Bolton exit provokes questions about Trump shift on Iran

Iran hawks and doves alike believe that President TrumpDonald John TrumpComey responds to Trump with Mariah Carey gif: 'Why are you so obsessed with me?' Congress to get election security briefing next month amid Intel drama New York man accused of making death threats against Schumer, Schiff MORE’s policy toward the Islamic Republic will shift with the ouster of national security adviser John BoltonJohn Bolton'Parasite' studio fires back after Trump criticism: 'He can't read' Trump swipes at 'little wise guy' Brad Pitt, Korean film 'Parasite' during rally Bolton on impeachment: 'My testimony would have made no difference to the ultimate outcome' 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 CruzPompeo to speak to influential conservative group in Iowa Top National Security Council aide moved to Energy Department role Ted Cruz takes aim at Alabama vasectomy bill: 'Yikes' 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 PompeoThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Dem anxiety grows ahead of Super Tuesday Pompeo expects US-Taliban agreement to be signed on Feb. 29 The Hill's Morning Report — Sanders, Dems zero in on Super Tuesday 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 MnuchinThe Hill's Morning Report — Sanders, Dems zero in on Super Tuesday Bloomberg proposes financial transaction tax GOP senators offering bill to cement business provision in Trump tax law 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 KaineThe Hill's Morning Report — AG Barr, GOP senators try to rein Trump in Overnight Defense: Senate votes to rein in Trump war powers on Iran | Pentagon shifting .8B to border wall | US, Taliban negotiate seven-day 'reduction in violence' Democratic senators ask FDA to ban device used to shock disabled students 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 MurphyKerry responds to Trump accusation he violated Logan Act: 'Another presidential lie' Overnight Health Care: Senate panel to hold hearing on US coronavirus response | Dems demand Trump withdraw religious provider rule | Trump Medicaid proposal sparks bipartisan backlash Democratic senators urge Trump administration to request emergency funding for coronavirus response 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 RischGOP lawmaker makes unannounced trip to northeastern Syria Lawmakers wary as US on cusp of initial deal with Taliban Senators condemn UN 'blacklisting' of US companies in Israeli settlements 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 GrahamBarr to attend Senate GOP lunch on Tuesday GOP lawmaker makes unannounced trip to northeastern Syria Graham: Trump has 'all the legal authority in the world' to pardon Stone 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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