President Trump said Tuesday he had fired national security advisor John Bolton, announcing in a tweet that he’d told Bolton on Monday night that “his services are no longer needed” after the two had repeatedly clashed over foreign policy priorities and decisions.
The abrupt ouster of Trump’s third national security advisor comes as the White House grapples with a series of fraught security challenges, including Trump’s cancellation of peace talks with the Taliban in Afghanistan, his costly trade war with China, his “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran, and his attempts, unsuccessful so far, to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear arsenal.
While Trump said he would name a new national security advisor next week, the latest high-level shake-up at the White House raised fresh doubts about Trump’s stewardship of foreign policy — and control of his own staff — as he headed into his reelection campaign.
The White House says Charles Kupperman, who joined the administration in January as deputy national security advisor, will replace Bolton in an acting role. Trump has left “acting” officials atop several federal agencies, so he could leave Kupperman in place or name a replacement as he promised on Tuesday.
Kupperman, 68, has spent four decades in the national security establishment, focusing on defense, arms control and aerospace. He served in President Reagan’s administration and worked for defense contractors Boeing and Lockheed Martin. He has a doctorate in strategic studies from USC.
A White House spokesman, Hogan Gidley, said the president wanted a national security advisor “who can carry out his agenda,” which includes disengaging from foreign conflicts. “It’s very clear that John Bolton’s policies and priorities did not align with President Trump’s,” he said on Fox News.
After Trump canceled his proposed meeting last weekend at Camp David with members of the Taliban and the Afghan government, stories quickly emerged that Bolton had strongly opposed the summit and the proposed peace deal with the Taliban — and to some at the White House, he appeared to take credit for their collapse.
According to a senior administration official, the president came to believe that Bolton “was not fully on the team” as he balked at defending Trump publicly as forcefully as Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo and Vice President Mike Pence have.
Trump, the official said, believed Bolton and his staff leaked stories about internal division, including those related to the president’s scuttled meeting with the Taliban last weekend, which bothered the president more than the disagreement itself. Pence ardently disputed that narrative in a tweet, and Pompeo took to the airwaves Sunday, appearing on all five morning politics shows to defend and explain the president’s decisions.
Bolton, who had canceled several recent television appearances, did not offer the same sort of public defense or praise for the president — a sin in the eyes of Trump that apparently mattered more than any substantive policy disagreement.
As often happens under Trump, there was immediate confusion as to the sequence of events, and under what circumstances, with Trump and Bolton offering conflicting accounts of whether he had resigned or been fired.
Trump tweeted around noon Monday that he had sacked Bolton “last night,” adding, “I disagreed strongly with many of his suggestions, as did others in the Administration.”
“I asked John for his resignation, which was given to me this morning. I thank John very much for his service,” he said.
But Bolton quickly challenged that sequence of events. “I offered to resign last night and President Trump said, ‘Let’s talk about it tomorrow,’” Bolton tweeted about 10 minutes after Trump’s announcement.
As is typical under Trump, the dispute unfolded in dramatic fashion on Twitter and live TV. Bolton, still at the White House, texted Fox News host Brian Kilmeade while he was on the air.
“John Bolton just texted me, just now, he’s watching,” Kilmeade said. “He said, ‘Let’s be clear, I resigned.’”
Less than an hour earlier, the White House had notified reporters that Bolton would appear at a 1:30 p.m. briefing with two Cabinet officials, Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo and Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin. By the time they stepped to the podium, Bolton was no longer in the building.
In a sign of the internal divisions in Trump’s national security team, Pompeo didn’t sugarcoat the clashes.
“There were many times Ambassador Bolton and I disagreed,” Pompeo said. “That’s to be sure.”
Mnuchin, who also had clashed with Bolton, reminded reporters at the briefing that “the president’s view of the Iraq war and Ambassador Bolton’s are very different.”
Bolton strongly backed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and never renounced that view, even after it became clear the decision to invade was based on faulty intelligence. Trump, who initially said he backed the war, later turned against it.
Bolton’s terse resignation letter was released in late afternoon. “I hereby resign, effective immediately, as Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs. Thank you for having afforded me this opportunity to serve our country,” it read.
His ouster came as a surprise even though his increasing isolation from Trump and lack of influence on foreign policy matters was no secret within the White House.
A prominent hawk and neoconservative, Bolton held positions at the Justice and State departments before President George W. Bush named him U.S. ambassador to the United Nations as a recess appointment in 2005. Bolton resigned 18 months later when it became clear he would not win Senate confirmation.
He was a Fox News contributor when Trump named him national security advisor in April 2018. Trump announced the appointment on Twitter, surprising Bolton with its timing.
During his 17 months in the job, he supported Trump on several key issues — especially the decision to withdraw from the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran —but he also advocated aggressive stances toward North Korea and Afghanistan that put the two in conflict.
Bolton also took the lead on Venezuela, assuring Trump that its president, Nicolas Maduro, could be easily ousted from office. At one news briefing, Bolton stood with a notepad on which he’d scrawled a line about “5,000 troops to Venezuela” that appeared to be a threat of a U.S. incursion.
Trump invested political capital in the project, welcoming Venezuelan opposition figures into the Oval Office and declaring recognition of opposition leader Juan Guaido as the legitimate president of the beleaguered oil-rich country. But nine months later, Maduro has not budged, the opposition is flailing, and the entire mission has stalled.
Bolton was an open skeptic of Trump’s warm embrace of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, warning that the dictator would never give up his nuclear weapons despite Trump’s three meetings with him.
When Trump became the first U.S. president to step into the Korean demilitarized zone in June, grasping hands with Kim, those present included Secretary of State Pompeo, the president’s daughter and advisor, Ivanka Trump, and his son-in-law and advisor, Jared Kushner. Bolton was more than a thousand miles away in Mongolia.
Bolton also disagreed with Trump’s repeated offers to meet with Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly this month. It’s unclear if the meeting will take place.
Several names were floated as possible replacements for Bolton.
Among them is Rob Blair, an aide to acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney. Blair has taken a growing role in national security and foreign policy discussions, and was invited into a number of meetings with the president where Bolton was not.
Trump may consider Richard Grennell, who is U.S. ambassador to Germany. An outspoken and provocative figure, Grennell served as Bolton’s spokesman when Bolton was the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
Another potential candidate is Stephen Biegun, the special representative for North Korea. A specialist in Russian affairs and a former Ford Motor Co. executive, Biegun served on the National Security Council under President George W. Bush.
On Capitol Hill, reaction fell along familiar lines. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) said he “welcomed” the news, given Bolton’s long history of hawkish foreign policy views, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) said the abrupt firing was “a symbol of disarray in the Trump administration.”
Republicans appeared more divided. Bolton had served as an advisor to Mitt Romney’s losing 2012 run for the White House, and Romney — now a U.S. senator from Utah — called Bolton’s ouster “a huge loss.”
“John Bolton is a brilliant man with decades of experience in foreign policy,” Romney said. “His point of view was not always the same as everybody else in the room. That’s why you wanted him there. The fact that he was a contrarian from time to time was an asset, not a liability.”
But Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), an isolationist outlier in the GOP Senate conference, assailed Bolton and praised Trump for ousting him.
“I commend @realDonaldTrump for this necessary action,” Paul wrote. “The President has great instincts on foreign policy and ending our endless wars. He should be served by those who share those views.”
Bolton’s longtime critics appeared relieved to see him go. Jamil Dakwar, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Human Rights Project, all but cheered.
Bolton “celebrated when victims of torture were denied the opportunity to hold their torturers accountable. He abdicated on our country’s responsibility to its international human rights commitments. None of this was apparently disagreeable enough to the president,” Dakwar said.
Michael Doran, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington, said Bolton was never a clear fit for the role since the national security advisor’s job was to synthesize information for the president, whereas Bolton had always been more of an advocate.
Trump “likes to have a hard takeoff and a softer landing. Bolton is a hard-liner across the board,” Doran said.
“I’m actually surprised that he lasted as long as he did,” he added.