WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump's pick of John Bolton for his next national security adviser stirred up the same burning question Friday in Washington as in anxious foreign capitals: Just how much will his hawkish, confrontational approach rub off on Trump?
As he confronts matters of war and peace with North Korea and Iran, Trump is bringing in an adviser likely to magnify many of his own instinctive qualities: hard-hitting, fiercely nationalistic and eager to confront U.S. adversaries. In his first year in office, Trump surrounded himself with foreign policy aides whose views spanned a wide spectrum. Bolton's pick rounds out a team that in Trump's second year will compromise almost entirely hawks whose public views on national security veer decidedly to the right.
Yet historically, even those who espoused the most extreme positions as private citizens have a way of moderating when faced with the awesome task of running the nation. And Trump has been known to overrule even the consensus of his aides in the past.
In Bolton's White House meeting with Trump on Thursday, hours before the president announced the pick, the former U.N. ambassador told Trump he would separate his personal opinions from his responsibility as national security adviser to present all sides and arguments to the commander in chief, according to a person familiar with Trump's exchange with Bolton.
He told the president that when asked for his view, he won't hesitate to share it, but will give Trump room to decide, said the individual, who wasn't authorized to discuss private conversations and requested anonymity.
"The important thing is what the president says," Bolton said on Fox News late Thursday after news broke of his selection, declining to repeat his past bellicose rhetoric about North Korea, Russia or Iran. "If the government can't have a free interchange of ideas among the president's advisers then I think the president is not well served."
Trump has admired Bolton for years, praising him on Twitter as far back as 2014. Trump has told allies he thinks Bolton is "a killer" on television, where Bolton is a frequent face on Fox News, even though he has voiced some unhappiness about his trademark mustache, said a person familiar the president's thinking but not permitted to reveal private discussions.
Still, Bolton's pick sent shockwaves through the diplomatic and military communities, and on social media, fueling speculation that the prospects for global confrontation are increasing. After all, in the span of a week Trump named Bolton to replace H.R. McMaster and current CIA Director Mike Pompeo to replace Secretary of State Rex Tillerson — ousting two aides seen as tempering influences in favor of others who have advocated a hard-line approach to North Korea and fierce opposition to the Iran nuclear deal.
Two State Department officials and two Western diplomats in Washington said Friday that their offices are now operating under the assumption that Trump will almost surely pull out of the Iran deal. Bolton has tweeted that withdrawal should be "a top @realDonaldTrump administration priority" and that U.S. policy instead should be "aimed at regime change in Tehran."
Faced with that uncertainty, some American diplomats posted to the Middle East have been discussing among themselves the possibility of a war and how they could evacuate the region if needed. All of the officials requested anonymity to discuss diplomatic conversations.
Trump's upcoming, unprecedented summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is another variable that could be shaped by Bolton's pick. Instead of diplomatic outreach favored by Tillerson and others, Bolton less than a month ago advocated a pre-emptive U.S. military strike in a Wall Street Journal editorial.
"It is perfectly legitimate for the United States to respond to the current 'necessity' posed by North Korea's nuclear weapons by striking first," he wrote.
Bolton, a Yale Law School graduate, served as President George W. Bush's U.N. ambassador as a "recess appointment" due to broad opposition to his confirmation in the Senate. Yet Bolton's allies have pointed out that for all the fiery rhetoric, Bolton has spent his career as a diplomat — he was once the State Department's top arms control official — and has never sought a military role.
Another unknown: how Bolton's world view and Trump's "America First" doctrine will intersect.
Trump's definition of "America First" has always been somewhat nebulous, although he's stressed the importance of U.S. sovereignty, limited overseas intervention and burden-sharing among allies so that Washington doesn't disproportionately foot the bill.
Bolton, as U.S. ambassador, was sharply critical of the United Nations and its notoriously cumbersome bureaucracy — a view of multilateral obligations that echoes that of Trump. He was equally disinclined to indulge the bureaucratic constraints of the State Department back in Washington.
One U.S. official who worked for the State Department when Bolton was at the U.N. said that the assistant secretary of state for international organizations, whose office oversees the U.S. Mission to the U.N., was in a constant tug-of-war with Bolton and his chief of staff, trying with limited success to rein in Bolton or persuade him to tone down his public comments.
But while Bolton's pugnaciousness might pair well with Trump's, his views could cause friction with the president's anti-interventionist bent. Trump, for example, made a campaign-trail mantra out of his opposition to the Iraq War, an intervention Bolton championed.
Although McMaster was beloved by many on the National Security Council staff, he never developed a personal rapport with Trump, who chafed at his long-winded briefing style, White House officials and another person close to Trump said. Both Mattis and Kelly angled for McMaster to be replaced.
But neither had lobbied for Bolton, and now they must contend with a powerful voice who has his own public profile and extensive experience maneuvering in government. Kelly has expressed concerns to confidants about Bolton having unfettered access to the president, one person familiar with his thinking said.
Lemire reported from New York. Associated Press writer Zeke Miller contributed to this report.