U.S. Undersecretary of State John Bolton delivers a speech at the American Center in Tokyo Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2004. Bolton named North Korea, Iran and Syria among the worst proliferators of weapons of mass destruction, as he called for shipments to the countries and terrorist groups to be monitored more closely. (AP Photo/Itsuo Inouye)


Yesterday, the long awaited decision was made to replace Army Lieutenant General H. R. McMaster as National Security Adviser.

I’d predicted a few weeks ago that McMaster would go sometime between April and August. The April date places his tenure at the NSC in the same range as that of the last military officer to serve in the position, Lieutenant General Colin Powell. Where I got it wrong was that McMaster announced his intention to retire. I expected him to get a fourth-star.

This is how the Washington Post describes it:

McMaster is credited with improving morale and bringing order to the National Security Council following the forced departure of his predecessor, Michael Flynn, early last year. But at the NSC, McMaster often struggled to steer the foreign policy debate. He lacked the backing of Trump and had a tense relationship with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. Efforts to push Mattis to produce military options that Trump had requested for Iran and North Korea often went unanswered from the Pentagon.

One big question going forward is how Bolton will work with Mattis, who has often tried to restrain Trump’s more impulsive and unconventional instincts on foreign policy matters.

White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly and Mattis both pushed Trump to remove McMaster, with Kelly leading the effort. But Kelly and Mattis are said to be skeptical of Bolton, according to a senior White House official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

If Mattis was opposed to McMaster, then it was going to take Trump’s full-throated support to have him nominated for his fourth star. That support obviously was not forthcoming and so McMaster will retire. It’s a shame. McMaster was an immense talent.

As an aside, I can’t help but believe the leak of the “do not congratulate” story was probably the final straw. McMaster had a reputation of dipping into the bureaucracy for staff for the NSC rather than looking to conservative think tanks. As a result, the NSC acquired an air of not being terribly loyal to Trump–rightly or wrongly, YMMV–and McMaster owned the leak from earlier in the week because it was obviously someone on his staff who leaked it. Such an action shows not only disrespect for President Trump but an equal amount of disrespect for and disloyalty towards McMaster who was owed much better.

What does it mean?

I think Axios’s Jonathan Swan has one of the best takes:

What we’re hearing:

  • Bolton was not White House chief of staff John Kelly’s candidate for the job. Kelly had nothing to do with his appointment, according to a source close to Bolton. Nor was he Defense Secretary James Mattis’ choice.
  • A source close to Bolton: “He only owes his job to one man and one man only … And that man is Donald J. Trump.”
  • It’s not just that Bolton is more hawkish on Iran and North Korea — though of course he is. It’s that Bolton knows his way around the bureaucracy and won’t take anybody’s crap. He won’t show deference to Mattis or the generals, say sources who know him well.
  • Allies of McMaster have long complained that John Kelly, Mattis and outgoing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson considered him a junior partner and treated him like garbage.
  • A source close to McMaster told me: “One of the downsides of what happened is I only wish Tillerson was around to experience this. The two of them that wanted him out most —Mattis and Tillerson — I only wish they were both around to endure the pain of National Security Adviser Bolton. They hated him [McMaster] but they’re going to like this a lot less.”
  • Until now, Mattis and Tillerson have been trying to restrain what they consider some of the president’s more dangerous instincts, and have been on the opposite side of major issues, including moving the U.S embassy to Jerusalem and trying to persuade Trump not to tear up the Iran nuclear deal.
  • Sources who know Bolton expect he will stare down Mattis, tell him when he’s wrong, and will be a Henry Kissinger-type presence in the room. Now that Tillerson is gone, he could fundamentally tip the balance of power on Trump’s national security team, senior officials expect.

While the NY Times isn’t happy with Bolton, their critique has a lot of solid points. Whether those points are features or bugs will depend upon your worldview.

Coupled with his nomination of the hard-line C.I.A. director, Mike Pompeo, as secretary of state, Mr. Trump is indulging his worst nationalistic instincts. Mr. Bolton, in particular, believes the United States can do what it wants without regard to international law, treaties or the political commitments of previous administrations.

The national security adviser is the person who makes sure the president hears the views of all the national security agencies, including the State Department and Defense Department, and drives policy toward a decision. It is hard to see Mr. Bolton playing the honest broker. Mr. Bolton is known to play a ruthless inside game as he maneuvered to win bureaucratic battles and freeze out people he thinks crossed him. He has been such a lightning rod that he couldn’t get confirmed as United Nations ambassador in 2005 so President George W. Bush gave him a recess appointment, and he stayed in the job about a year. It was considered unlikely that the Senate could have confirmed him as secretary of state, but the national security adviser job doesn’t require confirmation.

Bringing on the fiery Mr. Bolton now, at a delicate moment with North Korea, is a terrible decision. While Mr. Trump has often threatened North Korea with military action, he accepted Mr. Kim’s invitation to a summit, brokered by South Korea’s president, who is eager for a diplomatic solution to the nuclear crisis.

Mr. Bolton’s position on Russia, that NATO must have a strong response to the Kremlin-linked poisoning of a former Russian spy in Britain, is somewhat better than Mr. Trump’s. But his rejection of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and endorsement of a book by the anti-Muslim activist Pam Geller are unacceptable positions for a top American official.

Mr. Bolton is certain to accelerate American alienation from its allies and the rest of the world. Congress may not be able to stop his appointment, but it should speak out against it and reassert its responsibilities under the Constitution to authorize when the nation goes to war.

As an American nationalist who believes we should only enter into treaties and agreements when they are to our advantage and who is 100% opposed to the United States relinquishing any of its freedom of action for the sake of joining international organizations, I think the combination of Bolton and Pompeo is going to end up being the worst nightmare of Iran, Russia, Syria, and the Palestinian Authority.

Bolton is more than an ideologue, thought I think we have too damned few of them in senior positions, he understands the interagency process and he’s more than willing to fight to win. With Bolton at NSC I’m more comfortable with the North Korea meeting than I was with McMaster because I know Bolton will prep Trump for the probability that he will need to walk away. Bolton will kill the Iran nuclear deal. Dead. Iran is going to find an implacable foe to its imperialism.

The environment at the NSC is going to change. Bolton is a well know screamer who isn’t going to shy away from letting people know he’s not happy. So get ready for some early turmoil there as a lot of McMaster hires are forced out.