As the yellow Sky News ticker flashed up yesterday announcing John Bolton’s departure from the White House, a colleague said something that seemed remarkable: “Donald Trump hasn’t made news in ages”.
t wasn’t a reflection of a period of relative calm in the United States – far from it – but more of a recognition that our own parliamentary shenanigans have overtaken the political theatre usually dominated by Trump. Not that we’re keeping scores, but at least the political chicanery in Westminster has been driven by politics and technical process. In Washington, President Trump caused controversy when he changed the forecast of a hurricane’s impact with a black sharpie (see above)
Bolton’s firing should not have come as a surprise. Trump was reportedly furious with him after he disapproved of the White House’s plans to host the Taliban for peace talks at Camp David. So Trump took to Twitter – naturally – to announce that he “disagreed strongly with many of his suggestions, as did others in the Administration”.
It has not even been 24 hours since the Bolton departure was announced, but already plenty of ink has been spilled analysing ‘what this means for X’. In truth, it is difficult to assess the implications of Bolton’s departure on US foreign policy. The Times of Israel’s analysis of what the departure means for the country, whilst excellent, begins by saying: ‘while a major change in US policy doesn’t appear to be in the offing’ – reflecting the fact that a change in personnel in this White House does not always result in a significant swing in policy.
Instead, Bolton’s leaving is yet another chapter in the never-ending book of who’s up and who’s down in Trump’s inner circle. It further proves that, when faced with honest disagreement, the President relies on his own self-belief and opinions at the expense of any notion of loyalty or challenge.
From a policy perspective, Bolton was a hawkish foreign policy adviser whose appointment came as a surprise, given his divergence with Trump on the role of the USA on the global stage. It was never clear how Bolton’s gung-ho interventionist approach would play during this ‘America First’ presidency. Bolton pursued a deeply hard-line agenda on Venezuela, North Korea and – most notably – Iran.
In the past he had called for the bombing of the country, hence Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s President, responding to the news by saying the US should put “warmongers aside”. But having pulled out of the Iran deal last year and significantly ratcheted up pressure on Iran with Bolton by his side, there is no suggestion Trump will now preside over a cooling of tensions in the region, even without the advice of Bolton.
Instead, we are more likely to see the president double down on his deeply personal approach to foreign policy. Richard Haass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations and a former adviser to Republican Secretary of State Colin Powell, described how “the president has unlimited and totally misplaced confidence in summitry and in the power of his personality”.
On high stakes relations with the likes of North Korea, Iran, China and Afghanistan, there will be one less dissenting voice urging the President to put his faith in his negotiating teams as opposed to his own personal relationships with presidents, prime ministers and dictators.
Foreign and defence policy have been the areas with the most churn when it comes to personnel during Trump’s tenure. There is no sign of this stopping any time soon. Trump will announce a new National Security Adviser in the next week, becoming the first president to have four such advisers in his first term. With the presidential election not taking place until November 2020, your columnist bets he will become the first president to have a fifth and sixth too.