Trump Takes Hawkish Turn Picking Bolton as Top Security Aide

(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump is taking a sharply hawkish foreign-policy turn with the appointment of John Bolton as national security adviser, ditching moderates and installing an inner circle that championed some of the policies he derided on the campaign trail.

The announcement that the mustachioed Bolton will replace H.R. McMaster next month came a week after Trump fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and named CIA Director Mike Pompeo to replace him. Bolton and Pompeo have advocated regime change in Iran and North Korea, while Tillerson has said he would keep up the diplomacy until the first bombs fell, no matter the crisis.

Trump Takes Hawkish Turn Picking Bolton as Top Security Aide

The appointment marks a jarring shift for Trump, who promised on the campaign trail to “shake the rust off” American foreign policy and focus on his “America First” message: get out of costly overseas wars and spend money at home instead of abroad.

Most of Trump’s confrontations overseas have centered on trade, or a sense of injustice over America’s share of the burden ensuring global security and prosperity. But that could change under Bolton and Pompeo.

“With Bolton’s appointment, you’ve got the most conservative ideological and hawkish foreign policy advisers in recent memory at time when toughness is required but so is pragmatism and flexibility,” said Aaron David Miller, a former adviser at the State Department. “He knows the government well, but smoothing over differences was never John Bolton’s forte.”

Pivotal Moment

The shifting views of the Trump Cabinet comes at a crucial time, weeks ahead of foreign policy decisions that could reshape the U.S. role in the world for decades.

On May 12, Trump must decide whether to recommit to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. By the end of May, he has pledged to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. And the U.S. will formally move its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv the same month.

"God bless H.R., but John Bolton is the right guy at the right time with a world view that I think will reinforce the president’s instincts to go after our enemies and reinforce our allies," Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina who sits on the Armed Services Committee, said on Fox News. "The era of leading from behind is over."

The staffing change comes as the president faces tough decisions on whether to punish Russia. His security advisers discussed on Wednesday a list of options to present Trump, including fresh sanctions, closing consulates and expelling people from the U.S., according to two people familiar with the matter. Trump has been asking aides what allies -- including France and Germany -- are doing in response to the poisoning of a former Russian spy in the UK.

Bolton, 69, a proponent of the 2003 Iraq war, has remained unrepentant in his view that ousting Saddam Hussein was the right move, saying only that the U.S. bungled the aftermath of the campaign.

Trump, by contrast, repeatedly condemned the decision to invade Iraq during his campaign. Earlier this month, he told a group of donors in Florida that the invasion was “the single worst decision ever made” and that it amounted to "throwing a big fat brick into a hornet’s nest," according to a recording obtained by CNN.

Like Pompeo, Bolton has argued that the Iran nuclear deal should be torn up and says a Trump-Kim meeting will be mainly useful as a way to expose Kim Jong Un’s desire to keep his nuclear weapons.

‘Human Scum’

North Korea has already made clear what it thinks about Trump’s new national security adviser, once calling him “human scum” and a “bloodsucker.” That was after Bolton called for the overthrow of Kim’s father, Kim Jong Il.

In the years since Bolton stint from 2005 to 2006 as ambassador to the United Nations, he has served as a Fox News contributor and senior fellow at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute and worked in the Washington office of the law firm Kirkland & Ellis LLP. He has also been a frequent behind-the-scenes visitor to Trump in the Oval Office and had campaigned openly to replace McMaster in recent weeks.

Bolton downplayed the significance of his past public statements in an interview with Fox News shortly after the appointment was announced, saying he would defer to the president’s judgment.

“I’ve never been shy about what my views are,” Bolton said. But, he added, that “now is behind me, at least effective April 9, and the important thing is what the president says and what advice I give him.”

In a statement posted on Twitter late Thursday night, Bolton said, "I look forward to working with President Trump and his leadership team in addressing these complex challenges in an effort to make our country safer at home and stronger abroad."

The move installs Trump’s third national security adviser in 14 months. McMaster joined the administration a year ago after Trump fired his predecessor, Michael Flynn, for lying to Vice President Mike Pence about contacts with Russia. An Army lieutenant general, McMaster has traveled with Trump to several countries and helped craft the president’s national security approach to North Korea, Afghanistan, Iran and other global hot spots. Hours after his departure was announced, he received a standing ovation at a Washington dinner hosted by Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman of Saudi Arabia.

Trump had initially considered Bolton for secretary of state, and later offered him the job of Tillerson’s deputy -- a position he turned down. Bolton had also been considered for the national security adviser job after the ouster of Flynn, and though Trump chose McMaster, the president went out of his way to praise Bolton, saying he “had a good number of ideas that I must tell you I agree very much with.”

No Confirmation Fight

The appointment also allows him to pull Bolton into his inner circle without risking a confirmation battle in the Senate, where Bolton would face near universal opposition from Democrats and wariness from many Republicans. Bolton couldn’t win confirmation to the post as U.N. ambassador under Bush, so he only received a temporary recess appointment to the job.

“John Bolton has demonstrated throughout his career he is an extremist and reckless partisan with little regard for U.S. values or allies,” said Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee. “I am concerned about what advice he has given the president thus far and how he will use his official position to skew America’s national security in the future.”

The change was welcomed by Republicans. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida applauded Bolton as “an excellent choice who will do a great job.”

Associates close to Bolton argue that while he believes in the credible threat of force, he values diplomacy above all. Critics frequently describe him as a bull in a china shop, and his appointment as ambassador to the UN in 2005 was seen as a Bush administration gesture of disrespect to the institution.

With the picks, Trump is also making a bet that he won’t alienate the millions of conservatives weary of the now 16-year war in Afghanistan and the high cost of the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

“He is an operator who has worked the Washington scene for decades, and played a long game to win over Trump,” said Richard Gowan, a UN expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “If I were sitting in North Korea or Iran, I would buckle up for a wild ride. Even if Bolton is actually more pragmatic than he pretends to be, opponents of the U.S. are going to view American diplomacy with extra suspicion from now on.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.