the national interest

Trump Hired Bolton to Make Foreign Policy Exciting Again

Incoming national security adviser John Bolton. Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

The news of John Bolton’s appointment as national security adviser frightened the foreign policy community, which has long shunned him as a true believer in his own belligerent credo. But the real danger it reveals is in Trump himself. The foreign policy apparatus really has been engaged in an unprecedented campaign of leaking, the only possible motivation for which is its white-knuckled terror of a president who clearly lacks the mental capacity to handle the awesome power he has gained.

Every account of Trump’s decision to replace H.R. McMaster with John Bolton reinforces this narrative. Trump’s main problem with McMaster was that his briefings were not dumbed-down to a low enough level. McMaster “is an intensely focused intellectual whose detailed briefings, by all accounts, drove the president crazy,” reports Politico. “Trump took to mocking him openly in the Oval Office, asking other White House aides why McMaster was so serious.”

The Post has previously reported that Trump had registered a somewhat similar complaint with his now-fired secretary of State, Rex Tillerson. (“The president has long clashed with Tillerson, who he believes is too ‘establishment’ in his thinking.”) One might think “establishment” would be a positive association for a job like secretary of State. It makes sense to want somebody who’s lax and easygoing to handle jobs like, say, arranging hotel-room dates with porn stars you meet on the golf course, but “establishment” would convey the proper set of attributes for a job involving complex international diplomacy.

But Trump seems to find normal foreign policy boring, and craves the kind of narrative drama found in the manufactured cartoon moralism found on Fox News, where evil abounds, and the only question is whether it will be faced down by tough guys or by sniveling wimps.

Bolton was constantly appearing on Trump’s television screen delivering thrilling vows to take on evildoers. Meanwhile, McMaster was in his office every day giving boring lectures. “When the president would receive his morning schedule and see that he was expected to spend 30 minutes or longer with McMaster outside of his intelligence briefing, Trump would complain and ask aides to cut it back,” two sources tell the Washington Post. “At times, Trump would tell McMaster that he understood an issue largely to make him stop talking, these people said. ‘I get it, General, I get it,’ Trump would say, according to two people who were present at the time.” The Post also notes that Trump would tell his staff some days he “did not want to see McMaster at all,” like a child asking to skip school.

The New York Times account is similar: “McMaster’s didactic style and preference for order made him an uncomfortable fit with a president whose style is looser, and who has little patience for the detail and nuance of complex national security issues.” The Times also notes, as does the Post, that Trump’s hesitation to bring on Bolton was “in part because of his negative reaction to Mr. Bolton’s walrus-style mustache.” The Post had also stated in December 2016 that Bolton’s mustache played a decisive role in his failing to get a post at the outset of the administration. “Donald was not going to like that mustache,” a source reported. “I can’t think of anyone that’s really close to Donald that has a beard that he likes.”

Boredom with McMaster, and a craving for the excitement of Bolton’s slashing rhetoric, ultimately prevailed over Trump’s disdain for mustaches. One report had claimed Bolton had promised Trump he would not start any wars. But a source close to Bolton insists to Jonathan Swan he made no such commitment. And why would he? Bringing in Bolton to not start a war would be totally perverse.

The level of deliberation likely to occur between Bolton and Trump will be perilously thin. Another source tells Axios that Trump’s decision to pull the trigger on McMaster came with surprising speed, after having lingered for months: “He’s impulsive. He makes snap decisions but they’re weird snap decisions … He publicly ruminates for six months and then says: ‘I have to do this right now.’” And now imagine that decision-making process applied to a major military conflict.

Trump Hired Bolton to Make Foreign Policy Exciting Again