace deal with the Taliban that would allow U.S. troops to partially or fully leave Afghanistan, for instance, but Bolton has not.
When NBC News reported that Bolton as well as Vice President Mike Pence were opposed to the idea of such a summit, others in the administration came to believe that it was Bolton or one of his aides who leaked that story, two people familiar with the topic said. Trump on Monday dismissed the story as untrue.
"A lot of Fake News is being reported that I overruled the VP and various advisers on a potential Camp David meeting with the Taliban. This Story is False!" he wrote on Twitter, adding that the "Dishonest Media likes to create ... the look of turmoil in the White House, of which there is none."
Bolton in the past has made it clear he’s been displeased with Trump’s efforts to strike a nuclear deal with North Korea, which have included three meetings with the country's dictator, Kim Jong Un. Bolton also voiced unhappiness with Trump’s desire to meet with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani during the upcoming United Nations General Assembly meeting.
While it’s not clear if Rouhani will agree to the session, his aides, including Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, have frequently derided Bolton as a member of Trump's “B-team,” a group of advisers determined to take Trump into a war he doesn’t want. Earlier this year, Trump nearly launched a military strike against Iran after Tehran took credit for downing an American drone.
One person sure to benefit from Bolton's ouster is Pompeo. The country's top diplomat is already one of Trump's most trusted advisers, and, unlike Bolton, he has generally avoided publicly airing any differences he may have with Trump. There's even speculation that Pompeo could serve as both national security adviser and secretary of State, just as Henry Kissinger once did.
One of the people familiar with the circumstances said past stories about tensions between Bolton and Pompeo were "overblown" — alleging they were planted by Bolton. But the person said the national security decision-making process will be smoother moving forward.
“The secretary and the president will be able to build a national security team that will present the president with the best available information, a range of options, and then implement the presidential decisions without attempting to undermine them,” the person said.
Already there is speculation about who will replace Bolton on a permanent basis. Names being floated include Stephen Biegun, the current U.S. envoy for North Korean issues; Brian Hook, the U.S. envoy for Iran issues; Ric Grenell, the U.S. ambassador to Germany; and Douglas Macgregor, a retired Army colonel who often appears on Fox News.
Reactions on Capitol Hill to Bolton's exit came swiftly from Republican lawmakers, with Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) heralding him as "a brilliant man" whose resignation constituted "an extraordinary loss" for the United States.
"I’m very, very unhappy to hear that he’s leaving," Romney said, praising Bolton's "contrarian" sensibilities as "an asset, not a liability."
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) a top ally to Trump and occasional counselor on foreign policy, complimented Bolton as someone who "sees the world for what it is," but stressed the importance of the "personal relationship" between the president and the national security adviser.
"I appreciate what John Bolton had done for the country for a long period of time, and now the president can pick a national security adviser he has more confidence in," Graham said.
Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, a libertarian-leaning Republican who has tried to broker talks between Trump and Iranian officials, was more blunt, saying Bolton's removal was a "necessary action."
Bolton served as the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. for 16 months under former President George W. Bush’s administration.
He took over as Trump’s top national security aide in April 2018 — despite widespread opposition from Democrats and concern among several high-profile members of the diplomatic community over his perceived proclivity for military intervention and role in the origins of the Iraq War.
Bolton’s hawkishness extended to cyberspace, where he encouraged the increased use offensive digital operations. In June, Bolton said the U.S. would expand these kinds of cyberattacks to deter election interference and corporate data breaches.
During his time at the White House, Bolton pushed out homeland security adviser Tom Bossert and eliminated a cybersecurity coordinator position, earning him considerable criticism from Capitol Hill.
Bolton is the third national security adviser of Trump’s presidency. He assumed leadership of the administration’s National Security Council following the March 2018 ouster of H. R. McMaster, the Army lieutenant general who frequently clashed with the president on matters of foreign policy and was branded by detractors as not sufficiently conservative.
Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, became ensnared in former special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, and pleaded guilty in December 2017 to one felony count of lying to the FBI about conversations he had with Russia’s ambassador.
Arren Kimbel-Sannit, Marc Caputo, Nancy Cook, Eliana Johnson, Anita Kumar, Daniel Lippman, Eric Geller and Caitlin Oprysko contributed to this report.