Of all the frightening things that have happened during this administration, the appointment of John Bolton as President Trump’s third national security adviser was among the most terrifying, at least from the worst-case-scenario perspective. The fact we made it through Bolton’s 17-month-long tenure without killing tens of millions of people counts as a major win.
A key dynamic about the Trump presidency is that, in keeping with the prestige television era in which it is situated, there are no good guys, just different levels of villainy, often leavened by dark comedy. Trump has pronounced instincts on foreign policy that drive him away from shooting wars and into trade wars. On the whole, however, he is sub-ideological. He initially hesitated to hire Bolton on account of his thick mustache. Later, he impulsively decided to hire him, despite the facial hair, “because he was impressed by his many appearances on Fox News.”
Bolton shared some important beliefs with his boss. The two share an instinctive disdain for Western allies and almost fanatical opposition to any policy associated with Barack Obama. But Trump recognized from the outset that Bolton’s hawkish instincts diverged from his own. Before hiring him, Trump reportedly got Bolton to agree “he wouldn’t start any wars.”
Nonetheless, once ensconced in power, Bolton set about trying to start wars in Venezuela, Iran, and North Korea. Trump repeatedly mocked his national security adviser for his warmongering (“If it was up to John, we’d be in four wars now,” one senior official recalled the president saying.)
Bolton was an advocate of consistently bad ideas that were often set in opposition to other bad ideas. Trump has maintained an elaborate pretense that North Korea is giving up its nuclear weapons program, touting his own negotiating genius in securing imaginary concessions while appearing to view the fawning letters he receives from Kim Jong-un as important concessions. This fantasy is less dangerous than Bolton’s barely concealed desire to launch a military strike against North Korea.
The wedge between them drove Bolton into increasingly obvious isolation. On a recent diplomatic visit, Trump and his more favored advisers met with North Korea’s leaders while Bolton was sent literally to Outer Mongolia.
The inevitable humiliating conclusion was finally reached when Trump fired Bolton via tweet, the most inglorious of exits. Like the vast majority of Trump staffers, Bolton came into the administration believing he could manipulate the Mad King, but surrendered his dignity in the process. The serial debasement of some of the most odious members of the Republican governing class is one of the few bright spots of the Trump presidency. Bolton’s tenure ended in the best possible way. Nothing was destroyed except his own stature.