For months, the political world has seen a series of reports about the growing distance between Donald Trump and White House National Security Adviser John Bolton. At times, that distance has been literal: when the president traveled to the Korean peninsula in June, and entered North Korea, he brought with him family members and a Fox News personality, but not his top aide on matters of national security.
The New York Times reported in May that Trump and Bolton “have never clicked personally,” and there’s never been the kind of “chemistry” the president considers important.
But the division is about far more than personalities. This Washington Post report from the other day amazed me.
As the president’s top aides prepared for a high-stakes meeting on the future of Afghanistan earlier this month, one senior official was not on the original invite list: national security adviser John Bolton.
The attendance of the top security aide would normally be critical, but the omission was no mistake, senior U.S. officials said. Bolton, who has long advocated an expansive military presence around the world, has become a staunch internal foe of an emerging peace deal aimed at ending America’s longest war, the officials said.
Trump has differed with his national security adviser on everything from Iran to Venezuela to North Korea, but Bolton’s opposition to diplomacy in Afghanistan has apparently “irritated” the president and “led aides to leave the National Security Council out of sensitive discussions about the agreement.”
According to the Post’s report, Bolton asked for a copy of the draft agreement the United States is trying to strike with the Taliban, but his request was denied: “[T]he U.S. envoy leading the negotiations, Zalmay Khalilzad, denied the request, saying Bolton could read the agreement in the presence of a senior official but not leave with it in hand, U.S. officials said.”
Just so we’re absolutely clear, my point is not to present Bolton as some kind of sympathetic victim. I thought Trump hiring him for this post was ridiculous and I’ll be relieved when Bolton is no longer a White House official.
But in a practical sense, therein lies the point: if Bolton has been sidelined to such a degree that officials are keeping him in the dark on major national security questions, for all intents and purposes, he’s not actually doing the job anymore.
In a functioning modern White House, the national security adviser is integral to the process through which a president and his/her team make decisions related to foreign policy, intelligence, and national security.
Just when it seemed the dysfunction on Team Trump couldn’t get worse, these guys manage to kick things up a notch.