Pompeo is ‘last man standing’ after Bolton departs White House
The end of John Bolton’s fractious tenure as national security adviser leaves one man at the helm of the Trump administration’s foreign policy as it manages crises from Iran to North Korea: Secretary of State Michael Pompeo.
From the moment Bolton arrived at the White House in April 2018, he brought a hawkish foreign policy vision honed over decades – a mindset that would inevitably collide with the unorthodox style of Donald Trump and culminate in his firing on Tuesday. Bolton’s approach stood in contrast to Pompeo’s deference to the president, first as Central Intelligence Agency chief and then as secretary of state.
Pompeo is now without peer on Trump’s national security team. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper is weeks into his job, there’s no confirmed director of national intelligence and United Nations Ambassador Kelly Craft was only confirmed on Tuesday. Among the president’s advisers, Pompeo will have the biggest sway on decisions about brokering a deal with Iran, restarting talks with North Korea and finding a way to draw down forces in Afghanistan.
“Last man standing,” James Dobbins, a senior fellow at the Rand Corp., said of Pompeo, though he quickly added that it’s “unclear whether he guides or just anticipates the president.”
Pompeo rarely displays any emotion beyond impatience when he answers questions from reporters. But he was almost jocular during a news conference with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin on Tuesday when asked about Bolton’s departure.
Trump “should have people he trusts and values, and whose efforts and judgments benefit him in delivering American foreign policy,” Pompeo said. He added that he never talks about internal administration matters, then promptly did: “There were definitely places that Ambassador Bolton and I had different views about how we should proceed.”
As the last remaining member of Trump’s original national security cabinet, Pompeo has proved adept at making sure no distance emerges between his and the president’s views. It’s a rule that Bolton and his predecessor, H.R. McMaster, along with ex-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, couldn’t resist breaking.
Pompeo’s ascendancy also reverses a decade-long trend that saw the State Department relinquish control over foreign policy as the National Security Council gained influence.
The 55-year-old former Kansas congressman, who joined the administration as director of the CIA, moved quickly when he arrived at the State Department, naming envoys reporting directly to him to manage American policy toward North Korea, Iran, Venezuela, Afghanistan and Syria. Since then, it’s been that group that has largely been charged with pressing Trump’s prerogatives.
Bolton had the advantage of working near the Oval Office and far more experience in the executive branch as a former UN ambassador and a key architect of President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq. Yet he was often reduced to playing the role of spoiler.
Bolton and his team stymied the State Department in the spring when it wanted to extend waivers to allow Iran to export some of its oil. And he vehemently objected to an Afghanistan peace plan drawn up by Pompeo’s staff that would have seen the U.S. withdraw troops in exchange for security guarantees from the Taliban.
Now, U.S. officials say they are planning for the possibility that Trump will meet with Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York at the end of the month. Trump has been open to the idea, and Pompeo, in his typical way, has been vague about his own views.
“The President has made very clear he is prepared to meet with no preconditions,” Pompeo told reporters at the Tuesday briefing, brushing off a question about whether he supported the idea.
There were other signs of discord between Bolton and the president. When Trump stepped across the border into North Korea for a brief meeting with Kim Jong Un in June, Bolton was in Mongolia. Before joining the administration, he long called for preemptive strikes on Iran over its nuclear program, while Trump frequently says he favors talking with adversaries.
“This break has been building for a long time and finally culminated with the fiasco that ensued over the Afghanistan talks,” said Suzanne DiMaggio, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Having someone like Bolton on the team who is so strong in his opinions, that comes in handy when he’s agreeing with you, but when he’s not, it can be a major irritation.”
Yet Bolton’s views, while sometimes extreme, generally aligned with ideas shared by many conservatives, melding an interventionist approach with a willingness to escalate pressure on adversaries. He coupled that with a willingness to engage in bureaucratic infighting, which made enemies within agencies and among those who had the president’s ear.
Pompeo’s staff had been in open conflict with Bolton’s for months, with State Department officials deriding Bolton aides for demanding updates on policy issues over which Pompeo had control.
“There’s no question the knives were out for John,” said Danielle Pletka, senior vice president of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, where Bolton was once a senior fellow. “He’s a conservative hawk, period, that’s what he is.”
When Bolton came into the job, it seemed like he would use it as a chance to to fulfill some of his long-held foreign-policy goals, such as driving a stake into the International Criminal Court, abrogating a range of arms-control treaties and getting the U.S. out of the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran.
Ultimately, the biggest difference between Bolton and Pompeo may have been less about policy than how effectively they negotiated the tumultuous world of the Trump presidency, a roller coaster that has seen unprecedented senior staff turnover.
“At the end of the day I think a lot of his own instincts actually did coincide with Bolton’s, especially on Iran, so it’s unclear to me if things are handed off to Pompeo exclusively how much things will change,” DiMaggio said.
But style can be substance. Pompeo has said that when he disagrees with the president, he takes those concerns directly to him. Then he falls into line.
“I work hard for the president of the United States, who was constitutionally elected,” Pompeo told “CBS This Morning” last month. “He is my leader, my task is to share with him the best information.”
Once Trump makes a decision, Pompeo said, “it is my task to go execute that with all the energy and power that I have.”
It’s not clear how long Pompeo will remain in Trump’s orbit. He is widely believed to harbor aspirations for the Senate and could run for an open seat in Kansas next year. But for now his position in the president’s inner circle appears solid. Trump summed up his favorite part of the dynamic with Pompeo during an interview with New York magazine in October 2018.
“I argue with everyone except Pompeo,” Trump said. “I don’t think I’ve had an argument with Pompeo.”
–With assistance from Saleha Mohsin and Jennifer Jacobs.