Trump and Bolton: The President Is Taking Control

(Bloomberg View) -- Donald Trump is becoming the president he always envisioned himself being -- and that many of the foreign-policy hands who opposed his candidacy always feared.

Some critics view the removal of General H.R. McMaster as national security adviser, and his replacement by the longtime Republican hawk John Bolton, as proof that the president is looking for more "Trumpist" figures who will reinforce his inclination to deconstruct American global engagement. Actually, Bolton is not a full-throated supporter of Trump’s America First agenda: He advocates American alliances and global involvement, and has offered very skeptical views of cooperation with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Rather, the personnel shift signals that Trump is taking command of his presidency, shedding the constraints at which he has increasingly chafed, and leaving the few remaining “adults in the room” increasingly isolated.

Let’s take these points in order. First, the past few weeks have shown that Trump is growing more comfortable with the presidency -- and that he is getting tired of taking no for an answer. When he was first elected, he acknowledged that he was initially taken aback by the scope and challenges of the presidency, and by the complexity of issues from North Korea to health care.

As a result, he was in many cases willing to defer to some of his more moderate or experienced advisers when they urged caution, particularly on foreign policy. Trump refrained from simply withdrawing from the North American Free Trade Act after a coterie of advisers and foreign leaders urged him not to. He bent to the advice of the Pentagon and McMaster in modestly escalating the war in Afghanistan, despite his great skepticism of the U.S. mission there. He did not rip up the Iran nuclear deal, as he had so many times promised to do.

There were a few issues where the president overruled nearly all of his key aides -- deciding to move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, for instance -- but those were the exception rather than the norm.

One now gets the sense that Trump is done with this approach. He has -- at least by his own erratic standards -- settled into the job; he has grown tired of deferring to the people who work for him. He is thus moving more decisively to put his own stamp on policy and process alike.

In recent weeks, he has put in place policies such as aluminum and steel tariffs despite internal counsels of restraint (and despite opposition from Republicans on Capitol Hill). He has also removed advisers that he clashed with, disliked, or who were urged upon him by the Republican establishment, and is appointing aides more in sync with his views on key global issues.

This leads to the second point: In doing this, Trump is busting through -- or at least weakening -- the constraints that previously inhibited his foreign policy. Of all the factors that made Trump’s actual policies, as opposed to his rhetoric, somewhat more moderate than one would have expected during his first year in office, the most important was that the president was simply outnumbered by advisers who fundamentally disagreed with him on a broad range of issues. From Nafta to the Iran nuclear deal to North Korea, those advisers generally played a moderating role -- walking the president back from potentially drastic departures, pushing him toward compromise, and softening his America First agenda.

This surely frustrated the president: Media reports indicate that Trump was often unhappy with the fact that so many of his advisers seemed intent on restraining his foreign policy instincts. And so Trump is now creating an internal climate more in line with his views.

Replacing Rex Tillerson with Mike Pompeo at the State Department was a start. Trump thereby traded an adviser who had repeatedly urged caution -- and who had particularly angered Trump by arguing that the U.S. should remain in the Iran nuclear deal -- for one who is more of an Iran hawk and is generally closer to the president’s positions. Replacing McMaster with Bolton is even more important.

Bolton isn't the unthinking warmonger critics sometimes imagine. But he is a harsh critic of international institutions such as the United Nations (despite once serving as America’s representative to that body), he has generally hawkish views on North Korea, and he has repeatedly called for the U.S. to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal. And now he occupies perhaps the most important advisory position in the national security establishment.

The national security adviser is not simply an adviser. He is the bureaucratic gatekeeper and the official charged with shaping the options that are presented to the president for decision. One would expect Bolton -- who also has a reputation for a take-no-prisoners approach to internal debate -- to use those aspects of his new position to empower rather than constrain some of Trump’s more strident instincts. This will affect U.S. policy on an array of issues; it almost certainly bodes ill for the Iran nuclear deal as we approach Trump’s May deadline for “fixing” or withdrawing from that agreement.

Finally, all this means that Trump’s remaining moderate advisers are fighting an increasingly lonely battle. Through the first 14 months of Trump’s presidency, critics of the president (as well as some of his supporters) have seen Secretary of Defense James Mattis as the critical bulwark against many of the bad ideas they feared Trump would pursue. Although Mattis has, by most accounts, performed this role admirably, he had help in doing so. Tillerson was a bureaucratic ally --albeit a fairly weak one. And while Mattis and McMaster reportedly clashed -- including over McMaster’s effort to generate military options for North Korea -- the former national security adviser was generally considered a fairly sober voice on most national security issues. Indeed, it was reportedly McMaster’s reluctance to provide Trump with an avenue for withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal -- a stance he shared with Mattis, Tillerson and other key aides -- last July that began souring his relationship with the president.

In recent weeks, however, Mattis’s job has become significantly harder. Both Tillerson and McMaster have been replaced; other establishment figures, such as economic adviser Gary Cohn, have also left the administration. Trump is still unlikely to fire his secretary of defense, even if he wanted to, because he presumably understands that doing so would provoke a bipartisan panic on Capitol Hill and precipitate an open break with Republicans whose support he desperately needs right now.

But on an array of issues, Mattis is likely to find himself a more isolated figure, cutting against the dominant trend of opinion among Trump’s key advisers. Being Trump’s defense secretary is probably an exhausting job under any circumstances; one wonders how long Mattis will want to keep it up now that the position has become that much harder.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Hal Brands is the Henry A. Kissinger Distinguished Professor at the Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies and a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. His latest book is "American Grand Strategy in the Age of Trump."

To contact the author of this story: Hal Brands at Hal.Brands@jhu.edu.

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