WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Tuesday pushed out John Bolton, his third national security adviser, amid fundamental disputes over how to handle major foreign policy challenges like Iran, North Korea and most recently Afghanistan.
The departure ended a 17-month partnership that had grown so tense that the two men even disagreed over how they parted ways, as Trump announced on Twitter that he had fired the adviser only to be rebutted by Bolton, who insisted he had resigned of his own accord.
A longtime Republican hawk known for a combative style, Bolton spent much of his tenure trying to restrain the president from making what he considered unwise agreements with America’s enemies. Trump bristled at what he viewed as Bolton’s militant approach, to the point that he made barbed jokes in meetings about his adviser’s desire to get the United States into more wars.
Their differences came to a climax in recent days as Bolton waged a last-minute campaign to stop the president from signing a peace agreement at Camp David with leaders of the radical Taliban group. He won the policy battle as Trump scrapped the deal but lost the larger war when the president grew angry about the way the matter played out.
Trump and his aides privately blamed the national security adviser for news reports describing Bolton’s opposition to the deal. Vice President Mike Pence and his camp likewise grew angry at reports suggesting he had agreed with Bolton, seeing them as an effort to bolster the adviser’s position.
“I informed John Bolton last night that his services are no longer needed at the White House,” the president tweeted. “I disagreed strongly with many of his suggestions, as did others in the Administration, and therefore I asked John for his resignation, which was given to me this morning. I thank John very much for his service.”
Bolton disputed the president’s version of events in his own tweet 12 minutes later. “I offered to resign last night and President Trump said, ‘Let’s talk about it tomorrow,’ ” Bolton wrote, without elaborating.
Responding to a question from the New York Times via text, Bolton said his resignation was his own initiative, not the president’s. “Offered last night without his asking,” he wrote. “Slept on it and gave it to him this morning.”
Trump said he would appoint a replacement “next week,” setting off a process that should offer clues to where he wants to take his foreign policy. In the meantime, the White House said Charles Kupperman, the deputy national security adviser, would serve in an acting capacity. No other president has had four national security advisers in his first three years in office.
While it was clear for months that Bolton was on thin ice, the end came with typically brutal suddenness. On Tuesday morning, he led a meeting of the national security principals in the Situation Room, with no sign that anything was about to break.
At 11 a.m., the White House even scheduled a 1:30 p.m. news briefing where Bolton would talk about terrorism alongside Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. But then came Trump’s tweet two minutes before noon, and Bolton left the White House.
The briefing went forward without him, and Pompeo, who has feuded with Bolton for months, shed no tears about the president’s decision. “He should have people he trusts and values, and whose efforts and judgments benefit him in delivering American foreign policy,” Pompeo told reporters.
The secretary also made no effort to hide his rivalry with Bolton. “There were definitely places that Ambassador Bolton and I had different views about how we should proceed,” he said. Asked if he was blindsided by the decision, Pompeo said, “I’m never surprised,” as he and Mnuchin grinned broadly.
Pompeo and Bolton generally shared a conservative policy outlook, but the secretary of state has proved more adept at managing the president and subordinating his views to Trump’s, while Bolton kept pushing his beliefs even after they were rejected.
Pompeo did not see Bolton as a team player, but as someone who undermined the president’s policies. Bolton saw Pompeo as a politician more interested in currying Trump’s favor to have his support in a future run for Senate.
Bolton’s adversaries inside the administration have been after him for weeks, spreading stories about how the national security adviser had been excluded from meetings and was on the outs with the president.
When Bolton backed out of appearing on two Sunday talk shows during the Group of Seven summit last month, his internal critics said it was because he refused to defend the president’s policies on Russia. Bolton denied that, saying he did not go on the shows because the main topic was the trade war with China, which is not his area of specialty.
Bolton, the hard-liner, saw his job as keeping Trump from going soft in what he saw as fuzzy-headed diplomacy. “While John Bolton was national security adviser for the last 17 months, there have been no bad deals,” a person close to Bolton said minutes after the president’s announcement Tuesday, reflecting the ousted adviser’s view.
To Bolton’s aggravation, the president has continued to court Kim Jong Un, the repressive leader of North Korea, despite Kim’s refusal to surrender his nuclear program and despite repeated short-range missile tests by the North that have rattled its neighbors.
In recent days, Trump has also expressed a willingness to meet with President Hassan Rouhani of Iran under the right circumstances, and even to extend short-term financing to Tehran. Pompeo confirmed Tuesday that it was possible such a meeting could take place this month on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly session in New York.
Bolton’s departure caught allies and adversaries off-guard. Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, called the news “an extraordinary loss for our nation and the White House.
“John Bolton is a brilliant man with decades of experience in foreign policy,” he 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 Republicans like Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky who have tried to push Trump away from foreign intervention were openly gleeful.
“The threat of war worldwide goes down exponentially with John Bolton out of the White House,” Paul told reporters. “I think his advocacy for regime change around the world is a naïve worldview, and I think that the world will be a much better place with new advisers to the president.”
Among others pleased to be rid of Bolton were Iran’s leaders, who viewed him as an enemy of peace. Hesameddin Ashena, Rouhani’s top political adviser, tweeted that Bolton getting sidelined was “a definitive sign that Washington’s maximum pressure on Iran has failed” and that “Iran’s blockade will end.”