President Trump is known for his aggressive rhetoric, and so is his new national security adviser, John Bolton.
From his years pushing the Iraq War during the George W. Bush administration to his recent work as a Fox News commentator, Bolton has backed preemptive military action against Iran and North Korea, and disputed evidence that Russians hacked the Democrats during the 2016 presidential election — issues he is apt to deal with as Trump’s third national security adviser in less than 15 months.
“To stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran,” read a 2015 op-ed by Bolton.
The combination of Bolton’s hawkishness and Trump’s volatility could be combustible as they face foreign policy challenges ranging from nuclear weapons standoffs with Iran and North Korea to a potential trade war with China and friction with Russia.
Bolton took a low-key approach to his appointment — he said he looks forward to working with Trump “in addressing these complex challenges in an effort to make our country safer at home and stronger abroad’ — while his critics expressed alarm at the future of national security policy.
Bolton’s views, especially on Iran and North Korea, “are overly aggressive at best and downright dangerous at worst,” said Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del.
Trump backers say Bolton will help bring some much-needed toughness to American foreign policy, an approach they say has yielded results like the prospective meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
“I know John Bolton well and believe he is an excellent choice who will do a great job,” said Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.
Bolton, 69, has never been shy about expressing his views, not as a student at Yale, a lawyer, a State Department official during the George W. Bush administration, Bush’s ambassador to the United Nations, and, more recently a columnist and Fox News commentator.
Through it all, Bolton has been what he calls “a staunch defender of American interests,” someone who has “repeatedly advocated tough measures against the nuclear weapons programs of both Iran and North Korea, and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction generally.”
Critics worry that Bolton — the administration’s third national security adviser in less than 15 months — will push Trump to take even more aggressive stands toward Iran and North Korea, perhaps triggering military conflict that involves nuclear weapons.
Like the president who picked him, Bolton has been a fierce critic of the Iran nuclear agreement, and his appointment could spell the end of that deal. Under the agreement, Iran gives up the means to make nuclear weapons as the United States and allies reduces economic sanctions on Tehran.
If Trump and Bolton kill off the deal, something they can do starting with a certification deadline in May, analysts said Iran will simply resume a nuclear weapons program. The result could be a de-stabilized Middle East — Iranian rival Saudi Arabia has said it may be pursue nuclear weapons of its own if necessary — and increased potential for war.
As for North Korea, Bolton the media commentator has expressed skepticism about Trump’s planned meeting with Kim Jong Un later this year. Bolton has said Trump should demand an immediate commitment from the North Korean leader, or consider “something else” — presumably a preemptive military strike at North Korea’s military program.
“It is perfectly legitimate for the United States to respond to the current ‘necessity’ posed by North Korea’s nuclear weapons by striking first,” Bolton wrote inThe Wall Street Journal in late February.
Bolton was, and remains, a proponent of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, a point his critics emphasized in expressing concern about future relations with Iran and North Korea.
Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., a veteran of the Iraq War, said Bolton’s record is “all the proof anyone should need” that he lacks the judgement to be national security adviser. She noted that Bolton has spoken of preemptive bombing of North Korea and Ian, “having apparently learned nothing” from mistakes in Iraq.
“His appointment to this critical role could be catastrophic for both our national security and the troops who could be put in danger because of the advice he gives to Donald Trump,” Duckworth said.
There are other challenges on Trump’s foreign policy front.
Trump appointed Bolton just hours after he announced a plan to hit China with tariffs over what he called unfair trade practices. As China threatened retaliatory penalties on U.S. goods, business groups feared the onset of a trade war that would raise consumer prices worldwide. Bolton has also criticized Chinese trade practices.
Bolton also arrives amid Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, including whether the Trump campaign had any role.
In his media commentary, Bolton has questioned evidence linking the Russians to email hacks of Democratic Party officials, and said it may have been a “false flag” operation.
Over the past year, analysts have seen soon-to-be-former National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, on occasion, as restraining influences on Trump.
Now Trump has fired Tillerson and replaced McMaster with Bolton.
While the Bush administration authorized the Iraq war and expressed support for the concept of preemptive military action, Bolton clashed with colleagues he considered too soft.
After serving Bush’s first term as under secretary of State for arms control and international security, Bush’s team moved him to the United Nations after the president picked Condoleezza Rice to be secretary of State.
Talk show warrior
In recent years, including a stint as a foreign policy senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, Bolton has been a high profile conservative commentator. His books have carried titles like Surrender Is Not an Option: Defending America at the United Nations, and How Barack Obama is Endangering our National Sovereignty.
Among Bolton’s fans: Donald J. Trump.
During a 2015 interview on NBC’s Meet the Press — one in which Trump drew scorn from Republican primary rivals for saying he receives military advice because “I watch the shows” — he singled out Bolton as one of his favorite guests.
“I like Bolton,” Trump said then. “I think he’s, you know, a tough cookie. He knows what he’s talking about.”
While critics fear Bolton may try to push his ideas on Trump, others said Trump may not be so easy to turn, and has been known to make impulsive decisions.
Liz Mair, a Republican consultant who has been a critic of Trump, said the president has expressed-near isolationist tendencies with his “America First” approach that disdains various trade deals and military alliances.
Bolton, meanwhile, has asserted projection of American power throughout the world, almost the opposite of Trump’s views.
“Bolton probably thinks he can persuade Trump and bring him around to his way of thinking,” Mair said. “A lot of people have thought that.”