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Five takeaways on Trump's ouster of John Bolton

The Hill logo The Hill 6 days ago Brett Samuels and Olivia Beavers
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President Trump announced Tuesday that John Bolton was leaving his post as national security adviser, citing disagreements between the two over how the administration should tackle key foreign policy challenges.

After the president trumpeted Bolton's departure on Twitter, shockwaves coursed through the Beltway.

Here are five takeaways from Bolton's exit.

Trump chaos takes another turn

With Bolton's ouster, Trump is now searching for his fourth national security adviser in less than three years, reviving concerns about instability among the president's top advisers as he faces a series of pressing national security matters.

Bolton's exit was all the more remarkable coming days after the bombshell news that Trump had canceled a Camp David meeting with the Taliban - the Afghanistan terror group that sheltered Osama bin Laden.

It's clear that Bolton disagreed with Trump's effort to withdraw troops from Afghanistan and to meet with Taliban representatives on U.S. soil. While Vice President Pence made his support of the president clear, Bolton did not.

Trump officials brushed off the idea that the exit of the hawkish Bolton was any big deal or that it would spark disorder.

"Absolutely not. That's the most ridiculous question I've ever heard of," Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said during a Tuesday press briefing.

Yet in recent months, Trump has replaced his Homeland Security secretary, his director of national intelligence and Bolton. His Defense secretary has only been on the job for a matter of weeks.

Democrats said the turnover and turmoil was breeding uncertainly, underscoring how Trump's political opponents hope to use the latest news against him.

Slideshow by Business Insider

Pompeo's strength grows

Bolton's exit further crystallizes Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's influence with the president.

Pompeo and Bolton clashed on a number of issues, something the secretary of State acknowledged during a briefing with reporters on Tuesday.

As one of only a handful of Cabinet officials who have been with the president from the start of the administration, Pompeo has been a loyal surrogate and has reliably relayed the president's message on issues related to Iran, North Korea, Afghanistan and Central America.

Bolton had in some ways complicated efforts in Iran and North Korea. Mohammad Javad Zarif, the Iranian foreign minister, had ridiculed Bolton as a member of Trump's "B team," while North Korean officials blasted him as a "war monger" amid stalled talks over denuclearization.

Asked if he was surprised by Bolton's ouster, given the national security adviser was scheduled to join him at Tuesday afternoon's briefing, Pompeo flashed a smile.

"I'm never surprised," he said. "And I don't mean that on just this issue."

Strange marriage ends

Trump brought Bolton aboard in March 2018 as a more hawkish alternative to then-national security adviser H.R. McMaster.

Bolton had been a reliable defender of the Trump agenda during television appearances and seemed to align with the president's desire to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal.

The two men appeared to agree on certain key issues, particularly Iran. Trump pulled out of the Obama-era nuclear pact six weeks after Bolton's hiring, and his administration has hammered Tehran with sanctions in the time since.

But it seemed an odd match at times. The president had reportedly been reluctant to hire Bolton because of his mustache, and Bolton served under George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, something Trump has at times chafed at when picking out top advisers.

Bolton's influence over Trump waned in recent months, leading to a series of public rebukes from the boss.

Most notably, Trump has in recent months steadily inched away from Bolton's hard-line stance on Iran. The president has said he's willing to talk with Iranian leaders without preconditions and has been reluctant to engage militarily with Iran.

And perhaps the final straw came after Bolton was reportedly among those who opposed Trump's idea to invite the Taliban for talks at Camp David days before the anniversary of 9/11.

"The president wants people to disagree with him and have debate in front of him, but ... he's the one who sets the policies," deputy press secretary Hogan Gidley said on Fox News.

John R. Bolton wearing a suit and tie: Five takeaways on Trump's ouster of John Bolton © UPI Photo Five takeaways on Trump's ouster of John Bolton

GOP left explaining once again

Whenever Trump does anything surprising, Republicans in Congress are asked to react. And Tuesday was no exception.

A few Republicans said they were sorry to see Bolton, a former aide to Presidents Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, depart the administration.

"The fact that he was a contrarian from time to time is an asset, not a liability," said Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "I'm very, very unhappy to hear that he's leaving. It is a huge loss for the administration in my opinion and for the nation."

Others, however, celebrated the departure of a hawkish adviser who they feared would lead the U.S. into more wars.

"I'm just going to take the day to celebrate because I think that the chances for peace are enhanced in a world where the Bolton worldview is reflected less," Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), a House ally of the president, told The Hill.

Most Republicans took the safe route, stating that Trump gets to pick his own advisers.

Bolton may not go quietly

Bolton made waves within minutes of Trump announcing his ouster by pushing back on the president's accounting of events.

Trump tweeted that he "informed John Bolton last night that his services are no longer needed at the White House" and that he accepted Bolton's resignation on Tuesday morning.

"I offered to resign last night and President Trump said, 'Let's talk about it tomorrow,' " Bolton tweeted 10 minutes later.

He went on to text several reporters insisting that it was his decision to resign.

White House officials would not engage with reporters seeking clarity on Bolton's ouster, other than to confirm he resigned on Tuesday morning.

Bolton remains well-positioned to share his side of the story. He previously worked as a contributor on Fox News, has a lengthy resume to bolster his credibility in political circles and, as evidenced by his texts defending his departure, has extensive connections with the Beltway media.

If Trump expands his criticism of Bolton in the coming days or weeks, the former national security adviser could push back with criticisms or explanations of his differences with the president, creating yet another headache for the White House as it seeks to keep attention on its agenda.

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