John Bolton’s take-no-prisoners style may prove problematic in the White House

Former United Nations Ambassador John Bolton arrives at Trump Tower for an interview in December 2016 with then-President-elect Donald Trump.
(Justin Lane / EPA/Shutterstock )

John Bolton, President Trump’s new national security advisor, has a take-no-prisoners approach that may prove problematic as he tries to manage a White House riven by leaks and defections.

Known for his brash style and bushy mustache, Bolton has been an informal advisor to Trump, a frequent commentator on Fox News and a longtime hawk on Iran, North Korea and other U.S. adversaries.

He is best known for his 16 months’ service as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations — an organization he frequently said shouldn’t exist — from mid-2005 until the end of 2006. President George W. Bush named him as a recess appointment because the White House knew Bolton was too toxic to win Senate confirmation.


Some State Department officials accused him of being so abrasive at the U.N. that he undermined U.S. policies.

Earlier, serving as Bush’s arms-control point man at the State Department, he famously engaged in ideological and personal clashes with subordinates, colleagues and superiors. Even one of his defenders at the time described him as a “knuckle-dragger in a cave.”

It was during that period that Bolton decided to add Cuba to the administration’s list of “axis of evil” nations, a term coined in 2002 by Bush to describe the terrorism-sponsoring states of Iran, North Korea and Iraq. To justify adding Cuba, Bolton claimed the communist-ruled island was producing biological weapons, although there was no evidence for that, recalled Price Floyd, then a State Department media affairs official.

Floyd had to call in then-deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage to stop Bolton. Bolton was furious and took to calling Floyd “Pink Floyd,” for his supposed softness toward communism.

“My concern is, not that he has extremist or neo-con views … but that he would make up facts and things that further his vision for a more muscular national security,” said Floyd, an 18-year veteran of the department who is now a private consultant.

More recently, Bolton, 69, has advocated hard-line — some would say extreme — positions on foreign policy challenges that have roiled the Trump administration.


He has vigorously opposed the Iran nuclear deal, and no doubt will back Trump’s threats to withdraw from the landmark accord. Before it was signed in 2015, he suggested bombing Iran to quash its nuclear ambitions.

He also has called for a military attack on nuclear-armed North Korea. Six months ago, as Trump and North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un traded insults and threats, Bolton said the solution was to topple the Pyongyang government and have South Korea take over the North.

In 2003, when Bolton was Bush’s undersecretary for arms control, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il — father of the current dictator — sought to ban him from U.S.-proposed multilateral talks on North Korea’s suspected nuclear weapons program after Bolton criticized Kim publicly while visiting South Korea.

“Such human scum and bloodsucker is not entitled to take part in the talks,” said a North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman.

Bolton now will backstop Trump’s agreement to conduct a summit with Kim Jong Un, tentatively planned for May, a high-wire diplomatic act that will test both leaders.

Unlike Trump, Bolton is a staunch critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s military incursion in Ukraine, although it’s not clear whether he agrees with Trump’s skepticism of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.

Bolton’s defenders include the most conservative members of the Republican establishment. Some welcomed him as national security advisor after H.R. McMaster, whom they saw as more moderate and more inclined to try to block some of Trump’s suggestions.

“Obviously, I think Bolton’s world view is more muscular” than McMaster’s, said Lanhee Chen, a fellow at the conservative Hoover Institution who was Mitt Romney’s chief policy advisor in 2012. “But there clearly are similarities and actually more similarities than people might see at first blush.”

Chen said both men favor an engaged America around the world, a contrast to how many conservatives initially viewed Trump’s “America First” policy as isolationist.

“Some will try to portray him as being out of the mainstream, particularly detractors of the administration, but I don’t actually think that’s where Bolton is,” he said.

Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, said via Twitter, “A national security advisor must be an honest broker, ensuring the [president] considers all points of view. Second, he is a counselor with his own views. … The obvious question is whether John Bolton has the temperament and the judgment for the job.”

But many veterans in the foreign policy, global democracy and human rights communities were appalled.

Bolton “generally disparages international law,” Amnesty International said in a statement.

The “McMaster ouster means no more adults in the room — except [Defense Secretary James] Mattis, who now has no allies,” said Charles Stevenson, a former State Department official who teaches foreign policy at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

McMaster, Mattis and outgoing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, whom Trump fired earlier this month, were seen as forces who could sometimes rein in the impetuous president.

“McMaster was no dove. But Bolton falls into an entirely different category of dangerous uber-hawk,” Colin Kahl and Jon Wolfsthal, national security officials in the Obama administration, wrote Friday in Foreign Policy.

“Bolton’s views on Iraq, North Korea, Iran, and other issues reveal a general pattern of thought: a tendency toward worst-case thinking; a pattern of warping and misusing intelligence to build the case for war with rogue states; a disdain for allies and multilateral institutions; a blind faith in U.S. military power and the benefits of regime change; and a tendency to see the ends as justifying the means, however horrific.”

If another of Bolton’s tasks is to impose discipline on a fractious staff, his track record is not favorable there, either. In his various government jobs, Bolton was known as hot-tempered and volatile and quick to belittle employees. One former employee recalled him throwing a stapler at a subordinate.

Even among his detractors, however, Bolton is seen as effective — in contrast to McMaster, a seasoned mover-and-shaker in Washington who knows how to exercise power and get things done. For good or for bad.

After the 2016 election, Trump initially considered nominating Bolton as secretary of State but reportedly decided the mustachioed Bolton didn’t “look” the part. Trump instead picked Rex Tillerson, the dapper CEO of ExxonMobil, although he fired Tillerson last week.

A Baltimore native and son of a city firefighter, Bolton was a student organizer for Republican conservative Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign in 1964, a race that ended in overwhelming defeat. Bolton later worked for Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), an archconservative who opposed civil rights laws, and in the administrations of Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

The Yale-trained lawyer earned points in the GOP by helping fight the recount battle in Florida after the razor-thin presidential election in 2000. The Supreme Court ultimately gave the state, and thus the election, to George W. Bush over Democratic nominee Al Gore.

He has been a consistent flame-thrower, critics and supporters agree. When he left a position at the U.S. Agency for International Development in the late 1980s, colleagues presented him with a special gift: a bronzed hand grenade.

For more on international affairs, follow @TracyKWilkinson on Twitter


11:45 a.m.: This article was updated with reaction from Floyd and Kahl.

This article was originally published at 3 a.m.