Bolton exit provokes questions about Trump shift on Iran

Iran hawks and doves alike believe that President TrumpDonald John TrumpMulvaney: 'We've overreacted a little bit' to coronavirus Former CBS News president: Most major cable news outlets 'unrelentingly liberal' in 'fear and loathing' of Trump An old man like me should be made more vulnerable to death by COVID-19 MORE’s policy toward the Islamic Republic will shift with the ouster of national security adviser John BoltonJohn BoltonHave the courage to recognize Taiwan McConnell says Obama administration 'did leave behind' pandemic plan Trump company lawyer warned Michael Cohen not to write 'tell-all' book: report MORE.

That’s provoked some concern from hawks, who worry Bolton’s departure could lead to a softening toward Iran given Trump’s flirtation with meeting the country’s leader.

They are particularly worried when it comes to the 2015 nuclear agreement negotiated by the Obama administration that has been shunned by Trump.

Staunch Iran hawk Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzState Department scrutiny threatens Pompeo's political ambitions 125 lawmakers urge Trump administration to support National Guard troops amid pandemic Parties gear up for battle over Texas state House MORE (R-Texas), asked this week if he’s worried about the direction of Trump’s Iran policy without Bolton, flatly said, “Yes.”

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“I hope that doesn’t happen,” Cruz added. “The president has made the right decision withdrawing from the Iran deal, and if the administration backtracks on that decision and instead embraces the failed Obama foreign policy, that would make America less safe. I know the president doesn’t want to do that.”

Trump said this week that he fired Bolton over policy disagreements as well as disputes between Bolton and other administration officials.

Bolton is a fierce Iran hawk who advocated for regime change before joining the Trump administration. His and Trump's goals for Iran initially seemed aligned as Trump withdrew from the Obama-era nuclear pact and hammered Iran with sanctions.

But in the weeks leading up to Bolton’s departure, Trump started to signal more of a willingness to talk with the Iranians.

And since Bolton left, Trump and other officials have left open the possibility of meeting Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at this month’s United Nations General Assembly in New York.

Hours after Trump tweeted the Bolton news Tuesday, Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoChinese state media: Wuhan conducted 6.5 million coronavirus tests in 9 days The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Americans debate life under COVID-19 risks The 10 Senate seats most likely to flip MORE told reporters who asked about a possible meeting in New York that “the president has made very clear he is prepared to meet with no preconditions.”

On Thursday, Treasury Secretary Steven MnuchinSteven Terner MnuchinFive questions about the next COVID-19 relief package Senate Republicans call on DOJ to investigate Planned Parenthood loans The Hill's Coronavirus Report: Surgeon General stresses need to invest much more in public health infrastructure, during and after COVID-19; Fauci hopeful vaccine could be deployed in December MORE said there were no plans to meet “at the moment” but stressed that Trump “has said he would sit down with Rouhani with no conditions.”

And Trump told reporters Thursday that “Iran wants to meet,” though Iran has not said so publicly.

The possibility of talks represents a marked departure from this summer, when the United States and Iran teetered on the brink of war. Each country shot down the other’s drones, and Trump came within minutes of a launching a military strike against Iran.

Bolton’s ouster was welcome news to those who feared the tit-for-tat would escalate into war.

Sen. Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael KaineBipartisan senators introduce bill to make changes to the Paycheck Protection Program Overnight Defense: National Guard chief negative in third coronavirus test | Pentagon IG probing Navy's coronavirus response | Democrats blast use of Russia deterrence funds on border wall Overnight Defense: Navy secretary nominee: Service in 'rough waters' after 'failure of leadership'| Senate fails to override Trump's Iran war powers veto| Top Armed Services Republican expects to address Pentagon border wall funds in defense policy bill MORE (D-Va.) said the prospect of diplomacy with Iran “dramatically increases” with Bolton gone, adding he thinks Trump is “finally understanding what it was they blew up” by withdrawing from the nuclear deal.

“Bolton’s departure is a good thing for the country and our safety,” Kaine said. “Just watching some of the news out of the White House about ‘Well, maybe we’ll work with France on this line of credit’ — they could change their mind tomorrow, but you wouldn’t have heard those words come out of the White House with Bolton still there.”

Sen. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphySenators weigh traveling amid coronavirus ahead of Memorial Day Congress eyes changes to small business pandemic aid Top Democrat to introduce bill to limit Trump's ability to fire IGs MORE (D-Conn.) echoed the sentiment, saying, “The chance of talks with Iran get much better without John Bolton.”

But Democrats remain skeptical Trump can secure a new deal, arguing he is seeking a flashy summit without substance.

“The question is what kind of talks are we interested in,” Murphy said. “I think Trump wants a photo-op, which is not terribly interesting to me. Even [former] President Obama wasn’t willing to give Rouhani a photo-op. So let’s do some of the diplomatic spade work before we sit down and put the Iranian president and Trump before the cameras.”

Trump does have a history of turning when it comes to his foreign rivals.

After promising “fire and fury” toward North Korea in 2017, Trump in 2018 was meeting with that country's leader.

Though his rhetoric toward Iran has been fairly bellicose, it’s far from impossible to imagine him meeting with Rouhani.

Trump sidestepped questions this week about whether he’ll ease sanctions on Iran to help secure a meeting with Rouhani after Bloomberg reported he was considering doing so, saying Wednesday that “we’ll see what happens.”

Mnuchin denied Thursday a separate report from The Daily Beast that said Trump was considering approving France’s plan to give the Iranians a $15 billion line of credit to help cope with sanctions if it complies with the nuclear deal, saying that idea is “absolutely not” under consideration. France would need a U.S. sanctions waiver to extend the credit line.

Easing sanctions would spark opposition from Trump’s allies in the Senate.

“I don’t share that enthusiasm for relaxing sanctions,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jim RischJames (Jim) Elroy RischHillicon Valley: Lawmakers demand answers on Chinese COVID hacks | Biden re-ups criticism of Amazon | House Dem bill seeks to limit microtargeting Senate panel approves Trump nominee under investigation Hillicon Valley: Trump threatens Michigan, Nevada over mail-in voting | Officials call for broadband expansion during pandemic | Democrats call for investigation into Uber-Grubhub deal MORE (R-Idaho) said.

Pressed if he’s worried Trump will do so after Bolton’s departure, Risch said, “I’ll discuss that with the president.”

Cruz, meanwhile, expressed concern about “voices” within the administration who opposed withdrawing from the nuclear deal.

“Voices at the State Department and Treasury Department have consistently resisted the president’s decision to withdraw from that deal,” Cruz said. “The maximum pressure campaign is working, and I believe maximum pressure should mean maximum pressure. And it would be a serious mistake to lessen sanctions on Iran, or even worse, to give in to European efforts to send an economic lifeline to the Ayatollah [Ali] Khamenei.”

But Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamWhy do Americans worry about North Korea? Senate confirms Ratcliffe to be Trump's spy chief Abrams announces endorsements in 7 Senate races MORE (R-S.C.), a close Trump ally, said he is not concerned that Trump’s stance toward Iran will soften.

“I don’t think it’s going to change,” Graham said. “Everybody around him, including the president himself, understands the Iran deal was a bad deal. We’re all looking for a better deal. We’ll see if there’s any reason to believe the Iranians are capable of doing a better deal.”

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