What To Expect From John Bolton

Mar 23, 2018
Originally published on March 23, 2018 9:55 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Until yesterday, John Bolton was a one-time United Nations ambassador with strong enough views on foreign policy to appear regularly on Fox News. Now, the most famous of all Fox News viewers has hired him. President Trump dismissed national security adviser H.R. McMaster to make room for Bolton. He's the man who called for aggressive use of American power. He's called for regime change in North Korea and also talks of change in the government in Iran.

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JOHN BOLTON: The regime in Tehran needs to be overthrown at the earliest possible opportunity.

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INSKEEP: So what's it mean to have Bolton in such an influential position? NPR's Scott Horsley covers the White House. Michele Kelemen covers the State Department. They're both with us. Good morning, guys.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: So Michele, what was he like in his last government job as U.N. ambassador? You covered him.

KELEMEN: That's right. Well, you know, he had that job for only a year. He had to have a recess appointment to get it because he was such a controversial pick and couldn't get Senate confirmation. He once famously said that if you get rid of the top 10 floors at the U.N. Secretariat, it wouldn't make a bit of a difference. He's a lawyer, and he comes to things like that. Before he was U.N. ambassador, he was the undersecretary for arms control at the State Department. He was a proponent of the Iraq War, and I can tell you he was not a proponent of nuclear diplomacy with North Korea, nor is he now as Trump prepares for a possible meeting with North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un.

INSKEEP: Well, that's interesting because, Scott, I've been reading all of this reporting out of the White House that Bolton supposedly had to promise the president he wouldn't start a war if he was hired, and also that he wouldn't take the president literally when he...

HORSLEY: (Laughter).

INSKEEP: ...Rages against somebody. Do those things ring true to you?

HORSLEY: I think that's good advice for anybody coming into the Trump White House, but, you know, look, the president knows what he's getting with John Bolton. He's bombastic. He's opinionated. He's been a star on Fox News. The president seems to be doing a lot of recruiting from television greenrooms these days. On the other hand, John Bolton does have that mustache which the president has gone on record as being opposed to.

INSKEEP: Yeah. Yeah, he was a candidate for secretary of state and was supposedly rejected because he didn't look the part - because of the mustache. So how's the president deal with the mustache?

HORSLEY: (Laughter) John Bolton was at the White House yesterday, and he still had the mustache. Reporters were looking for signs that he might've shaved it off as a signal that this job change was imminent. But he still had the mustache.

INSKEEP: Well, he's still got until April 9.

KELEMEN: He had it then and now.

(LAUGHTER)

KELEMEN: That's not going away.

INSKEEP: It hasn't changed. But I guess more seriously, does this signal a shift in policy as well as personnel?

HORSLEY: I think what it signals is a continuation of a shift that we've been seeing for some time. You know, in just over two weeks now, we have seen the departure of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, White House economic adviser Gary Cohn and now H.R. McMaster, the national security adviser. All three of those men were internationalists, and they sometimes tried to put the brakes on the president's more hawkish, America-first instincts. With Bolton, as with Tillerson's replacement Mike Pompeo, those brakes are off.

INSKEEP: Well, Michele, let's talk about the options for a couple of countries that are very much in the news. First, Iran - what are the U.S. options with Iran?

KELEMEN: Well, that's the big one. And it's coming up because, you know, President Trump wanted to walk away. Tillerson and others convinced him to stay in, and that meant continuing to do sanctions relief in exchange for restrictions on Iran's nuclear program. Now, the next time he has to make a decision is May, so it's coming up. And Trump has sent out representatives to go talk to the Europeans to try to fix this deal - fix it before May. Bolton recently wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that there's no fix. He describes the Iran deal as Obama's Waterloo. And he's been advocating tearing it up. So that's a big question that comes up very soon.

INSKEEP: Yeah. And we should mention the national security adviser - if he's doing the job the way past advisers have done - he's trying to get differing views before the president. He's trying to be an honest broker, but his own opinion matters which - go ahead, Michele.

KELEMEN: And I should tell you, you know, a former Bush administration - Asia expert Mike Green was on NPR last night. And he described Bolton as a - more of a bomb thrower than a consensus builder. That was the reputation that he had back then, and we'll see now. I mean, Bolton himself says he knows the bureaucracy. He's not really much into it a - he's not much of a process guy. But he is going to give all those views to the president, but we'll see.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about a little more bomb throwing - and perhaps in a literal sense - because another of his op-eds in The Wall Street Journal is headlined, "The Legal Case For Striking North Korea First." Does he really want to bomb a nuclear-armed nation?

KELEMEN: (Laughter) Well, that's a big question. I mean, you know, the idea of this bloody-nose strategy that we've been hearing so much about from this administration - they seemed to back off of that when President Trump decided on his own that he's going to meet Kim Jong Un, the leader of North Korea. So, you know, again, remember, President Trump told his supporters that he wasn't going to be a kind of - starting new wars. He was very strongly opposed to the Iraq War. But now you have someone like John Bolton, who was a supporter of the Iraq War, and Mike Pompeo, who was a supporter of the Iraq War, joining his foreign policy teams.

HORSLEY: Steve, I think what we can say is that upcoming meeting with Kim Jong Un may have played at least a role in the timing here of this change. The White House said that the president was eager to have a new team in place and to end the speculation and rumors that have been swirling around McMaster. They said much the same in dismissing Rex Tillerson last - just over a week ago.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Scott Horsley and NPR's Michele Kelemen. Thanks to you both.

HORSLEY: You're welcome.

KELEMEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.