Bolton May Not Be In Sync With Each Of Trump's Foreign Policy Instincts

Jun 25, 2018
Originally published on June 25, 2018 7:10 am
Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

President Trump's new national security adviser is a man with strong views. John Bolton shares many of those views with his boss. Both are skeptical of multilateral agreements and international institutions. Their similar world view was reflected in the past through Fox News, where Bolton regularly appeared and which the president regularly watches. But now that he's working for the president, Bolton may not favor everything the president does. NPR's Mara Liasson reports.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: One thing about Donald Trump - he tells you what he's going to do, and most of the time he goes and does it. Here he is explaining America First back in the spring of 2016.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We will no longer surrender this country or its people to the false song of globalism. The nation state remains the true foundation for happiness and harmony. I am skeptical of international unions that tie us up and bring America down.

LIASSON: Two years later, and Trump has removed the U.S. from the Paris climate accord, the Iran nuclear deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and he's considering pulling out of NAFTA. That puts him on the same wavelength as his brand-new national security adviser, his third in 17 months, John Bolton. Over a long career in and out of Republican administrations, Bolton has been an effective and sometimes provocative advocate for his unilateralist views. Although he was George W. Bush's ambassador to the United Nations, he also famously dissed that institution.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN BOLTON: Secretariat Building in New York has 38 stories. If you lost 10 stories today, it wouldn't make a bit of difference.

LIASSON: Back in 2000, Bolton described the fundamental debate in American foreign policy as a choice between Americanists and globalists - sound familiar? Bolton's militant hawkishness is right in sync with President Trump, who gave a shout-out to Bolton at a rally in Tennessee last month.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: John Bolton is here someplace. Where's John Bolton?

(CHEERING)

TRUMP: They think he's so nasty and so tough that I have to hold him back, OK? It's pretty great. And he's doing a great job.

LIASSON: But despite Trump and Bolton's shared animus to multilateral arrangements that they feel impinge on America's sovereignty, there are two big areas where Bolton and Trump may not be on the same page. Bolton doesn't share Trump's affinity for authoritarian leaders, although he is going to Moscow this week to explore a possible Trump-Putin meeting. And then there's North Korea. In February, before he took his new job at the White House, Bolton wrote an op-ed piece titled "The Legal Case For Striking North Korea First." And in his capacity as a Fox News commentator, Bolton argued that diplomacy was not the solution to the North Korean nuclear threat.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BOLTON: It would be fruitless to talk to North Korea. It just sounds kind of harsh to say that, but they have talked to us for 25 years, and there's zero evidence that talking in year 26 will make any difference.

LIASSON: But that was then. Now, Bolton explained on CBS, he has a new job and a new mandate.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BOLTON: I mean, one thing people have to keep in mind is that I've changed roles here. My job is to give advice to the president. He'll make the decision. It's his call. I'm the national security adviser, not the national security decision-maker.

LIASSON: At some point Bolton will have to give the president his best advice on North Korea, which may be not to do a deal at all.

MARK GROOMBRIDGE: My name is Mark Groombridge, Ambassador Bolton's former adviser on Asian affairs.

LIASSON: Groombridge worked with Bolton for 15 years. He even wrote Bolton's hard-line speech on North Korea in 2003, the one that prompted North Korea to label Bolton a human scum and bloodsucker. Now Groombridge and other foreign policy conservatives are hoping Bolton will be a kind of guard rail against what could be Trump's worst instincts.

GROOMBRIDGE: To the extent that he can help shape or influence or minimize the damage that Trump potentially could do by giving away the farm, the ambassador feels he has a patriotic duty to do so. And while John will salute and follow the president, he will have a very difficult time squaring his own personal beliefs and convictions with a deal that he thinks is fundamentally not in U.S. interests.

LIASSON: Thomas Wright of the Brookings Institution thinks Bolton may end up in a bind because President Trump likes to follow his gut and call his own shots in foreign policy.

THOMAS WRIGHT: He won't be guided by his advisers. And so for John Bolton, it's a little bit of a nightmare scenario. He's gotten the job he always wanted. He has a nationalistic president who he always wanted. But he finds himself being asked to execute a policy on North Korea and reaching out to Vladimir Putin that go against everything he said he believed.

LIASSON: Trump has already announced that there is, quote, "no more nuclear threat from North Korea," but in reality, we don't know yet exactly what North Korea will give up. And depending on what the president is willing to accept, Wright says Bolton might be forced to make a choice between power and principle. Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.