Analysis

'Pouring kerosene on hot coal': 4 takeaways on John Bolton, Trump's hawkish new security adviser

John Bolton, the hawkish former U.S. diplomat known for his gunslingers' moustache and fiery pro-Trump soundbites on conservative cable TV, is expected to be a hard-edged personality prone to shouting matches in his new role as Donald Trump's third national security adviser in 14 months.

Key storylines to watch from Trump's new appointment of John Bolton

Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, left, has been tapped to become U.S. President Donald Trump's next National Security Adviser. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

John Bolton, the hawkish former U.S. diplomat known for his gunslingers' moustache and fiery pro-Trump soundbites on conservative cable TV, is expected to be a hard-edged personality prone to shouting matches in his new role as Donald Trump's third national security adviser in 14 months.

He isn't likely to be a moderating voice, according to former intelligence and White House officials who have crossed paths with him. Bolton championed the Iraq War and has advocated attacking Iran and North Korea.

His predecessor, the three-star general H.R. McMaster, resigned on Thursday after months of reported dissent with the president. Bolton is not looked upon as favourably by Washington's establishment.

H.R. McMaster is out as U.S. President Donald Trump's national security adviser, Trump tweeted Thursday evening. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

"This is an unsettling outcome," retired four-star general U.S. Army General Barry McCaffrey told CBC News. "What's bothered many of us is that this appointment will unsettle our allies and make our adversaries concerned."

The former ambassador to the UN during the George W. Bush administration is more aligned with Trump's instincts and is a strong supporter of national sovereignty that should dovetail with the president's "America First" whims. His appointment, which does not require a Senate confirmation, means he will take office starting April 9.

It's another sign of big shifts within the Trump presidency and its foreign policy:

North Korea might be on edge

Bolton's appointment may rattle North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un, seen here with some of the hermit nation's Olympic athletes. (KCNA/Reuters)

It's a delicate time for U.S. diplomacy with the hermit kingdom, considering Trump's unprecedented planned meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, set to happen "by May."

But in a Wall Street Journal editorial last month, Bolton argued for a pre-emptive military strike against North Korea to neutralize any possible nuclear threat. Such an action has been widely cautioned as potentially devastating for the region and the more than 23,000 American servicemen and women stationed in South Korea.

"Strike the North Koreans and we'd have an all-out conventional war," McCaffrey said. "We're confident within six months, we could completely destroy the North Korean armed forces. But the problem is we'd never know how many of Kim Jong-un's nukes we got, and if he thought he was losing, he would probably go nuclear."

That could trigger strikes on U.S. naval forces in Japan, Guam, Hawaii, and U.S. military ports of arrival on the Korean Peninsula.

"I personally believe there is zero support for that from any rational policymakers," McCaffrey said.

Eric Edelman, the former Under-Secretary of Defence for Policy, suggested dangling the threat of war might actually be helpful ahead of a U.S.-North Korea summit.

"If it makes the North Koreans worried about what might happen if they don't go down the path of negotiating some denuclearization, it might work in the advantage of diplomacy," said Edelman, who worked with Bolton during the Bush administration.

The Iran nuclear deal is in (deeper) jeopardy

A display featuring missiles and a portrait of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is seen at Baharestan Square in Tehran, Iran in September 2017. Bolton will likely embolden Trump's aggressive stance on Iran. (Nazanin Tabatabaee Yazdi/Reuters)

Bolton's distrust of Iran is well-documented. He wrote a 2015 New York Times column headlined, "To Stop Iran's Bomb, Bomb Iran," arguing that "military action" was necessary in the face of failed diplomacy.

He had previously urged Trump to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal, which suspended the Islamic republic's nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of some sanctions. Trump, who has disparaged the agreement as "one of the worst transactions" the U.S. ever entered into, has already "decertified" the deal. However, Trump has not called on Congress to reapply sanctions.

Having Bolton in the president's ear could "accelerate" the deal's demise, McCaffrey said.

Mark Lowenthal, a former assistant director of the Central Intelligence Agency, expects Bolton to be an ideas-pushing "policy activator" in the same mode of Henry Kissinger as national security adviser for president Richard Nixon.

"He screamed at me once in a meeting. He's not conciliatory. He's something of a bully, I think," Lowenthal said.

John Bolton was the US ambassador to the U.N. who believes there's "no such thing" as the U.N. 10:06

"He's no shrinking violet," added Edelman. "He makes his opinions known. Including to people above him, in my experience."

The departures of McMaster as well as Rex Tillerson as secretary of state removes naysayers, replacing them with harsher critics of the Iran pact such as Mike Pompeo, tapped to replace Tillerson at State.

"The combination of Bolton and Pompeo together makes this administration somewhat more bellicose," Lowenthal said. "Not that Tillerson had tremendous influence with the president, but he was less likely to advocate the use of force."

Trump seems to be trusting his gut more

Trump's new national security adviser, John Bolton, is more likely to agree with the president on key security matters. (Alex Brandon/Associated Press)

White House purges of establishment-friendly staffers have resulted in vacancies being filled by people seeing more eye-to-eye with the president. Tillerson is leaving, as has former economic advisor Gary Cohn, who resigned after a disagreement over Trump's announcement on steel and aluminum tariffs.

"I think the president has had this epiphany, if you will, that he suddenly has a grip on his job; he feels less overwhelemed by it," Lowenthal said. "Now you've got people in there who won't raise opposite options; who won't push back."

The New York Times, citing White House staffers, reported that the president feels newly emboldened about his decision-making after scoring what he considers to be wins — namely his planned summit with Kim and his steel and aluminum tariffs.

"With Bolton, he's bringing in people more likely to agree with him, and likely more willing to be pouring kerosene on hot coal," McCaffrey said.

In the span of a few weeks, the president has reportedly refused to heed legal advice from his personal lawyer in the Mueller probe, and also ignored warnings not to congratulate Russian president Vladimir Putin on his re-election.

Trump lawyer John Dowd resigned on Thursday, reportedly because his counsel was being disregarded. Reports also said Trump was furious about leaks that his well-wishes to Putin over the phone were made against the explicit wishes of his security staff, who provided him with notecards to remind him: "DO NOT CONGRATULATE."

In his defence, Edelman says the president "deserves to have people working for him who agree with him." Having said that, it's also the national security adviser's role, along with the Chief of Staff, "to tell the president unpleasant things the president may not want to hear, and are people who in particular need to disagree with the president."

The reality-TV White House is adding cable-TV talent

Trump is shown on TV monitors while seeking the Republican nomination. A number of key White House staffers are former cable TV personalities. (Jim Urquhart/Reuters)

The new blood flowing into the West Wing shares a common DNA: Cable news.

Bolton has been a fixture on Fox News. Among the reasons he was picked up for NSA was reportedly that Trump enjoyed his TV punditry.

Cohn's replacement on the National Economic Council, Larry Kudlow, was a conservative CNBC commentator. Pete Hegseth, a host on Fox & Friends, has been rumoured as a potential successor for Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin. Another Fox & Friends alum, Heather Nauert, became acting undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs last week.

"Is he good on TV? That's sort of the fraternity," Lowenthal said.

In a modern presidency, with someone known for being a brand on TV, Edelman said, "it's not surprising we would see a presidency in essentially television terms."

Bolton was reportedly passed over for the Secretary of State job early in Trump's administration because the president didn't care for his moustache.

"Apparently the president has gotten over that," Edelman said.

About the Author

Matt Kwong

Reporter

Matt Kwong is a Washington-based correspondent for CBC News. He previously reported for CBC News as an online journalist in New York and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at: @matt_kwong

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