The announcement that President Trump would appoint John Bolton to be his new national security adviser, replacing outgoing General H.R. McMaster, was so disturbing and globally disruptive it prompted someone to tell CNN that, in the course of interviewing for the job, Bolton promised Trump “he wouldn’t start any wars.”
The leak was almost certainly intended to stop a panic rather than to convey the precise truth—it was quickly contradicted by a counterleak—but both leaks reveal the existent of dangerously simplistic thinking about how dangerous it is to give a man like John Bolton this job.
Bolton can’t start wars in any literal sense, so he also can’t credibly promise not to start any (or to prevent any). But the president’s national security adviser is one of the few people in government who has the power to maneuver the United States into a situation in which war becomes inevitable almost singlehandedly. Especially when the president is as weak-minded as Trump. Bolton’s accession is such a terrible idea for obvious reasons—he has supported starting a war with North Korea and thinks (or once thought) Israel should nuke Iran. But as a gut-check moment it raises several questions, many of which we should expect to see answered in the days and weeks ahead.
1. Why did Trump pick Bolton?
This development didn’t arise in a vacuum. In the past several days, Trump has replaced his chief economic adviser, Gary Cohn, with notorious cable news crank Larry Kudlow; his bumbling secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, with conspiratorial and partisan blowhard Mike Pompeo; and his lead criminal defense attorney with (notionally?) Fox News regular Joseph DiGenova. Is there any method in this madness? Trump’s affinity for telephilic sycophants is well known, but (with the brief exception of his first national security adviser, Mike Flynn) he’s been president for over a year without having any saber-rattling yes-men at the highest ranks of his national-security team. We’ve heard that Trump tired of the guardrails around him and decided he was ready to shake things up. Is it just that Trump is sick of being surrounded by advisers who don’t also serve as bombastic surrogates and propagandists on television? Was he simply unable to find better-qualified people for these jobs?
2. Why did Trump pick Bolton now?
The recent shakeup is notable for the type of people Trump is bringing in to the administration. But that doesn’t speak to what prompted the shakeup in the first place. Is the timing really arbitrary? Is it poll driven? Is Trump driven by a psychic need to assert power where he can as the Russia investigation closes in on him? Did Fox News put him in a trance? The explanation coming from Trump’s allies don’t pass the smell test.
3. What will Republicans do?
Haha! The answer is almost certainly nothing! But it’s worth noting that the Republican theory of the Trump presidency was that his impulses could be contained, making him a vessel for bog standard conservative policy. This theory has not panned out particularly well, but it has not led us into catastrophe yet. Bolton is the face of the disaster many Republicans thought they could prevent Trump from dragging the country into. Presidents have tremendous discretion over foreign policy, and the national security adviser does not need Senate confirmation. But that doesn’t mean Republicans are helpless. The retiring Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman, Bob Corker, expressed his concern long before Trump picked Bolton, that Trump was courting global catastrophe. He could make very public issue of Bolton’s unfitness for this job: his manipulation of intelligence, his affinity for bureaucratic purges, his politicization of national security, his corruption, and his generally disgusting behavior. Will there be even a single hearing? It looks a lot like the party that refused to confirm Bolton to George W. Bush’s cabinet has come around to the view that Bolton deserves even more power than he was offered in the last decade.
John Bolton is a great addition to the White House. Some of the hyperventilating I am seeing online & on cable news is ridiculous. The one’s who should be freaking out are #Iran Maduro #NorthKorea & terrorists. Bad news for them. https://t.co/qXmPPPIZgD
— Marco Rubio (@marcorubio) March 23, 2018
4. Where is the Committee to Save America?
Haha again! We have not tiptoed around our sense that the Trump advisers who privately portrayed themselves as patriotic Adults in the Room™ were deluded or engaged in self-serving deceptions. The tell, as Crooked Media’s Jon Lovett has written is that as they have left the administration, these putative guardians of the republic haven’t stepped forward to warn the country about all the calamities they had to stop while they were in service. Now they’re almost all gone. In a perverse way this is a make or break moment for the narrative they fostered. Trump’s first year in office was a shambles, but by their lights it could have been worse. Having been replaced by a cadre of reckless Fox News contributors, they will either be vindicated in the worst possible way, or exposed in the final analysis as opportunists who cozied up to a racist authoritarian for the spoils.
The fact that Bolton is kicking around our national political arena to be hired is a massive, cross-ideological failure. An outgrowth of unprincipled right-wing nihilism (which allowed him to remain a conservative celebrity when the highest calling in GOP politics was to attack and undermine Obama) and of the liberal establishment’s decision not to seek accountability for the crimes (political and legal) of the Bush administration. Our best hope is that Bolton will serve for a time without giving the American ruling class a chance to make the same mistakes all over again.