Bolton emerges as flashpoint in GOP debate on Iran

White House national security adviser John BoltonJohn BoltonBolton says he would have personally briefed Trump on Russian bounties Coronavirus Report: The Hill's Steve Clemons interviews Mark Penn Judge temporarily blocks publication of Mary Trump book MORE is becoming a flashpoint in the internal Republican debate over how to respond to Iran amid a fast-developing military buildup in the Middle East that has stoked war fears on Capitol Hill.

Bolton’s hawkish stance on the Islamic republic is stirring up concerns among GOP lawmakers who are scrambling to make sense of confusing signals coming from the Trump administration.

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Republican senators who have seen sensitive intelligence warn that a military conflict with Iran may break out within days, while others who have yet to be briefed on classified information are left guessing what President TrumpDonald John TrumpHouse panel approves 0.5B defense policy bill House panel votes against curtailing Insurrection Act powers after heated debate House panel votes to constrain Afghan drawdown, ask for assessment on 'incentives' to attack US troops MORE’s next move might be.

Bolton is seen as the main driver of the administration’s muscular response to Iran, including the recent deployment of an aircraft carrier strike group and an Air Force bomber task force to the region as well as discussion about deploying 120,000 U.S. troops.

“We all know John Bolton’s pretty aggressive,” said Sen. Kevin CramerKevin John CramerGOP skeptical of polling on Trump Senate passes sanctions bill targeting China over Hong Kong law Cruz urges Trump to support Israeli annexation MORE (R-N.D.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. “Obviously he’s at the table.”

But Cramer, along with many of his Senate GOP colleagues, don’t know exactly how the debate is playing out within the administration, as a flurry of media leaks suggest an internal power struggle is unfolding.

A Republican senator who oversees funding for the State Department and requested anonymity to talk about the GOP conference's discussions about Bolton said media reports involving White House sources indicate a battle among administration officials for the president’s ear on security issues.

“There’s a lot of leaking going on to cause consternation in Bolton’s world. I don’t know what his relationship with the president is. I’m sure there will be more to come,” the senator said.

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A leak to The New York Times revealing Bolton asked acting Defense Secretary Patrick ShanahanPatrick Michael ShanahanHouse Armed Services chairman expresses confidence in Esper amid aircraft carrier coronavirus crisis Boeing pleads for bailout under weight of coronavirus, 737 fallout Esper's chief of staff to depart at end of January MORE to present plans to Trump calling for the deployment of 120,000 troops to the Middle East appeared intended to undermine the national security adviser.

Bolton is seen as increasingly at odds with Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoHouse postpones testimony from key Pompeo aide about IG firing The Hill's 12:30 Report: Democratic proposal to extend 0 unemployment checks Pompeo pushes back on Russian bounty reports MORE and acting White House chief of staff Mick MulvaneyMick MulvaneySupreme Court ruling could unleash new legal challenges to consumer bureau Bottom line White House goes through dizzying change in staff MORE, who are both viewed as more willing to affirm Trump’s desire to steer clear of foreign conflicts.

Danielle Pletka, the senior vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute, questioned whether Bolton favors regime change in Iran over Trump’s desire to bring that country’s leadership to the negotiating table.

“The biggest reason there is doubt about the administration on Iran is because it’s not clear to anybody at all that the president’s national security team shares the president’s desire to use the maximum pressure campaign to get Iran to the table,” she said. “We all know that’s what Donald Trump wants. It’s not clear to anybody what the rest of the national security team wants.”

“The suspicion out there is that they want something very different,” she added. “That’s how they’ve gotten into this muddle right now where there’s doubt about what they’re all about.”

Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulSenate rejects Paul proposal on withdrawing troops from Afghanistan The Hill's 12:30 Report: Democratic proposal to extend 0 unemployment checks Rand Paul urges Fauci to provide 'more optimism' on coronavirus MORE (R-Ky.), a Trump ally who supports the president’s previously stated desire to reduce U.S. combat forces abroad, fears that Bolton is pushing Trump away from his natural inclination to avoid another war in the Middle East.

The New York Times reported that discussion of a plan to deploy more U.S. troops in the Middle East was in response to intelligence showing Iranian forces loading missiles onto small boats in the Persian Gulf.

"I fear that he’s a malignancy, a malignant influence on the administration," Paul, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said of Bolton this past week.

"My concern is that there are people that will overreact to this intelligence and somehow get us involved in a military conflict from which there’s no turning back," he added.

Sen. Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeSenate panel votes 21-1 to back Justice IG measure over Graham objections Senators offer bill to expand charitable giving tax break Overnight Energy: Senate passes major lands conservation bill | Mnuchin ordered to give Native American tribes full stimulus funding | Key Republican jeopardizes Trump consumer safety nominee MORE (R-Utah), who is allied with Paul in arguing that congressional approval should be required before any military mission against Iran, said his views often differ from Bolton’s on the need for military force.

“I think he’s a very smart person and certainly very capable. I take a different approach than he, I think, he often does,” Lee said.

Yet Lee said he takes comfort in what he views as Trump’s inclination to avoid military conflict, something the president made a centerpiece of his 2016 campaign, when he repeatedly criticized the decision to invade Iraq in 2003.

“I do appreciate we have president who is, I think, more mindful than any president in modern history of the risks associated with starting a new conflict. Regardless of who else in the administration might be in favor of it, I take some comfort in that this is not a president who is anxious to go to war, to get us more mired in any conflict than we have to be,” Lee said.

Bolton may have lost some sway with the president after U.S. advisers appeared to have miscalculated the ability of Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó to recruit military leaders in a failed effort to oust President Nicolás Maduro.

Some Republicans have quietly laid that foreign policy failure at Bolton’s feet.

One of the knocks on Bolton in foreign policy circles is that he might not be objectively laying out the full range of national security options to Trump.

“The question is, is he a straight shooter and honest broker as national security adviser? Does he give equal weight to others’ views or try to restrict their access to the president? How does the process work under him?” said Michael E. O’Hanlon, a senior fellow and director of research in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution.

“I am not as conservative or hawkish as John, but my real worries concern the second set of issues, not the first. I hear conflicting things about whether he really tries to coordinate and present a full range of views to the president and empower others,” O’Hanlon added.

Still, some Senate Republicans say they are supportive of Bolton.

Cramer said he has “confidence” in Bolton but added that he needs more information about the fast-moving security threat attributed to Iran.

Sen. Martha McSallyMartha Elizabeth McSallyPolitical establishment takes a hit as chaos reigns supreme Democrats optimistic about chances of winning Senate Where things stand in 13 battleground states MORE (R-Ariz.), an Air Force veteran who flew missions over Iraq during Operation Southern Watch, said she has “respect” for Bolton and noted that “I’ve worked with him for a while.”

“As someone who served in the military myself, I know he doesn’t take lightly deploying our men and women,” she said.

Another senator who spoke on the condition of anonymity said Paul’s critical views of Bolton represent what the lawmaker described as a small minority in the Senate GOP conference.

“We actually know Bolton better than we know anybody else down there now and have for a long time,” the lawmaker said, pointing to Bolton’s previous service as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under former President George W. Bush and his prominence in Republican foreign policy circles for years.

The lawmaker said Senate Republicans are more concerned about Trump’s stated desire to pull U.S. troops out of Syria and Afghanistan, which many of them voted to rebuke earlier this year when the chamber approved a resolution sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellFormer HUD Secretary: Congress 'should invest 0B in direct rental assistance' OVERNIGHT ENERGY: House approves .5T green infrastructure plan | Rubio looks to defense bill to block offshore drilling, but some fear it creates a loophole | DC-area lawmakers push for analysis before federal agencies can be relocated House approves .5T green infrastructure plan MORE (R-Ky.) warning against a “precipitous withdrawal” of forces.

“I think the president’s instincts are too inclined toward a withdrawal, anyway,” the GOP senator said.