The Trump presidency has been a singular phenomenon to put it mildly — and some of its key characteristics were prefigured in the campaign. Any attentive observer could have anticipated that this President would be a disruptor of established norms and ways of doing business in Washington. He also would be the unrelenting center of attention; his ego and compulsive narcissism would require it. True to such expectations, this presidency has been a constant drama with an unceasing focus on Donald Trump. The stories — substantive, salacious, outrageous and startling — have surrounded the Oval Office like a nonstop tornado from the very moment The Donald took the oath of office.
Yet, the President’s initial selections for his security team seemed almost conventional — until the last two weeks. The President has discarded and replaced his most senior officials with an alacrity unseen in U.S. history. The latest roll call includes his most senior economic advisor (Cohn), his secretary of state (Tillerson) and his national security advisor (McMaster) — and lest we forget, the President’s personal lawyer quit. Each of these men (they and their replacements are all gray-haired white males) had something crucial in common. They were all “establishment” figures — from Wall Street, industry and the military. They all worked instinctively to protect and promote established norms and institutions and they were internationalists who believed deeply in the importance of U.S. alliances and partnerships and in the critical stabilizing role of international law and agreements. Together they tried to restrain Trump’s more destructive foreign policy inclinations — his unilateralism, his propensity toward policy by personal whim, his offhand disregard for friends and allies — all adding up to an extreme personalization of policymaking. If Cohn, Tillerson and McMaster were steady as you go, Trump is make it up as you go along. Now these steadying hands are gone and replaced with something quite different. In the economic seat, we have Larry Kudlow, a TV personality. At State, we have Mike Pompeo, most recently at the CIA but before that a hard-right congressman from Kansas. As the national security advisor (NSA), we have John Bolton, a former senior official in the George W. Bush State Department and longtime commentator on Fox News. All of them share a strong propensity to use American military power to dictate outcomes in the international arena. Of these, the most instructive is Bolton.
The NSA sits astride the entire U.S. security apparatus (State, Defense and Intelligence), where he controls and channels information and advice to the President. The gold standard for this position was set in the George H.W. Bush administration by Gen. Brent Scowcroft. Scowcroft saw his job as ensuring that the President had all the information and viewpoints needed to reach an informed decision on the policy issue at hand. Every senior official in the administration knew that Scowcroft, whatever his own views, would ensure them a fair hearing. For Scowcroft it was all about an evenhanded, accessible process. John Bolton, in direct contrast, is a highly opinionated, rigid ideologue. He describes himself as “not a process person.” Former colleagues who worked with him at the State Department describe him as a “bomb thrower.” He was also well known for his propensity to flatter his superiors and abuse his subordinates. A close colleague and former assistant secretary of state described him in Senate testimony as a “kiss up, kick down kind of guy.” On several occasions when intelligence analysts reached conclusions that contradicted his personal views, he tried to get them fired. He also has exhibited a volcanic temper. A former USAID contractor testified that in 1994 Bolton in a blind rage chased her through a hotel “throwing things at me, shoving threatening letters under my door and, generally, behaving like a madman.” This, America, is your new NSA who will have the President’s ear regarding the use of military power, including nuclear weapons, on an almost hourly basis. Bolton is on recent record as recommending the United States launch military attacks against North Korea and Iran. Give him credit for consistency; he was a strong advocate for the U.S. attack on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, a decision that President Trump has described as the worst in modern American history.
When the White House was not announcing personnel changes, it was declaring that the United States would impose major unilateral tariffs on steel and aluminum imports as well as a range of other protectionist measures. The cries of protest from overseas suppliers and domestic users of steel and aluminum was immediate, prompting the administration to announce a basket of temporary exceptions for allies such as Canada, Australia and Korea — but inexplicably leaving out Japan. As of this point, it is entirely unclear what these tariffs and other unannounced measures actually entail, but what is clear is the principal target is China with its grim record of unfair trade and investment practices. The Chinese have already promised a robust retaliation against any U.S. measures deemed unfriendly. Talk of a trade war between the world’s two largest economies is in the air.
If you find all of this a bit unsettling, look at the bright side. If you feared that over time the Trump White House would settle into a normal conventional routine — not to worry. On the immediate agenda, we have conflicts ongoing or potential involving Afghanistan, Syria, North Korea and Iran, not to mention a potential trade war. And Bolton can be relied on to urge the most combative policy option available in each case.