Trump tries (and fails) to deflect blame for the John Bolton mess

Updated

A reporter asked Donald Trump in the Oval Office yesterday about why he and former White House National Security Adviser John Bolton parted ways. The president’s case suggested he knew he needed to criticize Bolton, but he wasn’t altogether sure how.

“So, John is somebody that I actually got along with very well. He made some very big mistakes. When he talked about the Libyan model for Kim Jong Un, that was not a good statement to make. You just take a look at what happened with Qaddafi. That was not a good statement to make, and it set us back…. We were set back very badly when John Bolton talked about the Libyan model. And he made a mistake. And as soon as he mentioned that, the Libyan model, what a disaster.”

There may be some truth to this. Bolton really did talk up “the Libya model” for North Korea, suggesting he envisioned a dynamic in which Kim Jong Un would give up his nuclear program, at which point the dictator would face a domestic rebellion, be forced from power, before ultimately being killed.

The trouble, though, is that Bolton made these comments in April 2018. Trump made it sound yesterday like this was an important example of the national security adviser’s disastrous incompetence, but the president kept Bolton at his post for nearly 19 months after he made the comments – which seems to suggest they weren’t too significant a problem.

That led to the president’s second argument: “And, frankly, [Bolton] wanted to do things – not necessarily tougher than me. You know, John is known as a tough guy. He’s so tough, he got us into Iraq.”

It’s true that Bolton, one of the nation’s most caustic and notorious hawks, has a dreadful record on national security judgments, including his assessments about the war in Iraq. But his catastrophic misjudgments about the conflict were in 2002 and 2003 – and Trump tapped him for the powerful White House post in 2018.

Or put another way, if Trump was so unimpressed with Bolton’s failed foreign policy discernments, it raises the question of why in the world he hired the guy in the first place.

The president went on to argue, “I don’t blame Kim Jong Un for what he said after that. And he wanted nothing to do with John Bolton.”

Well, no, I suppose not. I don’t want anything to do with John Bolton, either. But Trump’s comments yesterday made it sound as if the assessments of the dictatorial head of a rogue nuclear power matter when evaluating White House staff. That’s really not how this is supposed to work.

And that, in a nutshell, was the president’s case against his third national security adviser: he was wrong about Iraq 15 years ago, and he bothered North Korea 19 months ago.

The larger point that Trump hopes no one notices is that Bolton’s tenure is the latest in a series of spectacular personnel screw-ups for which the president is solely responsible. He hired a national security adviser whose vision he disagreed with because he liked some of the things he heard Bolton say on television, and wouldn’t you know it, that proved to be a poor criteria.

Yesterday was Trump’s effort to deflect blame for this mess. It wasn’t exactly persuasive.