The first time I met John Bolton, on a frigid morning last February, I asked him the obvious question: How could he work for a President with whom he disagreed about almost everything? He was ready with an answer. “The President knows where I stand on all the issues, because he watched me on Fox News,” he told me. “When you enter government, you know that you aren’t going to win everything.”
For seventeen months, Bolton carried on, working, often at cross purposes, for a President whose views on most subjects were diametrically opposed to his own. It’s easy to wonder how he lasted as long as he did. It may be more important to wonder why he bothered at all.
Bolton is not, as he is often accused of being, a neoconservative. He couldn’t care less about spreading democracy around the globe. He is a cold-eyed realist—he believes in preserving and extending American power. He doesn’t have any use for the United Nations, or the European Union, or anyone else who is given to lecturing the United States. Of the U.N.-headquarters building in Manhattan, he once said that if it “lost ten stories it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.”
You may not like Bolton’s world view; many of his enemies in Washington certainly despise it. But at least he has a world view: the U.S. contends for its own interests, amid a complex web of contingent alliances. Trump seems to see the global arena as a kind of supersized real-estate market, where bluster prevails, even the worst people are persuadable, and, if your adversary isn’t giving you what you want, you walk away. It’s a simpleton’s view of the world, but in this case the simpleton has a five-hundred-ship Navy and sixteen hundred nuclear warheads at his disposal. Someone has to contain him.
My sense was that Bolton understood this from the start—much as Jim Mattis, Trump’s former Secretary of Defense, did. For Bolton, his job likely centered less on offering Trump options for solving problems—the task of national-security advisers in ordinary times—than on preventing Trump from seriously damaging America’s interests. And Bolton has always been certain about which policies he thinks are best.
A case in point: Trump favored direct negotiations with Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s erratic chieftain, long after it became clear that Kim had no intention of dismantling his country’s nuclear arsenal or even of restraining its growth. No President before Trump had ever endorsed direct negotiations with North Korea’s leader without preconditions. Bolton told his aides to support the President, but he made it clear that he believed the strategy was a bad idea. No deal emerged.
Another: Trump seems determined to take all remaining American troops out of Afghanistan, and he appointed a special envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, to make a deal with the Taliban. Trump even planned to bring the Taliban—harborers of Osama bin Laden, killers of American soldiers—to the Presidential retreat at Camp David. Bolton opposed all of it. And now the deal appears dead.
And a third: At Bolton’s urging, Trump withdrew from the deal, forged by the Obama Administration, to restrain Iran’s nuclear-weapons program. But the President was clearly confused about what to do next. Bolton and the others around him wanted to crush the Iranian economy, launch air strikes, and provoke a confrontation. Trump felt uncomfortable with Bolton’s aggressive posture and appeared to long for a chance to do a deal; in 2017, before appointing Bolton, he sent eight invitations, including a dinner request, to the Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani. But no deal has happened.
When Bolton disagreed with Trump, there was little personal affinity to ease the negotiations. “I don’t socialize with the President, I don’t play golf with him,’’ he told me. Eventually, the disagreements proved too strident; the two men don’t even agree on whose idea it was that Bolton step down. But, on these three crucial issues, Bolton was able to get the better of Trump. Not all of the outcomes were the direct result of his actions, but his views mostly prevailed.
When you have a President who knows next to nothing about the world, the people he surrounds himself with are more important than ever. Now Trump has no national-security adviser to make it harder for him to enact the policies—or the impulses—that he wants. As Trump prepares to name Bolton’s successor, will he select someone who argues for what’s good for America? Or merely for what’s good for Trump?