Bolton not done resetting Trump national security team
John Bolton has taken a paring knife to President Trump’s national security team in his first week on the job advising the president — and he’s not finished yet.
Since Bolton took office on Monday as Trump’s national security adviser, four senior aides have stepped down or resigned under pressure. Sources say more changes are expected in the coming weeks as Bolton forms his own team.
The slate of departures is the second major reshuffle of the National Security Council (NSC) in just 15 months, fueling the historic pace of turnover on Trump’s White House staff.
Current and former administration officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, say most of the big changes on the NSC staff under Bolton have already been announced and mid-level aides are expected to be the next to go.
They say the moves are a sign Trump has emboldened the hawkish Bolton to reshape the NSC.
Staff are on edge over the management style of Bolton, whom a former State Department official once described during testimony as a “kiss-up, kick-down sort of guy.”
They fear he could load up the council with hard-liners and undermine its role as an honest broker in the interagency process used to make national security decisions.
The turnover comes at a pivotal point for Trump on the world stage.
The president launched a military strike in response to an apparent chemical weapons attack in Syria and is preparing for a possible nuclear summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as early as next month — all while trying to confirm a new secretary of State and CIA director.
Last month’s firing of H.R. McMaster as national security adviser restarted the game of musical chairs at the NSC. When Bolton was hired, the council had just concluded a staff reshuffle that started last year when McMaster took over for Michael Flynn.
People who know Bolton call him a savvy bureaucratic operator who wants to move quickly to clean house of McMaster’s team bring on his own to ensure they are responsive to his and the president’s demands.
“I think [Trump is] looking for John Bolton to bring a brand new group of people into the National Security Council who can be counted on to be discreet and supportive of whatever the decision is,” conservative talk show host Hugh Hewitt said in a recent Politico podcast interview.
But critics say the moves could have the opposite effect, causing disruption and loss of institutional memory that could lead to confusion, miscommunication and policymaking mistakes.
“It’s not surprising that John Bolton wants his own team in, but doing it so rapidly and so across the board could end up hurting him,” said Jamil Jaffer, a former associate White House counsel to President George W. Bush. “It’s not a sensible way to operate, but it is consistent with the chaotic nature of this administration.”
In addition to dealing with Syria and North Korea, the administration faces upcoming decisions on whether to continue sanctions relief under the Iran nuclear deal and impose tariffs on billions of dollars of Chinese goods — all debates that involve the NSC.
There has been no public indication about who will replace the outgoing officials: homeland security adviser Tom Bossert, deputy national security advisers Ricky Waddell and Nadia Schadlow and NSC spokesman Michael Anton.
Almost all of them will remain at the White House until their successors are named.
“The president probably expects some form of stability or continuity in national security decision-making. Fear of a ‘purge’ doesn’t meet that expectation,” said Loren DeJonge Schulman, a top NSC official under former President Obama.
NSC aides are little known outside of Washington, but play a major role in shaping administration policy.
Schadlow authored Trump’s national security strategy, which helped lay the groundwork for the president’s confrontational actions on trade and stepped-up efforts against Russian aggression.
Bossert, a veteran of the George W. Bush administration, was the White House’s point man in the response to last year’s hurricanes in Texas, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands and played a leading role on cybersecurity issues.
Some news reports have said Bolton wants to fold Bossert’s position, which reports directly to the president, into the NSC structure, but that plan has not been confirmed.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
National security experts also worry about the possibility of infighting at the NSC under Bolton’s leadership.
The former United Nations (U.N.) ambassador and undersecretary of State for arms control has faced accusations of politicizing intelligence during the run-up to the Iraq War and seeking retributive firings of analysts whose findings he disagreed with.
Carl Ford, who formerly headed the State Department’s intelligence unit, gave dramatic testimony opposing Bolton’s nomination to the U.N. post in 2005, called him a “serial abuser” of subordinates and warning that of “great danger” that Bolton would manipulate intelligence.
The Senate blocked Bolton’s confirmation for months and he ultimately got the job through a recess appointment by Bush.
Since being named national security adviser, Bolton has sought to project an image as a team player.
After reports emerged that Defense Secretary James Mattis balked at Bolton’s appointment, the two staged a meeting at the Pentagon that was captured by television cameras.
Bolton has noted policy differences with Trump on issues ranging from the Iraq War to Syria and North Korea, but he indicated he would restrain his personal beliefs in order to carry out the president’s agenda.
“The national security adviser like all of the president’s top advisers serve at his pleasure,” Bolton said on Fox News the day of his hiring. “And he may be a different kind of president than others, but I think that’s what the people voted for, and that’s the role I’ve been asked to take on.”
People in Washington national security circles are skeptical Bolton will be able to resist butting heads for long, whether it is with Trump or officials at the NSC.
“John Bolton can be a team player when he needs to be,” said Jaffer. “He is very effective as an inside operator. Sometimes you need to work with people but other times you need to run them over. He can do both.”