WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump said Tuesday he had fired national security adviser John Bolton, announcing in a tweet that he had told Bolton on Monday night that “his services are no longer needed” after the two had repeatedly clashed over foreign policy priorities and decisions.
The abrupt ouster of Trump’s third national security adviser comes as the White House grapples with a series of fraught security challenges, including Trump’s cancellation of peace talks with the Taliban in Afghanistan, his costly trade war with China, his “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran, and his attempts, unsuccessful so far, to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear arsenal.
While Trump said he would name a new national security adviser next week, the latest high-level shake-up at the White House raised fresh doubts about Trump’s stewardship of foreign policy – and control of his own staff – as he headed into his reelection campaign.
The White House said Charles Kupperman, who joined the administration in January as deputy national security adviser, would replace Bolton in an acting role. Trump has left “acting” officials atop several federal agencies, so he could leave Kupperman in place or name a replacement as he promised on Tuesday.
Kupperman, 68, has spent four decades in the national security establishment, focusing on defense, arms control and aerospace. He served in President Ronald Reagan’s administration and worked for defense contractors Boeing and Lockheed Martin. He has a doctorate in strategic studies from the University of Southern California.
A White House spokesman, Hogan Gidley, said the president wanted a national security adviser “who can carry out his agenda,” which includes disengaging from foreign conflicts. “It’s very clear that John Bolton’s policies and priorities did not align with President Trump’s,” he said on Fox News.
After Trump canceled his proposed meeting last weekend at Camp David, Md., with members of the Taliban and the Afghan government, stories quickly emerged that Bolton had strongly opposed the summit and the proposed peace deal with the Taliban – and to some at the White House, he appeared to take credit for their collapse.
According to a senior administration official, the president came to believe that Bolton “was not fully on the team” as he balked at defending Trump publicly as forcefully as Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo and Vice President Mike Pence have.
Trump, the official said, believed Bolton and his staff leaked stories about internal division, including those related to the president’s scuttled meeting with the Taliban last weekend, which bothered the president more than the disagreement itself. Pence ardently disputed that narrative in a tweet, and Pompeo took to the airwaves Sunday, appearing on all five morning politics shows to defend and explain the president’s decisions.
Bolton, who had canceled several recent television appearances, did not offer the same sort of public defense or praise for the president – a sin in the eyes of Trump that apparently mattered more than any substantive policy disagreement.
As often happens under Trump, there was immediate confusion as to the sequence of events, and under what circumstances, with Trump and Bolton offering conflicting accounts of whether he had resigned or been fired.
Trump tweeted around noon Monday that he had sacked Bolton “last night,” adding, “I disagreed strongly with many of his suggestions, as did others in the Administration.”
“I asked John for his resignation, which was given to me this morning. I thank John very much for his service,” he said.
But Bolton quickly challenged that sequence of events. “I offered to resign last night and President Trump said, ‘Let’s talk about it tomorrow,’” Bolton tweeted about 10 minutes after Trump’s announcement.
As is typical under Trump, the dispute unfolded in dramatic fashion on Twitter and live TV. Bolton, still at the White House, texted Fox News host Brian Kilmeade while he was on the air.
“John Bolton just texted me, just now, he’s watching,” Kilmeade said. “He said, ‘Let’s be clear, I resigned.’”
Less than an hour earlier, the White House had notified reporters that Bolton would appear at a 1:30 p.m. briefing with two Cabinet officials – Pompeo and Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin. By the time they stepped to the podium, Bolton was no longer in the building.
In a sign of the internal divisions in Trump’s national security team, Pompeo didn’t sugarcoat the clashes.
“There were many times Ambassador Bolton and I disagreed,” Pompeo said. “That’s to be sure.”
Mnuchin, who also had clashed with Bolton, reminded reporters at the briefing that “the president’s view of the Iraq War and Ambassador Bolton’s are very different.”
Bolton strongly backed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and never renounced that view, even after it became clear the decision to invade was based on faulty intelligence. Trump, who initially said he backed the war, later turned against it.
Bolton’s terse resignation letter was released in late afternoon. “I hereby resign, effective immediately, as Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs. Thank you for having afforded me this opportunity to serve our country,” it read.
His ouster came as a surprise even though his increasing isolation from Trump and lack of influence on foreign policy matters was no secret within the White House.
A prominent hawk and neoconservative, Bolton held positions at the Justice and State departments before President George W. Bush named him U.S. ambassador to the United Nations as a recess appointment in 2005. Bolton resigned 18 months later when it became clear he would not win Senate confirmation.
He was a Fox News contributor when Trump named him national security adviser in April 2018. Trump announced the appointment on Twitter, surprising Bolton with its timing.
During his 17 months in the job, he supported Trump on several key issues – especially the decision to withdraw from the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran –but he also advocated aggressive stances toward North Korea and Afghanistan that put the two in conflict.
Bolton also took the lead on Venezuela, assuring Trump that its president, Nicolas Maduro, could be easily ousted from office. At one news briefing, Bolton stood with a notepad on which he’d scrawled a line about “5,000 troops to Venezuela” that appeared to be a threat of a U.S. incursion.