By PETER BAKER
John R. Bolton is hardly known for sugarcoating his views. He once derided the United Nations by citing its 38-story headquarters in New York. “If it lost 10 stories,” he said, “it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.”
As it happened, Bolton went on to serve as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, perhaps the most undiplomatic of diplomats. But if President Donald Trump wanted a national security adviser who would match his blunt, hard-edge, confrontational approach to the world, then Bolton fits the bill.
With his trademark bushy gray mustache and his take-no-prisoners style, Bolton positioned himself to the right even of the foreign policy veterans who emerged from President George W. Bush’s administration, a hawk among hawks, a hard-liner who thrills conservatives and chills moderates and liberals. From his perch on Fox News, he has impressed Trump with a muscular vision of U.S. power and a dark assessment of America’s adversaries.
When he takes over as Trump’s third national security adviser in 14 months, Bolton will almost surely encourage Trump’s instincts against diplomatic agreements that both consider weak and unwise. He shares the president’s derisive opinion of the Iran nuclear deal and will presumably prod him to scrap it when a May deadline arrives. He likewise takes a dim view of international agreements like the Paris climate change accord, from which Trump announced last year that he would withdraw the United States. He has called the “two-state solution” for Israel and the Palestinians dead.
But Bolton is not always in step with a president who sometimes veers back and forth between threatening “fire and fury” and eagerly seeking talks with foreign leaders. Bolton argues the virtues of pre-emptive military action against North Korea and scorns diplomacy of the sort Trump has embarked on with Kim Jong Un. He promotes more punitive sanctions against Russia rather than the kind of hand-holding flattery of President Vladimir Putin that Trump practiced even this week. He supported the Iraq War, which Trump calls a catastrophic mistake.
In an interview Thursday evening on Fox, Bolton said he recognized that his role would be to play the honest broker bringing different views to the president, and that it would be up to Trump to make the decisions.
But he made clear that he also planned to be Trump’s enforcer. When the president makes a decision, he said, part of his job will be “making sure the bureaucracies get the decision and implement it.”
Bolton criticized the frequent leaks out of Trump’s national security team, saying that a president cannot conduct diplomacy “if some munchkin in the White House” is leaking information to the news media. “Leaking of that sort is simply unacceptable,” he said.
Bolton’s appointment elicited mixed reviews. “Selecting John Bolton as national security adviser is good news for America’s allies and bad news for America’s enemies,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. “He has a firm understanding of the threats we face from North Korea, Iran and radical Islam.”
Critics, however, expressed concern that a bomb thrower in words could become a bomb thrower in deeds. “Bolton played a key role in politicizing the intel that misled us into the Iraq War,” Sen. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., wrote on Twitter. “We cannot let this extreme war hawk blunder us into another terrible conflict.”
Clifford Kupchan, the chairman of the Eurasia Group, a consulting firm, sent a note to clients warning that Bolton’s appointment “increases risk across the board,” adding that it “makes U.S. foreign policy ‘America First on Steroids.’”
At one point, Bolton toyed with running for president himself, only to back off. Instead, he created an organization to support like-minded candidates. His super PAC was one of the earliest customers of Cambridge Analytica, which has found itself confronting a deepening crisis after reports this past weekend that the firm had harvested the data from more than 50 million Facebook profiles in its bid to develop techniques for predicting the behavior of individual U.S. voters.
The firm was founded with a $15 million investment from Robert Mercer, the wealthy Republican donor who has backed both Bolton’s PAC and Trump. Cambridge’s so-called psychographic modeling techniques, which were built in part with the data harvested from Facebook, underpinned its work for the Trump campaign in 2016, setting off a furious debate about the merits of the firm’s methods. The same techniques were also the focus of its work for Bolton’s PAC.
Using psychographic models, the company designed advertisements for candidates supported by Bolton’s PAC, including the 2014 campaign of Thom Tillis, the Republican senator from North Carolina. One advertisement, a video that was posted on YouTube, was aimed at fearful and neurotic voters – it emphasized security and the idea that Tillis could keep America safe.
Bolton also recorded a video used by a Russian gun rights group in 2013 to encourage Moscow to loosen gun laws, according to a report by NPR. The report said the video was part of an effort by Russian and U.S. gun rights groups to collaborate in the years leading up to the 2016 election.
A native of Baltimore, Bolton, 69, received undergraduate and law degrees from Yale University. Between stints in private practice, he took a series of increasingly important jobs in government, starting at the U.S. Agency for International Development under President Ronald Reagan and later as an assistant attorney general.
After the 2000 election, Bolton joined the Republican legal team in Florida during the recount battle between Bush and Vice President Al Gore. After the Supreme Court halted the recount, resulting in Bush’s victory, Dick Cheney, the new vice president, persuaded the incoming secretary of state, Colin L. Powell, to make Bolton an undersecretary in charge of arms control. In that role, he helped pull the United States out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty but negotiated a separate treaty with Russia paring nuclear arsenals.
When Condoleezza Rice succeeded Powell, she rebuffed pressure from Cheney to make Bolton her deputy. Instead, Bush nominated him for the U.N. post, but key Republicans opposed him, including a former assistant secretary of state who testified that Bolton was a “kiss-up, kick-down sort of guy” who abused underlings.
After the Senate refused to confirm Bolton, Bush gave him a recess appointment instead – a decision he would come to regret. Bolton clashed regularly with Rice and, after leaving office, broke with Bush over what he saw as weak-kneed policies on North Korea and Iran.
After Trump’s election in 2016, Rice and other Bush administration veterans like former Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Stephen J. Hadley, the former national security adviser, privately warned against an appointment for Bolton.
Trump considered Bolton for several posts but ultimately backed away each time. Unlike some of those positions, national security adviser does not require Senate confirmation. In the interim, Bolton has repeatedly praised Trump on television and in his Wall Street Journal columns even when the two disagree.