Donald Trump Is No Dick Cheney

Republican foreign policy was once defined by clashing world views. Now it’s defined only by loyalty to the president.

At first glance, the recent drone strike ordered by President Trump against an Iranian general would seem to return Republican foreign policy to the George W. Bush era. Several elements of the attack reflected the approach to the world defined by Mr. Bush’s vice president, Dick Cheney: a belief in the efficacy of military force, the validity of pre-emptive attack and the determination to avoid seeking approval from congressional leaders. But on closer examination, such comparisons fail. In his foreign policy, Mr. Trump represents something wholly new.

The president’s recent actions underscore the fact that the Republican Party has no guiding principles; it has only Mr. Trump, who demands loyalty to himself as its leader. Nor does the party leadership have senior figures with long experience in foreign policy who might challenge Mr. Trump’s thinking. The Republican Party, which once served as home for a variety of clashing philosophies about foreign policy, has lost its moorings.

Consider the party’s history in recent decades and the contrast with where the party stands today. Over the past half-century, the Republicans had been loosely split between two approaches for dealing with the world. One was the traditional, alliance-centered internationalism that had held sway, for example, under President George H.W. Bush. The other was the hawkish unilateralism of the party’s neoconservatives, who had gathered strength during the Reagan administration.

During the George W. Bush administration, Secretary of State Colin Powell carried forward, if imperfectly, the ideas of internationalism; Vice President Cheney embraced many of the views of the neoconservatives. These two schools of thought came into acrimonious conflict over Iraq, Israel, North Korea and other issues.

Now, under Mr. Trump, the Republican Party has been transformed in such a way that neither internationalists nor neoconservatives hold influence in the White House. Mr. Trump has weaved, wavered and reversed course on foreign policy based on his views of the moment, and as he has, the Republicans have followed. The factional disputes that characterized the Bush years have been replaced by a single question: Are you loyal to President Trump or not?

There is no one to challenge Mr. Trump now. In contrast, consider the era of Mr. Cheney and Mr. Powell. Those two men were the most durable figures at the top of America’s foreign policy apparatus from 1988 to 2008, encompassing the end of the Cold War and its aftermath.

During those 20 years, Mr. Powell served for nine years under four American presidents as national security adviser, chairman of the Joint Chiefs and secretary of state. Mr. Cheney served for a total of 12 years as secretary of defense and vice president. The Trump administration has nothing comparable; indeed, not one of the senior leaders in the current administration, including the vice president, secretary of state and defense or national security adviser, has been involved at the top ranks in any previous administration.

Even the more experienced officials Mr. Trump initially appointed to senior foreign-policy jobs, like former Defense Secretary James Mattis and the former national security adviser H.R. McMaster, had spent less previous time in senior Washington positions than veterans of previous Republican administrations (who also included figures such as Brent Scowcroft and Robert Gates). And even these older hands — the “adults in the room,” as they were often called — left the Trump administration within two years.

Determined, experienced advisers can sometimes deflect a president’s worst instincts and ideas. While doing book research in the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, I ran across the astonishing fact that in the fall of 1988, well after the Iran-contra scandal was behind him, President Reagan secretly tried to revive efforts to pay Iran for the release of American hostages in Lebanon, and to forge a new relationship with Iran.

“We have billions,” Mr. Reagan told Mr. Powell, his national security adviser. But Mr. Powell was adamantly opposed to the idea and made sure it didn’t happen. (In the early 2000s, he was less strongly opposed to the idea of going to war in Iraq, the venture strongly supported by Mr. Cheney.)

It is tempting for liberals to assume that all their opponents on the political right are alike, or stem from the same source — and that therefore, Dick Cheney somehow led to Donald Trump. But that’s not correct; Mr. Trump’s origins, outlook and style are quite different from those of Mr. Cheney.

Mr. Cheney’s rise to power — indeed, his very persona — was based on a preoccupation with government processes and a familiarity with the national-security bureaucracies (call them the “deep state”) that Mr. Trump so often disdains. Mr. Cheney has at times voiced disapproval of some of the linchpins of Mr. Trump’s foreign policy, such as his dealings with Russia and North Korea. John Bolton, Mr. Trump’s former national security adviser, represented the last link in the top ranks of the Trump administration to the determinedly hawkish policies advocated by Mr. Cheney.

As for Mr. Powell, it is at this point hard even to recall how or why he identified himself as a Republican. Yet at the time the Cold War was ending, the Democrats were calling for a “peace dividend” that included substantial cuts in the defense budget, and Mr. Powell, working closely with Mr. Cheney, labored hard, and for the most part successfully, to resist those efforts.

Mr. Powell’s eventual alienation from the Republican Party was a result of the same forces and dynamics that would eventually propel the rise of Mr. Trump: nativism and hostility toward immigrants and racial minorities. When Mr. Powell appeared before the Republican National Convention in 1996, he made a plea for diversity and tolerance.

“The Hispanic immigrant who became a citizen yesterday must be as precious as a Mayflower descendant,” he told the delegates then. That speech was greeted by a smattering of boos. In 2008, when Mr. Powell announced he could not support the Republican presidential nominee (even though it was his old friend John McCain), Mr. Powell specifically cited the mood of Republicans who had claimed that Senator McCain’s opponent, Barack Obama, was a Muslim.

The Trump Republicans long ago abandoned Mr. Powell and virtually everything he stood for — and while it may seem less obvious right now, they have cut loose from Cheneyism, too. We can see the party’s absence of ideas or strategy in the current policies on the Middle East and North Korea.

The drone strike came alongside Mr. Trump’s purported effort to lessen America’s involvement in the Middle East. His personal diplomacy with Kim Jong-un of North Korea and President Vladimir Putin of Russia might appear to be in line with Mr. Powell’s emphasis on diplomacy — but under Mr. Trump, what has counted so far is only the word “personal,” not the diplomacy. As a result, the Republicans are left with no past and no ideas, merely a single man and his vagaries.

Blowhard on the Brink

As shocking as it is to write this sentence, it must be said: Donald Trump did something right.

He finally noticed the abyss once he was right on top of it, calling off a retaliatory strike on Iran after belatedly learning, he said, that 150 people could die.

“I didn’t like it,” Trump told Chuck Todd. “I didn’t think it was proportionate.”

And thank God — and Allah — that he stumbled out just as he stumbled in.

It’s breathtaking that Washington’s conservative foreign policy mandarins would drag us back into Mideast quicksand when we haven’t even had a reckoning about the lies, greed, self-interest and naïveté that led U.S. officials to make so many tragic mistakes in the region.

We sweep in with oblivious swagger, with most Americans not knowing the difference between Shiites and Sunnis, assuming we’re going to swiftly kick butt in an asymmetrical cakewalk. And then we end up stalemated and playing into our enemies’ hands, with hundreds of thousands dead and $5.9 trillion bill for the post-9/11 wars — not to mention that Trumpworld has ended up deeper in the murderous House of Saud’s embrace.

The president blundered into the crisis by canceling the Iranian nuclear deal, tweet-taunting about the “end of Iran” and hiring the hirsute Iran warmonger John Bolton. And our president is such a mercurial blowhard, he could screw it all up again before this column even hits The Times home page.

I’ve been at this treacherous juncture before with presidents. Once the gears in Washington get going, once the military-industrial complex is “cocked & loaded,” once the hawks around you begin Iago-whispering that if you don’t go forward, you’ll be unmanned, it’s awfully hard to reverse course.

Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld steamrollered W. into the forever war in Iraq by playing on his fears of being a wimp if he pulled back once the Pentagon had moved troops, carriers, covert agents and B-2 bombers into the Persian Gulf. The Saudis told W. that Saddam was not sitting on a cache of W.M.D.s, and was simply blustering like any Arab despot would, but W. dreaded being labeled a wimp, as his father had been in his first presidential campaign.

By Friday morning, Republicans were already painting Trump as a scaredy-cat and Iran as a feral cornered cat.

Representative Adam Kinzinger, a Republican from Illinois and Iraq war veteran, told MSNBC that the idea we could now negotiate with Iran “has the potential of inviting a look of weakness.”

Cheney came back to haunt us in the form of his dagger-tongued daughter Liz, the Wyoming House member, who said Trump’s inaction “could in fact be a very serious mistake.” She lobbed the nastiest insult she could think of, comparing Trump to Barack Obama.

Even “Fox & Friends,” which can always be counted on to fluff Trump’s ego, raised doubts. Brian Kilmeade warned: “North Korea’s watching. All our enemies are watching.”

But maybe something new could work with the impossible child-man in the White House: positive reinforcement.

That was very smart, Mr. President, not to tangle with the Persians, who have been engaged in geopolitics since 550 B.C., until you have a better sense of exactly what is going on here. Listen to your isolationist instincts and your base, not to batty Bolton. You don’t want to get mired in a war that could spill over to Saudi Arabia and Israel, sparking conflagrations from Afghanistan to Lebanon and beyond.

Just remember: The Iranians are great negotiators with a bad hand and you are a terrible negotiator with a good hand.

Trump told Todd that he thought the Iranians shot down a $130 million drone to get his attention because they wanted to talk. (Like when a little kid flicks a paper airplane at your head, but more expensive.) A rare case of Trump’s bloated ego working to our advantage.

It is not hard to imagine Bolton and Mike Pompeo conjuring a Tonkin specter, with a drone or U.S. plane buzzing Iranian airspace to provoke Iran to respond, so we can start a war. It’s also not hard to imagine the two uber-hawks doing this without Trump understanding what’s going on. And it’s certainly easy to think that Trump might not be leveling with us about how this went down.

At least, unlike W. — another underinformed president — Trump is not a captive of the neocons. He has outside advisers, after all: Fox News anchors.

It’s hard to believe that the man standing between us and another world war is Tucker Carlsonlate of “Dancing With the Stars.”

But we must count on Carlson, who, The Daily Beast reported, has been calling Trump directly to counteract Sean Hannity, who has been cheerleading on air for a strike, threatening Iran: “You’re going to get the living crap bombed out of you.”

Carlson is pointing out something that Trump needs to hear: “The very people — in some cases, literally the same people who lured us into the Iraq quagmire 16 years ago — are demanding a new war, this one with Iran.” He compared the warped intelligence Bush officials used to justify the 2003 Iraq invasion with the “misplaced certainty” exhibited by Pompeo over iffy evidence that Iran attacked a pair of oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman.

Carlson also cogently noted that Bolton is goading Trump because, for him, a war with Iran would “be like Christmas, Thanksgiving, his birthday wrapped into one.”

Donald “I always attack back … except 100x more” Trump has always been a faux tough guy. In this case, the faux caused a pause — and that was a good thing.

The real reason Bill Barr is defending Trump

The attorney general didn’t want to serve Donald Trump. But he did want to fight for a theory of presidential power.

After his combative news conference moments before the release of the Mueller report, one GOP operative wished aloud that Trump would drop Vice President Mike Pence from the ticket in 2020 and add Barr instead. Other prominent Republicans speak of him in almost adulatory terms. “Barr is the closest thing we have to [former Vice President Dick] Cheney,” said Chuck Cooper, a conservative litigator and Barr ally who, like the attorney general, has led the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel. “He’s a man. He has a very strong sense of purpose and confidence.”

.. But people who know Barr and have tracked his career for years say the story is more complicated. Trump and Barr barely have a personal relationship, according to White House aides. Barr may have donated $2,700 to Trump in the 2016 general election, but only after he threw $55,000 to Jeb Bush in the primaries. They say that it’s not Donald Trump whom Barr is fighting for, but a vision of the presidency.

.. Advocates for the “unitary executive”

Barr’s first interaction with the Trump White House came in the spring of 2017 when he met with Pence to talk about representing him in the Mueller probe. Barr waved off the offer, instead recommending a handful of friends to do the job. About a year later, when the president’s children were unhappy with Trump’s legal representation, Barr got another phone call — and turned down another offer, this one to join the president’s personal legal team.

In late 2018, when the White House was on the hunt for a new attorney general, Barr might as well have been on speed dial. He is a longtime friend of White House counsel Pat Cipollone, who worked for him at the Department of Justice in the 1990s and who pressed him to take the job. Again, Barr begged off, urging the White House to consider his friend J. Michael Luttig, a former federal appeals court judge — or former Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl — or his Kirkland & Ellis partner Mark Filip.

Ultimately, his friends managed to talk him into it. “We had discussions over a period of time, and I encouraged him to take it,” said George Terwilliger, a conservative attorney and longtime friend of Barr’s.

Barr’s social and professional circle was critical in drawing him into Trump’s orbit. Barr pals, including Terwilliger, Cooper, Luttig and former Virginia Attorney General Richard Cullen are part of a group of elite conservative litigators who were once wunderkinds in the the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations. They grew up together and have fought countless political battles alongside one another.

The Trump era has been no different. Cullen represents Pence in the Russia probe. Cooper represents former Attorney General Jeff Sessions. And Luttig was the runner-up for the attorney general post when Trump tapped Barr in December, according to multiple sources.

They are united by a firm belief in a theory of robust presidential power dusted off by Reagan Attorney General Edwin Meese. Known among legal scholars as the theory of the “unitary executive,” they argue that the Constitution grants presidents broad control of the executive branch, including — to take a salient Trump-era example — the power to fire an FBI director for any reason at all.

Barr made his first imprint in this battle as head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel in the George H.W. Bush administration, when he authored a controversial memo giving the FBI the right to seize fugitives abroad without the consent of the foreign government in question. As deputy attorney general, he told George H.W. Bush he had the power to send U.S. military forces into Iraq without congressional authorization.

.. Conservative heroes from Robert Bork to the late Justice Antonin Scalia have been advocates of this theory. Bork carried out President Richard M. Nixon’s directive, in the midst of the Watergate scandal, to fire independent special prosecutor Archibald Cox because he determined the president had the right to do so. Scalia, in a 1988 dissenting opinion, argued that the president had the power to fire any executive branch official, including an independent counsel.

A lot of The Federalist Society heroes are people who participated in or were advocates for the unitary executive,” said University of California law professor John Yoo, himself a proponent of the theory, which became a flash point in the George W. Bush administration after Yoo penned memos advising Bush that the Constitution grants the president virtually unlimited authority to use force abroad and justifies the warrantless wiretapping of American citizens.

Enter Bill Barr. Before he agreed to take the attorney general job, he drew on the unitary executive theory in the 18-page memo he sent to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein last June — a document his critics say amounted to a veiled application for his current job. In that memo, Barr argued that obstruction of justice is limited to things like witness tampering and destroying evidence and that the president has “complete authority to start or stop a law enforcement proceeding.” The implication: Trump was acting on firm constitutional ground when he fired FBI director James Comey, regardless of his motivation, and that doing so was not an effort to obstruct justice. Neither were Trump’s subsequent, but thwarted, moves to fire Mueller himself.

Described by his friends as supremely confident in his views, Barr said at his confirmation hearing that he had circulated the memo widely “so that other lawyers would have the benefit of my views.”

“This captures Bill Barr perfectly,” Luttig said. “He has stayed active in Washington his entire life, he knows everyone and everyone knows him, he reaches out regularly to tell people what he is thinking about the issues of the day — and what he thinks of what they’re doing and, yes, what they need to be doing differently! And they love it.”

A lifelong conservative raised by Roman Catholic educators — his father was a professor of English literature at Columbia University, his future alma mater — Barr, was 10 at the time of John F. Kennedy’s 1960 campaign. But he has told friends he resisted Camelot’s allure. “He claims the nuns washed his mouth out with soap,” Cullen said.

Barr’s critics argue not only that he has a fringe interpretation of the law, but that far from even-handedly applying it, he’s gone out of his way to protect the president. “You can be the President’s defense attorney or America’s Attorney General, but you can’t be both,” Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) said in mid-April, as part of a call for Barr’s resignation. Other liberal critics have argued for his impeachment.

These critics say that presidents cannot and should not oversee, interfere with or direct investigations. “The most important function of the Department of Justice is to protect the independence of the prosecutorial function and the criminal justice system from political entanglement,” said Joyce Vance, a former federal prosecutor who worked under Barr at the Justice Department during the George H.W. Bush administration. Vance argued in a December op-ed that Barr’s memo disqualified him from serving as attorney general.

It’s easier for people who’ve never been in the Justice Department to take this unitary executive point of view,” Vance added. “But for anybody who’s been inside of the Justice Department for even five seconds, you understand that one of the most important things that you do is to protect the criminal prosecutorial power from political influence.”

Parrying with the press

Barr’s decision to convene a news conference on the Mueller report before it was released to the public and his statements during the 21-minute event turned him into a villain on the left and a subject of broad admiration on the right.

Democrats say that Barr didn’t just mischaracterize the report’s findings, using the president’s preferred word, “collusion,” rather than the more legally accurate “criminal conspiracy” but labored to explain Trump’s illicit behavior, describing him as “frustrated and angered by his sincere belief that the investigation was undermining his presidency.” Barr was acting as “as if he’s the personal attorney and publicist of the President of the United States,” declared Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D.-Mass).

“Excusing the president taking obstructive acts by saying that he was frustrated — every person who commits obstruction of justice is frustrated,” said Matt Miller, who served as spokesman for Attorney General Eric Holder. “The person that Republicans told us would be strong enough to stand up to the president is the one person who is actually behaving the way the president has always wanted his attorney general to behave.”

Republicans have seen something different unfolding. They relish Barr’s willingness and ability to thrust and parry with the news media — something other Trump Cabinet secretaries have gone out of their way to avoid for fear of overshadowing the president or taking a misstep that might sit wrong with him and cost them their job.

During his pre-Mueller report news conference Barr interrupted a reporter who questioned why Mueller wasn’t present for the release of “his” report only for Barr to interject, “No, it’s not, it’s a report that he did for me as the attorney general. … I’m here to discuss my response to that report and my decision, entirely discretionary, to make it public since these reports are not supposed to be made public.”

Pressed on whether it was inappropriate to come out and “spin” the report before it was made public, Barr offered a terse response: “No.”

Barr’s allies argue that Democrats are upset only over Barr’s decision not to prosecute the president. “The left is savaging Barr only because Barr is not savaging Trump,” Cooper said. A Wall Street Journal editorial titled “Targeting Bill Barr,” argued that Barr “will be hammered no matter what he decides. The good news is that the country finally appears to have an Attorney General who can take the heat.”

He will have to. Reports Tuesday evening indicating that Mueller wrote a letter to Barr protesting his characterization of the report’s conclusions reignited calls for Barr’s resignation or impeachment.

But many conservatives think it will take more than that to damage Trump’s improbable defender.

“Barr step down?” Sol Wisenberg, a former deputy on Kenneth Starr’s independent counsel investigation into President Bill Clinton, told POLITICO on Tuesday. “Are you fucking insane?”

John Bolton on the Warpath

Can Trump’s national-security adviser sell the isolationist President on military force?

Bolton graduated from law school as the Reagan revolution was taking shape. He moved to Washington, joined the law firm of Covington & Burling, and immersed himself in the conservative cause. Bolton was active in a series of conflicts that helped define the battleground of contemporary politics. He worked as Ralph Winter’s assistant and, while still in his twenties, was involved  in guiding a landmark federal lawsuit, Buckley v. Valeo, to the Supreme Court. Winter and Bolton made the case that strict limits on campaign spending violated the right to free speech. They won, and the decision helped release a flood of private money into the American political system. In 1985, Bolton joined the Reagan Justice Department; there, he helped shepherd the Supreme Court nomination of Robert Bork, whose ultimately unsuccessful bid began the era of fiercely partisan high-court nominations. During the contested Presidential election of 2000, Bolton flew to Florida to help insure that George W. Bush secured the office. In his memoir, he notes, with only slight embarrassment, that Republican colleagues called him “the Atticus Finch of Palm Beach County.”

.. Dick Cheney, the Vice-President, urged an assertive use of military power abroad, while Colin Powell, the Secretary of State, was more restrained. Lawrence Wilkerson, Powell’s chief of staff, told me that Bolton was appointed to his position only at Cheney’s insistence. “Everyone knew that Bolton was Cheney’s spy,”
.. Bolton told the group, “I don’t care about Syria, but I do care about Iran.” He said that the American forces would stay in Syria until the Iranians left—potentially for years. Bolton told his aides to communicate the new policy to the Russians, and he declared it publicly in September, 2018.
.. Richard Armitage, the Deputy Secretary of State, took Bolton aside and “told him to shut up,” Wilkerson said. Before Bolton testified to Congress, much of his language was diluted. Armitage reached out to a team of intelligence officers who vetted public statements made by State Department officials, and asked them to give special scrutiny to Bolton’s. “Nothing Bolton said could leave the building until I O.K.’d it,” Thomas Fingar, who led the team at the time, told me.

.. As the Bush White House made the case to invade Iraq, Bolton came into conflict with José Bustani, who was in charge of overseeing the Chemical Weapons Convention—a treaty, endorsed by the U.S. and a hundred and ninety-two other countries, that bans the production of chemical weapons. Bustani, a former senior diplomat from Brazil, was negotiating with the Iraqi government to adopt the treaty, which mandated immediate inspections by outside technicians. He thought that, if inspectors could verify that Iraq had abandoned its chemical-weapons program, an invasion wouldn’t be necessary. But, he told me, when the Iraqis agreed to accept the convention, the Bush Administration asked him to halt his negotiations. “I think the White House was worried that if I succeeded it would mess up their plans to invade,” he said.

Not long afterward, Bustani recalls, Bolton showed up at his office in The Hague and demanded that he resign. When Bustani refused, Bolton said, “We know you have two sons in New York. We know your daughter is in London. We know where your wife is.” (Bolton has denied this.) Bustani held firm, and the White House, determined to remove him, convened an extraordinary session of the Convention’s members—in many cases, Bustani said, paying the travel expenses of delegates to insure that they attended. The group voted forty-eight to seven, with forty-three abstentions, to cut short Bustani’s term.

Later that year, Bustani was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, for his work against chemical weapons. When U.S. troops moved into Iraq, they found no evidence of weapons of mass destruction. Commentators across the political spectrum have decried the invasion—even Trump calls it “a big, fat mistake”—but Bolton hasn’t changed his view. In 2015, he told the Washington Examiner, “I still think the decision to overthrow Saddam was correct.”

 

.. In March, 2005, Bush nominated Bolton to be the Ambassador to the United Nations, a move that was widely seen as an expression of contempt for the institution. Bolton had a history of deriding the U.N., once saying that if the headquarters “lost ten stories, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.”

Still, Democrats in the Senate anticipated a routine hearing; they were the minority party and could do little to resist. Tony Blinken, who was the staff director of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told me that the members began to reconsider as they examined Bolton’s work in the State Department. “We saw a pattern of Mr. Bolton trying to manipulate intelligence to justify his views,” Blinken told me. “If it had happened once, maybe. But it came up multiple times, and always it was the same underlying issue: he would stake out a position, and then, if the intelligence didn’t support it, he would try to exaggerate the intelligence and marginalize the officials who had produced it.” After several days of testimony, Senator George Voinovich, a Republican from Ohio, declared, “John Bolton is the poster child of what someone in the diplomatic corps should not be.”

The committee declined to advance Bolton’s nomination, but Bush moved ahead anyway, sending him to the U.N. on a “recess appointment,” a temporary assignment made when the Senate is out of session. His old friend Clarence Thomas swore him in. Bolton’s associates from that time told me that he refrained from ordinary diplomatic niceties: he did not engage in small talk, linger at cocktail parties, or attend national commemorations. Not long after Bolton took the job, Bush visited him in New York. “Are you having fun?” Bush asked. “It’s a target-rich environment,” Bolton replied.

In “Surrender Is Not an Option,” Bolton gives a minute-by-minute accounting of his time at the U.N., describing both foes and allies in strikingly undiplomatic language. He refers to “EUroids,” the European diplomats whom he generally regarded as soft on America’s enemies; to “the Crusaders of Compromise,” as he describes the national-security establishment; and to “the True Believers and the High Minded.” He even derides the U.K., traditionally America’s closest ally. “Many Brits believed that their role in life was to play Athens to America’s Rome, lending us the benefit of their superior suaveness, and smoothing off our regrettable colonial rough edges,” Bolton writes.

Bolton built a reputation for being abrasive but knowledgeable, with tremendous powers of recall. A U.S. diplomat told me that he once walked into Bolton’s office at the U.N. to ask about an issue concerning Somalia. Bolton replied by quoting, verbatim, from a memo written during the Reagan Administration, some twenty years before. “As John’s talking about it, I can see his eyes moving back and forth like he’s reading the memo—he was reading it from memory,” the diplomat told me.

.. Colleagues from other countries struggled to accommodate him. “On a personal basis, you can joke with him,” the Western diplomat who knows Bolton told me. Working with him was a different story: “Coöperation was possible, but very much on his conditions.” Bolton had spent decades refining an argument that multilateral institutions and international agreements often did more harm than good—that each one represented a loss of American sovereignty. “Bolton has a Hobbesian view of the universe—life is nasty, brutish, and short,” the former American official who worked with Bolton told me. “There are a lot of nasty people out there who want to do us harm. If our country’s interests align with another’s, it’s a fleeting phenomenon, and the moment our interests diverge they will sell us down the river.” Bolton doesn’t ordinarily concern himself with the internal affairs of other nations, or with trying to democratize them, the former official said: “The U.S. has values domestically, but he doesn’t give a shit about the values of others. If it advances your interests to work with another country, then do it.

Bolton had some successes at the U.N. Most notably, he helped persuade the Security Council to impose its first economic sanctions on North Korea for its nuclear-weapons programs. But when his post expired, after sixteen months, the Democrats had won back the majority in Congress, and it was clear that Bolton would not be confirmed. On December 31, 2006, he stepped down.

.. A few months later, Bolton appeared on Fox News to warn viewers that their government was intolerably complacent. “Six years after 9/11, people are simply not focussing the way they should,” he said. “I hope it is not going to take another 9/11 to wake us up—particularly not a 9/11 with weapons of mass destruction.” Bolton, for years a favored guest on Fox, became a paid commentator. During the next decade, he made hundreds of appearances, often arguing that America needed to act urgently to counter threats from abroad. He spoke in favor of military strikes on Iranian training camps (“This is not provocative or preëmptive—this is entirely responsive”), forced regime change in North Korea (“the only solution”), and punitive measures against Vladimir Putin for sheltering the intelligence leaker Edward Snowden (“We need to do things that cause him pain”).

After decades of public-sector work, Bolton grew rich in the private sector. According to a financial disclosure that he filed before joining Trump’s Administration, he made at least two million dollars in 2017, including some six hundred thousand from Fox; two hundred and fifty thousand from the American Enterprise Institute, where he was a senior fellow; and a hundred and twenty thousand from Rhône Group, a private-equity firm. In the course of ten years, Bolton wrote at least six hundred newspaper articles, and the uncompromising beliefs that had piqued colleagues in government found a willing audience outside it. After the Bush Administration reduced sanctions on North Korea, he wrote, in an op-ed, “Nothing can erase the ineffable sadness of an American presidency, like this one, in total intellectual collapse.” When Bush was asked about it, he said, “I don’t consider Bolton credible,” and lamented spending political capital on him. The Obama Administration and its diplomatic efforts in the Middle East inspired even greater scorn. Following Obama’s acceptance speech for the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize, which Bolton criticized as “turgid,” “repetitive,” and “high-school level,” he dismissed the President as fundamentally naïve. Homo sapiens are hardwired for violent conflict,” he said. “We’re not going to eliminate violent conflict until Homo sapiens ceases to exist as a separate species.” Later, he wrote a book-length jeremiad about international law titled “How Barack Obama Is Endangering Our National Sovereignty.”

.. Bolton found an especially enthusiastic reception for arguments about the dangers of Islam. From 2013 to 2018, he was the chairman of the Gatestone Institute, which describes itself as “dedicated to educating the public about what the mainstream media fails to report.” The institute, which paid Bolton a hundred and fifty-five thousand dollars in 2017, has published virulently anti-Muslim articles of questionable accuracy. During Bolton’s tenure, one article warned of an impending “jihadist takeover” of Europe, and another claimed that immigrants from Somalia and other countries were turning Sweden into the “rape capital of the West.” A report titled “History of the Muslim Brotherhood Penetration of the U.S. Government” suggested that both the anti-tax activist Grover Norquist and the State Department official Huma Abedin were sleeper agents. According to a database maintained by NBC News, at least four articles published by Gatestone were retweeted by the Internet Research Agency, the Russian intelligence front that led efforts to sow dissension during the 2016 election.

Like many conservatives in Israel and in the U.S., Bolton rejects the idea of a two-state solution. At a speech in Israel in 2017, he instead advocated a “three-state solution,” in which Israel, Jordan, and Egypt would divide up the Palestinian territories in Gaza and the West Bank, abolishing the political entities that now exist there. For that speech, Bolton received a hundred thousand dollars and a Guardian of Zion Award from Bar-Ilan University.

As Bolton became a celebrity in conservative media, he used his visibility to establish himself in electoral politics. In 2013, he set up a political-action committee, John Bolton Super pac, which raised money to support Republican candidates. The most significant donor was Robert Mercer, the right-wing activist, hedge-fund billionaire, and co-founder of the data firm Cambridge Analytica, which later became notorious for capturing private information from some eighty-seven million Facebook users. Mercer gave the super pac a total of five million dollars. During the elections in 2014 and 2016, Bolton’s organization paid Cambridge Analytica $1.2 million, for psychographic data to tailor messages that would help Senate candidates, including Scott Brown, in New Hampshire, and Thom Tillis, in North Carolina. But Groombridge, Bolton’s former aide, told me that the data turned out to be less effective than promised. “It was useless,” he said. “We used it the way they told us, and it had no discernible impact whatsoever.”

.. After forming the pac, Bolton briefly considered running for President, but people close to him said that he was more focussed on another job. “He was running for Secretary of State,” Groombridge told me. As with Bolton’s nomination for U.N. Ambassador, there were reasons for concern that he wouldn’t pass Senate confirmation. In Bolton’s financial disclosure, he listed a forty-thousand-dollar payment, for a speech that he gave, in 2016, to Mujahideen-e-Khalq, an Iranian exile group dedicated to overthrowing the government in Tehran. The M.E.K., which professes an eccentric variant of Islam, has been characterized by many experts as resembling a cult. From 1997 until 2012, the United States listed it as a terrorist group, owing to a campaign of bombings and assassinations that it led in Iran. Bolton’s association with the group apparently went back at least to that time. During the speech in 2016, he told the crowd, “I just say again what I have been saying for ten years that I’ve been coming to this rally: the regime in Tehran needs to be overthrown at the earliest opportunity!”

Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a frequent critic of the regime, said that Bolton’s relationship with the group should have disqualified him from senior government jobs. “Anyone who pimps himself out to the M.E.K. fails the litmus test for integrity,” he said.

In 2011, Bolton became the head of the National Rifle Association’s international-affairs subcommittee. Two years later, he gave a video address to a conference hosted by a Russian gun-rights group, the Right to Bear Arms. In it, Bolton offered congratulations on the twentieth anniversary of the Russian constitution, which, he said, “signalled a new era of freedom for the Russian people and created a new force for democracy in the world.”

The conference appears to have been connected with the Kremlin’s campaign to influence politically powerful groups in the United States. It was organized by Maria Butina, who was recently sentenced to eighteen months in prison for conspiracy, after attempting to infiltrate the N.R.A. on behalf of the Russian government. Butina worked closely on the Right to Bear Arms with Alexander Torshin, a politician and an associate of Putin’s with links to organized crime. Last May, three days before Bolton became the national-security adviser, the Treasury Department imposed sanctions on Torshin, barring him from the Western financial system.

Bolton’s disclosure also listed payments, totalling a hundred and fifteen thousand dollars, from a foundation controlled by Viktor Pinchuk, a Ukrainian oligarch. Pinchuk presents his foundation as a forum for diverse views, but his allegiances are murky. In 2012, he reportedly paid Gregory Craig, a former counsel for the Obama White House, to write a report intended to exonerate Ukraine’s pro-Russian President for jailing his chief opponent. (Pinchuk denies this.) Craig is now under indictment for lying about the matter to investigators working for the special counsel Robert Mueller. (Bolton’s connections later inspired questions about whether he posed a security risk. In March, 2019, Tricia Newbold, a White House personnel officer, testified that Trump had given security clearances to twenty-five White House officials who had failed to pass background checks. The names of those people were not released, but, after the news broke, the House Oversight Committee asked to see Bolton’s personnel files, along with those of several others.)

In his bid for Secretary of State, Bolton had support from populist conservatives. According to a former senior Administration adviser, the Mercer family “pushed hard for him.” But his candidacy was derailed by members of the Republican establishment. Robert M. Gates, the former Secretary of Defense, and Condoleezza Rice, the former Secretary of State, suggested that Trump appoint Rex Tillerson, an oil C.E.O. with experience in international business. “I wanted to recommend someone who would be good,” Gates told me. Tillerson got the job.

One weekend in 2017, Bolton and General H. R. McMaster were invited to Mar-a-Lago, the President’s Palm Beach mansion, to audition to become national-security adviser. McMaster won. A decorated veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with a reputation as an iconoclast, he came to Mar-a-Lago in full-dress uniform. According to the former senior Administration adviser, McMaster had support from Jared Kushner, who thought that his appointment would play well in the press. Trump admired Bolton’s Fox appearances—he has praised him as “a tough cookie.” But the former senior Administration adviser told me that Trump, who prefers that his officials look the part, was put off by Bolton’s mustache—and, more significant, by his interventionist mind-set. “Trump had big reservations,” the official said. “John wants to bomb everyone.”

If Bolton was disappointed at being passed over, McMaster’s experience in the White House might have reassured him. McMaster was sorely out of place: a seasoned navigator of international institutions working for a President who often seemed determined to tear them down. The chemistry between McMaster and Trump was never good. “H.R. is intense, and he would try to tell the President as best he could the consequences of his decisions,” a former senior Administration official told me.

McMaster also clashed with Secretary of Defense James Mattis. On numerous occasions, current and former officials say, Mattis tried to block White House initiatives, leaving McMaster caught in the middle. In the fall of 2017, McMaster was planning a private session to develop military options for the possibility of conflict with North Korea: a war game, with Trump in attendance, at the Presidential retreat in Camp David. McMaster asked Mattis to send officers and planners. Mattis ignored him. “He prevented the thing from happening,” the former senior Administration official told me. Later, Mattis kept General John Nicholson, the commander of American forces in Afghanistan, from meeting with Trump.

 

Administration officials speculate that Mattis was trying to avoid a war, or that he simply wanted to control the flow of information, so that the President could not make ill-advised decisions. “There are a lot of people in the Administration who want to limit the President’s options because they don’t want the President to get anything done,” the former senior Administration official told me.

Mattis declined to comment for the record, but a former senior national-security official told me, without confirming any incidents, that a strategy had evolved. “The President thinks out loud,” he said. “Do you treat it like an order? Or do you treat it as part of a longer conversation? We treated it as part of a longer conversation.” By allowing Trump to talk without acting, he said, “we prevented a lot of bad things from happening.” In 2017, Mattis and his staff helped forestall a complete withdrawal of American forces from both Afghanistan and Syria.

McMaster also acquired enemies outside the White House. Mort Klein, the head of the Zionist Organization of America, told me he believed that McMaster was “hostile to Israel,” citing offenses that ranged from advocating “Palestinian self-determination” to dodging a question about whether the Western Wall is in Israeli territory. Klein began a quiet campaign against McMaster, with help from Sheldon Adelson, the Republican casino magnate, and Safra Catz, the C.E.O. of Oracle, both of whom are fervent supporters of the Israeli right wing. “We were pushing for him to be fired,” Klein told me. For Klein and his allies, Bolton’s politics were more appealing. He has deep connections to the Israeli national-security establishment and to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In 2018, he gave a well-compensated speech to the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces. “John almost regards Israel as part of the United States,” the former official who worked with Bolton told me. “He thinks our interests and their interest are identical.”

.. In March, 2018, according to a former Administration official, the President called McMaster and asked what he would think if Bolton became the new national-security adviser. It was clear to McMaster that he was being fired, but less clear that the President was certain Bolton was the right replacement. The official, who overheard Trump’s side of the conversation, recalled that the President ended the call with an uncomfortable joke: “Bolton is a hawk like you. He’s going to get us into a war.”

When Bolton took over, he quickly demonstrated an unsentimental style: he told Trump that he could not work with McMaster’s former aide Keith Kellogg, a seventy-three-year-old veteran who had won a Silver Star in Vietnam. Trump decided to send Kellogg to work for Vice-President Mike Pence. The former senior Administration official told me that there was widespread sympathy for Bolton: “Kellogg doesn’t have all of his faculties. He’s like the crazy uncle at Thanksgiving. But Trump liked him, so Pence had to take him.”

McMaster had set up a rigorous process for discussing issues with staff members, making recommendations to the President, and disseminating decisions through the bureaucracy. Under Bolton, there are fewer meetings, less collaboration; he often disappears into his office to immerse himself in documents. “H.R.’s door was always open—Bolton’s is closed,” a former national-security official told me. “He reads the memos. There just isn’t a lot of feedback.” Some former officials believe that Bolton’s insularity could be dangerous, particularly in a crisis, when various arms of the government and the military have to mount a quick and coördinated response. “It’s chaos under Bolton,” the former senior national-security official told me. “The national-security adviser is supposed to facilitate the President’s directives and coördinate national policy among the various government agencies. That process has completely broken down.” The official added, “Bolton hasn’t set any priorities. No one knows what the policies are—what’s important, what’s less important. The head is not connected to the body.” Principals’ meetings—crucial gatherings involving the President, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the heads of intelligence agencies—have become rare. “I don’t remember the last time there was a fucking principals’ meeting,” the official said.

When I raised the issue with Bolton, he seemed unconcerned. He pointed to an oil painting on his office wall which depicted George H. W. Bush with a small group of close aides, including Brent Scowcroft, his national-security adviser. “That’s decision-making,” he said.

.. The comparison to the first Bush Administration doesn’t go far. Scowcroft and Bush were temperamentally similar—both reflective, cautious members of the establishment. Trump is restless and impulsive; Bolton, who goes to bed at nine-thirty every night and rises at three-thirty in the morning, is known for his lawyerly focus. Scowcroft and Bush were close friends before they began working together; Trump and Bolton were only vaguely acquainted. As national-security adviser, Bolton has unrivalled proximity to the Commander-in-Chief. But he described their relationship as businesslike. “I don’t socialize with the President, I don’t play golf with him—I see him in the morning and I talk to him at night,” he told me. In addition to giving Trump a rundown of potential national threats each morning, Bolton attends the President’s Daily Brief, a top-secret meeting with Gina Haspel, the head of the C.I.A., and Dan Coats, the director of National Intelligence. Trump prefers to hold these meetings just two or three times a week, and is famously susceptible to distractions—people walking into the office, telephone calls, even houseflies. Aides have found that detailed briefings provoke impatience; graphics and bullet points work better, and relatable photographs better still. “Bolton gets to the point very fast,” a senior Administration official told me. “He’s very brief, and the President appreciates that.” Groombridge, the former aide, said, “John is thinking, To the extent I can modify or mollify the President’s actions, I will. He is truly a patriot. But I wonder how he goes into work every day, because deep in his heart he believes the President is a moron.”

Trump’s foreign policy, to the extent that he has one, tends toward isolationism, while Bolton’s is expansive but heavily unilateral, spurning allies when necessary. At times, though, unilateralism can sound a lot like America First. Both Bolton and Trump are dismissive of the international architecture of treaties and alliances, which was largely constructed by the United States following the Second World War. At the 2018 G-20 summit, in Buenos Aires, a gathering of the world’s largest economies, Bolton instigated a confrontation over the communiqué that announced the meeting’s results. As the document was being drafted, according to an American official who was present, one of Bolton’s aides began taking out phrases—“gender equality,” “multilateral institutions,” “rules-based international order.” The official told me, “He would point to a phrase and say, ‘This won’t pass the Bolton test.’ ” Bolton’s unilateralist approach permeates the N.S.C. “ ‘The post-World War Two rules-based global order’?” a Bolton staffer said to me. “What does that mean?”

Most national-security advisers work behind the scenes. Bolton has been unusually visible, travelling to Moscow to meet the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov; to Jerusalem to meet Netanyahu; and to Ankara to meet the Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. On Twitter, he has admonished the Russians for attempting to project influence in Latin America, and expressed gratitude to Ivanka Trump for “supporting women’s economic empowerment” in Africa. The Western diplomat told me that Bolton differed from other White House advisers, such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who reflexively agree with the President. “Pompeo is really interested not in foreign policy but in what is good for Trump. When you are out of the Trump field, he has nothing to say,” the diplomat told me. “When you meet Bolton, it’s a real conversation on any issue, no matter how obscure.”

The former senior national-security official told me, “Trump feels aligned with Bolton. He talks tough—he’s a hawk. Trump likes that.” Still, it’s not clear how much influence Bolton—or any senior adviser—has over the President.

In April, 2018, during Bolton’s first week in office, Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria dropped chemical weapons—probably chlorine gas—into a densely populated suburb of Damascus. The gas caused agonizing deaths for at least forty-nine people and sickened at least six hundred and fifty others, many of them women and children. The previous year, Trump had responded to a similar attack by ordering a strike, in which fifty-nine missiles were fired at a government airbase. This time, when Bolton asked the Pentagon for options, Mattis gave only one, a limited strike with cruise missiles. Bolton was furious, a person familiar with his thinking told me: “Mattis is an obstructionist. He seemed to forget that it was the President who was elected.” After some modifications, Trump authorized the attack. But Bolton wanted more; he believed that the U.S. needed a more enduring military presence in Syria.

.. When McMaster was the national-security adviser, he had carefully limited the scope of the mission in Syria, maintaining a deployment of some two thousand troops, dispatched by Obama in 2014. Their orders were to kill isis fighters and to train local soldiers, but not to fight Assad’s government, his Iranian and Russian backers, or their proxies in Hezbollah, the Lebanese armed group and political party. An adviser on Middle East issues told me that senior officials at the Pentagon and in national security had regarded the deployment as highly successful. “We were trying to follow the President’s guidance that this force was there to destroy isis, and that’s it,” the adviser said.

Last summer, at a meeting with officials involved in Syria, Bolton announced that the mission was being expanded. According to the adviser on Middle East issues, who attended the meeting, Bolton told the group, “I don’t care about Syria, but I do care about Iran.” He said that the American forces would stay in Syria until the Iranians left—potentially for years. Bolton told his aides to communicate the new policy to the Russians, and he declared it publicly in September, 2018.

Trump had been suggesting for months that the mission in Syria was nearly concluded. “We were very successful against isis,” he told a group of Eastern European leaders that April. “We’ll be successful against anybody militarily. But sometimes it’s time to come back home.” Now he was saddled with an open-ended military commitment, of a kind that he had repeatedly vowed to avoid. Bolton told me that he had secured the President’s permission to expand the mission, but the adviser on Middle East issues disagreed: “What’s obvious is that Bolton does not speak for the President.”

In December, Erdoğan, the Turkish leader, offered Trump a way out. During a phone call with the President, he said that his troops could take over the job of securing Syria, leaving American forces free to go home. Turkey had its own interest in this arrangement: a large swath of territory near the Syrian border is controlled by ethnic Kurds, whom the Turks consider mortal enemies. The U.S. considers the Kurds allies, but Trump nevertheless leaped at the offer. “Erdoğan told the President that he could kill the terrorists in northeastern Syria, and the President said, ‘Fine, O.K., you do it,’ ” the source familiar with Bolton’s thinking told me.

The White House announced the withdrawal of American forces shortly after Trump hung up, sending a wave of concern through the Middle East. These troops, even with a limited mission, had served as a counterweight to the various armed groups that are active in Syria—Turks, Russians, the remaining isis loyalists, Assad’s soldiers. They also helped give the U.S. leverage in determining whether Assad’s regime remained in power after the war. “I think they are drinking champagne in Damascus,” the former senior Administration official told me.

To Bolton and others, it was clear that Turkey took the announcement as a green light to send troops into northeastern Syria. “For Erdoğan, that meant killing our Kurdish allies there,” the source familiar with Bolton’s thinking said. He suggested that Erdoğan and Trump had simply misunderstood each other: “They were two ships passing in the night.” After conversations with aides, Trump reconsidered, the source said: “The President has spoken to Erdoğan several times since then, and he has made clear to him, ‘Don’t come across, don’t kill Kurds.’ ”

Trump has recently expressed willingness to leave a small American force in Syria, but its exact size has not been settled; officials say that it may be as few as two hundred troops. “They are making it up as they go along,” a Senate staffer who works on national-security issues told me. When I first spoke to Bolton about the reduction in forces, he seemed disappointed. “Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose,” he said. A few weeks later, though, he was more cheerful as he outlined an ambitious roster of operations that appeared to mirror the one the President had tried to scale back: restraining the Iranians, limiting the Russians’ territory, keeping the Turks away from the Kurds. The adviser on Middle East issues suggested that Bolton was responsible for the entire affair, because he’d tried to push the President too far. “It’s a catastrophe, and I blame Bolton,” he said.

In July, 2017, after Kim Jong Un test-fired a new missile, Trump posted an arch tweet: “Does this guy have anything better to do with his life?” But, that summer, there was evidence that the White House was concerned. As the regime launched a series of ballistic-missile tests, Trump ordered the Pentagon to begin removing the spouses and children of military personnel from South Korea. (“Mattis just ignored it,” the Administration official told me.) Since then, Trump has alternated between belligerent tweets and attempts to find a diplomatic solution. At the summit in Hanoi, he was seeking “the big deal”—the denuclearization of the country at one stroke.

Shortly before joining the White House, Bolton described a grimly constrained set of options, which seemed to preclude diplomacy. “You’re getting down fairly quickly to a binary choice: live with a North Korea with nuclear weapons, or look at military force,” he said. “These are not attractive options, but that’s where we’re headed.”

In fact, Bolton has believed for decades that these are the only two choices. In the early two-thousands, as the Bush Administration was negotiating to limit North Korea’s nuclear program, Bolton stridently advocated war. Wilkerson, Powell’s chief of staff, was so concerned that he brought Bolton into a private meeting on the consequences of military strikes: “I gave him a ten-minute brief on what a war with North Korea would look like—a hundred thousand casualties in the first thirty days, many of them Americans. The Japanese that would die. The Chinese that would die. The fact that Seoul, one of the most modern and forward-looking cities in the world, would probably be reduced to the Dark Ages. I told him, ‘That’s Passchendaele, John. That’s Ypres.’ ”

He said that Bolton was unmoved: “John looked at me and said, ‘Are you done? Clearly, you do war. I don’t do war. I do policy.’ ”

Bolton’s skepticism about negotiating with North Korea has largely been confirmed; several successive Administrations have failed to talk the regime into giving up its nuclear program. Now that the problem has fallen to the Trump Administration, though, Bolton is in the same position as the officials he’s been deriding for twenty-five years. The failure of the talks in Hanoi means that the North Korean regime can work toward a nuclear weapon capable of hitting the United States. “They haven’t demonstrated that capacity yet,” the Administration official said. But even a medium-range weapon would pose a threat to much of Asia.

The Administration official, like others, was reluctant to speak about what might happen if North Korea does not back down. A strike to destroy the country’s nuclear capability would have catastrophic effects throughout the region. Even if the United States could cripple North Korea’s nuclear facilities, it could not eliminate its conventional weapons quickly enough to prevent them from being used. These include thousands of artillery pieces and mortars near the border with South Korea. Seoul, which has a population of ten million, including some two hundred thousand Americans, could suffer tens of thousands of casualties. In 2017, Mattis told reporters that a conflict on the Korean Peninsula would be “probably the worst kind of fighting in most people’s lifetimes.”

Even in the White House, there seems to be a growing realization that military force is not a realistic option. “I think we could have destroyed the North’s nuclear program in the nineteen-nineties—it was more concentrated, and we knew where everything was,” the Administration official told me. “Not anymore. It’s too big and too dispersed.”

But Bolton still believes that such a strike is possible, the source familiar with his thinking said: “We can still do it. We know where most, if not all, of their weapons are—we could destroy their nuclear capability. There are ways to deal with their artillery.” When I asked about potential casualties, he said that Bolton “wishes we weren’t at this point. But the military option remains viable.”

The primary negotiating tool that remains is economic sanctions. The senior Administration official told me that the fiscal pressure on North Korea is greater than ever. Kim, the official said, has repeatedly told the North Korean people that their years of suffering and hardship will finally end. “We think that he has raised expectations, and now he has to follow through,” he said.

Not long after the summit, Kim complained in a speech that the American team had come to Hanoi with “completely unrealizable plans.” Unless Trump changed his thinking, Kim said, “the U.S. will not be able to move us one iota even if they sat with us a hundred, a thousand times.” He added, however, that he was open to a third summit—extending an eighteen-month sequence of insults and meetings, during which the North Korean regime has continued to refine its weapons. In response, Trump described his relationship with Kim as “excellent.” In April, North Korea test-fired another missile.

Bolton was nonplussed by Kim’s test. “That was their way of giving us the little finger,” the source familiar with his thinking said. “Not the big finger—just a little one.” The big finger came a week later: Kim held a summit with Vladimir Putin to discuss the nuclear situation. Afterward, Putin called for a return to “international law, instead of the rule of the fist.”

People who have worked with Bolton say that he is focussed less on North Korea than on Iran, where his vigilance can sometimes seem out of proportion to the apparent threat. “There are only two countries that can really threaten the United States—China and Russia,” the former senior national-security official said. “But Bolton has had this anal focus on Iran for twenty years. I don’t know why.” When I asked Bolton about it, he said, “I care about Iran because I care about nuclear weapons.”

On February 11th, Bolton released a video on Twitter, in which he addressed Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran. In a professorial tone, he noted that it was the fortieth anniversary of the Iranian Revolution and enumerated what he saw as its results: repression at home, terrorism abroad, a dismal economy, and the enmity of the world. “So, Ayatollah,” he said, “for all your boasts, for all your threats to the life of the American President, you are responsible for terrorizing your own people and terrorizing the world as a whole. I don’t think you’ll have many more anniversaries to enjoy.”

The Trump Administration has persistently spoken out against Iran, but it has also made scattershot efforts at diplomacy. A senior Iranian official told me that, in 2017, Trump sent eight requests to meet with the Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani. “Trump invited President Rouhani to dinner!” the official told me. Rouhani evidently declined, but, a few weeks before Bolton posted his video on Twitter, there was another apparent attempt. Admiral Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran’s national-security council, told an Iranian news agency that a U.S. official had approached him, during a visit to Afghanistan, and “asked to hold talks.” Shamkhani didn’t say whether Iran had responded, but a Middle Eastern businessman told me that, around the same time, an Iranian official had asked him to pass a message to the White House.

Mattis served as a brake on confrontation. In late 2017, Iraq was preparing for parliamentary elections, and McMaster grew concerned about Iran’s efforts to influence the outcome. He asked the Pentagon to provide options to counter the Iranian campaign. As the elections approached, one of McMaster’s aides told me, a Pentagon official came to the White House. “I asked him what happened to the options,” the former aide said. “He told me, ‘We resisted those.’ You could feel everyone in the meeting go, ‘Excuse me?’ ”

During the Obama Administration, the sanctions on Iran were designed to force the regime to agree to limit its nuclear program. Under Trump, the goal is apparently to make the Iranian people so miserable that they will overthrow the government. “After all the experience we’ve had with regime change, I think we’re out of that business,” a senior member of Trump’s foreign-policy team told me. “We can collapse their economy—it’s not that difficult. But it’s up to the Iranian people.”

Bolton suggested that the policy was working. “The opposition to the regime has widened,” he said. “There have been riots. You don’t always read about this in the Western press, because they don’t let reporters see it.” Although the United States has withdrawn from the nuclear accord, the Iranian regime continues to adhere to it. Funding to Hezbollah, Iran’s primary foreign proxy, has been cut substantially. Nervousness about the future has frozen foreign investment. With inflation at nearly fifty per cent, and with one in four young Iranians out of work, the economy is under extreme stress. Iranian oil exports, which rose to 2.8 million barrels a day after sanctions were lifted, have been severely diminished, at times to less than a million barrels a day. It’s possible that the Iranian government will be ousted. But allies worry that the White House is squeezing the regime so hard that it might force a confrontation, perhaps a military one. “They’re not giving the Iranians any room,” the Western diplomat told me. “It’s implosion or surrender.”

Sadjadpour, the Iran expert, believes that the tensions inside the White House over Iran have not been resolved. “Trump doesn’t want to go to war—he doesn’t want to intervene anywhere,” he told me. Trump’s real goal, he suggested, was the pageantry of public negotiations. The main obstacle to direct talks is Khamenei, he said; having the United States as an enemy has been a linchpin of the regime’s self-justification. “Bolton’s worst nightmare is that Khamenei will write Trump a letter saying, ‘Why don’t we get together and talk?’ Because he knows that Trump would jump at that opportunity.”

In April, Bolton travelled to Coral Gables, Florida, to speak to the surviving members of Brigade 2506, a group of Cuban exiles who fought in the American-backed invasion at the Bay of Pigs. It was the fifty-eighth anniversary of the operation, which ended in catastrophe; the annual commemoration has become a kind of Miami Passion play.

As the aging veterans gathered for lunch, at the Biltmore Hotel, large screens played a documentary about the operation, with black-and-white footage of combat and interviews with survivors, many of whom still feel that they were betrayed by irresolute allies in the United States. “The invasion failed precisely because of President Kennedy’s order not to provide air support and to destroy the Cuban Air Force,” one veteran says.

As Bolton came to the lectern, the veterans, some of them in wheelchairs, gave him a hero’s welcome. Bolton announced new economic sanctions on the Cuban government and assailed Obama for attempting a rapprochement, which Trump has rolled back. “The Trump Administration will never, ever abandon you!” Bolton declared. “We will always have your back.”

As the crowd applauded, Bolton broadened his speech to attack other leftist governments—especially in Venezuela, where the regime of Nicolás Maduro is trying to ride out an economic collapse and a nationwide uprising. Bolton has led the White House’s charge against Maduro, accusing him of forming, along with Cuba and Nicaragua, a “troika of tyranny” in the Western Hemisphere. They aid one another, Bolton said, pointing to the Cuban security forces inside Venezuela, and all of them were aided by Obama. “In no uncertain terms, the Obama Administration’s policies toward Cuba have enabled the Cuban colonization of Venezuela,” he said.

For a national-security adviser, this was remarkably close to a campaign speech—a radical departure from the habits of Bolton’s predecessors. It was also a departure from Bolton’s habits; he resists being called a neocon, but in Venezuela he was trying to oust a regime that poses no immediate threat. When I asked him about it, in his office soon after the speech, he argued that Venezuela was dangerous, because it was allowing Russia to gain a foothold in the region. He said that there were twenty thousand Cubans in Venezuela who served as “surrogates for the Russians.” There were also at least a hundred Russian soldiers and mercenaries on the ground, helping Maduro stay in power. “To get the Russians out, you have to change the regime,” he said.

As the crowd applauded, Bolton broadened his speech to attack other leftist governments—especially in Venezuela, where the regime of Nicolás Maduro is trying to ride out an economic collapse and a nationwide uprising. Bolton has led the White House’s charge against Maduro, accusing him of forming, along with Cuba and Nicaragua, a “troika of tyranny” in the Western Hemisphere. They aid one another, Bolton said, pointing to the Cuban security forces inside Venezuela, and all of them were aided by Obama. “In no uncertain terms, the Obama Administration’s policies toward Cuba have enabled the Cuban colonization of Venezuela,” he said.

For a national-security adviser, this was remarkably close to a campaign speech—a radical departure from the habits of Bolton’s predecessors. It was also a departure from Bolton’s habits; he resists being called a neocon, but in Venezuela he was trying to oust a regime that poses no immediate threat. When I asked him about it, in his office soon after the speech, he argued that Venezuela was dangerous, because it was allowing Russia to gain a foothold in the region. He said that there were twenty thousand Cubans in Venezuela who served as “surrogates for the Russians.” There were also at least a hundred Russian soldiers and mercenaries on the ground, helping Maduro stay in power. “To get the Russians out, you have to change the regime,” he said.

The source familiar with Bolton’s thinking pointed out another incentive: Venezuela has the largest proven oil reserves in the world. “Who is in control of the oil fields—the United States or Russia?” he asked. “The President said he would have taken the oil in Iraq. Well, look at how much oil Venezuela has.”

With Trump’s national-security team depleted—no permanent Secretary of Defense, no Secretary of Homeland Security, no Ambassador to the United Nations—Bolton would have extraordinary latitude in a crisis. “John understands that you have to get the elected leader the approval of the audience that matters,” Hundt said. “As long as Trump’s base is still applauding, then Bolton can do whatever he wants.”

For Bolton, it is ultimately a question of sovereignty. “The Monroe Doctrine is alive and well,” he said. “It’s our hemisphere.” The doctrine, he noted, was a prohibition against outside powers interceding in Latin America. “That doesn’t mean armed force,” he said. “That’s the Roosevelt Corollary. I haven’t invoked that—yet.” But, he argued, as he has innumerable times in the past thirty years, “all options are on the table.” ♦

Vice Is Just More Anti-Conservative Vitriol

The same Left that despises President Trump despised George W. Bush long before him.

.. What’s driving McKay? The need to live out his anger against Bush. McKay recalls attending the victory party for John Kerry — who, needless to say, did not win. “Everyone you could imagine was there,” McKay describes, including Tom Hanks, Nicole Kidman, and Ferrell.
.. According to McKay, Cheney was far more powerful than W.
.. This, of course, is untrue. But the punch line is this one: “I would choose Trump over Bush and Cheney.” Why? Because, according to McKay, “Donald Trump has no belief system. So I would take the hyenas, the random wild animals running through the White House over Cheney any day of the week.”This is how you got Trump.
.. Trump, for the Left, isn’t a departure from conservatism. He’s just another variation on a theme: All conservatives are evil.
.. Which is why, of course, Trump is the president right now. Leftist contempt for conservatives seeps through Hollywood and drips off our television and movie screens. And conservatives responded in 2016 to that contempt by nominating a man who wouldn’t take an insult, who wouldn’t respect the office of the presidency enough to forgo a cultural fight. Those on the right elected Trump more to fight those like McKay than to fight those like Nancy Pelosi. 
.. That’s why they revel in Trump’s tweets (see Schitt, Adam) and his willingness to slam anyone who knocks him (see Admiral McRaven). Trump doesn’t take, for lack of a better word, schitt. And conservatives have been taking it for far too long.

.. There’s one problem for conservatives, however: They’re missing that McKay and his colleagues aren’t the target audience. The anti-Bush films bombed because most Americans don’t see politics the same way McKay does

They do appreciate class in the Oval Office, and they do take dignity seriously. That’s why Bush won reelection in 2004, to McKay’s horror. The best revenge against Hollywood is political success, not temporarily cathartic blowback. Which is why Republicans — and President Trump — would do well to remember that strategic cultural warfare is useful, but if conservatism isn’t advanced, McKay and his ilk will sleep better at night.

Adam McKay went from Ron Burgundy to Dick Cheney, and it actually makes perfect sense

Will [Ferrell] and I joke that we single-handedly ruined Paul Thomas Anderson’s producing career before it started,” Adam McKay says, casually splaying his 6-foot-5 frame across the couch, as though in a weekly therapy session. The original script for his eventual comedy classic “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy” was so deliriously absurd that Anderson, the auteur behind “Boogie Nights,” “The Phantom Thread” and “Magnolia” — a movie that ends with a preposterous rain of frogs falling from the sky — threw up his hands and amicably bowed out of the agreement.

“He was, like, ‘I don’t know what to tell these guys, because I love this, but I know it won’t work,” McKay adds.

Of course, it did work — at least half a dozen lines from the movie are firmly entrenched in the greater American lexicon — and pretty much everything else has worked for McKay in the decade-plus since he brought Ron Burgundy into our lives.

.. He’s one of the most powerful men in Hollywood, albeit so self-effacing that you could never imagine him saying that with a straight face.

.. It’s an almost unrivaled come-up for the former head writer of ”Saturday Night Live,”

.. A decade later, 2015’s brilliant “The Big Short” permanently altered his trajectory from go-to comedy guru into one of Hollywood’s most astute chroniclers of political and economic corruption. Inspired by a Michael Lewis tome about the 2008 housing crash, the fourth-wall obliterating parable of American greed netted McKay a slew of Oscar nominations and a win for best adapted screenplay. At age 50, the card-carrying member of the Los Angeles chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America has not only become one of the industry’s most sought after commercial filmmakers, he’s become an unlikely heir to ’70s political satirist Hal Ashby — or perhaps the answer to the question, what if Mike Myers directed “All The President’s Men?” And for this, you can blame Public Enemy.

.. “When Public Enemy hit, it changed everything,” McKay says. “Those songs stopped me from being a moron teenager and politicized me in a big way.”

.. With his gray hair and spectacles, worn T-shirt and loosefitting olive pants, McKay looks more liberal-arts professor than Professor Griff. But hearing him talk hip-hop and politics affirms the carefully considered values of a longtime traveler.

.. In a National Review screed against “Vice,” right-wing firebrand Ben Shapiro claimed that Hollywood’s “leftist contempt” for conservatives led to President Trump. He incorrectly attributes McKay’s critiques to a hardened ideology, rather than a caustic fury that takes widow-making aim at those who abuse power and the public trust.

.. “I remember people screaming at me when I was protesting the Iraq War, saying I was anti-American, anti-this. I wanted to call them up and go, ‘Okay, so that didn’t work. So, what am I? Am I still a liberal?’ I hate these tags you get whacked with. All I want to do is judge politicians and our government by their actions. Are they corrupt or not? Are they effective or not?”

.. The obsessive streak that led him to pore over every bit of available data about Dick Cheney was there when he was memorizing the lyrics to songs by Run-DMC, Mantronix, Three Times Dope and LL Cool J.

.. After leaving Temple University a few semesters short of an English degree, McKay moved to Chicago to co-found the Upright Citizens Brigade. He became a member of the last generation tutored by improv legend Del Close, the sensei who mentored Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Mike Myers, Jim Belushi, John Candy and nearly every other major comic figure to emerge from the pre-millennium SNL pipeline. It’s also where McKay started attending protests.

.. “In Chicago, the improv and theater traditions were always tied to political activism,” McKay says. “But [early ’90s] culture wasn’t going in that direction. When I got to SNL, they asked me, with a bit of surprise, ‘you’re into politics?’ I was, like, ‘not really politics, but government.’ And so I become the guy writing a lot of the bits about presidents.”

.. At SNL, McKay quickly formed an enduring friendship with Ferrell and became head writer at 28, after just one year on the staff.

.. “I noticed that when you’re writing a comedy piece that has a bottom to it — that gets at something deeper — it hits 10 times bigger than a guy who just has a funny tick or needs to get his tooth fixed,” McKay says.

.. “Anchorman” mocks the misogynistic buffoonery of an insecure newscaster desperate to preserve his privileged status.

.. The genius of “The Big Short” lay in its ability to blend surrealistic gonzo comedy with a cogent unraveling of the impossibly complicated fraudulence that led to the financial crisis. The reflexive instinct would have been to play it straight and offer a sober rendering of the grotesque avarice that had ruined millions of lives. Instead, McKay had Selena Gomez (playing herself), sitting at a poker table next to the father of behavioral economics, explaining the intricacies of synthetic CDOs (collateralized debt obligations).

I come from that improv background where you’re allowed to break stuff and narrate,” McKay explains. “It’s just a matter of getting the timing right. If you don’t, it doesn’t work.”

.. He cites one of “Vice’s” best scenes, a “Wayne’s World”-style fake ending that arrives at the end of the second act; it posits “what if” Cheney had opted out of the vice presidency, stayed at Haliburton and kept America out of Iraq.

.. Although “Vice” might not fully illuminate the inner murk at the heart of Cheney — the biggest “known unknown” conceivable — it remains consistently funny and doubles as an effective shorthand history of the past half-century of power politics in Washington, including ostensibly minor-but-myopic decisions such as Reagan dismantling the solar panels atop the White House roof.

.. McKay operates with the requisite curiosity of an outsider, dumbfounded at how everyone systematically abdicated their values, and does his best to find the tonal sweet spot between a Richard III soliloquy and Ron Burgundy blustering about being kind of a big deal.

.. He singles out Sherrod Brown, Elizabeth Warren and Beto O’ Rourke for praise but reserves his highest admiration for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

.. “Wherever she’s going, I’m going,” he says. “She’s awesome, and what I’d like to see American government get back to: accountability, transparency and letting people know where you’re taking money from.”

.. “The midterms left me hopeful, especially the fact that 15 percent more people voted,” McKay says. “All I care about now is getting this guy out of there and us to an America that believes in and is working to fight global warming. What ties into ‘Vice’ is the need to get big money out of our democracy. It’s responsible for so much — from the denial of global warming to oil companies doing whatever they want.”

.. And like almost any worthwhile artist, there’s a deep-seated empathy for his subjects that McKay can’t shake. Even if his protagonists aren’t necessarily likable, he’s gifted at making them seem human — whether it’s a lecherous Southern California newscaster or the Mr. Burns of real-life political memory.

“I learned that these are people with actual vulnerabilities, who I could actually identify with when they were young,” McKay says. “Yes, there was some anger, but the biggest surprise for me was that I genuinely felt sad for [Cheney and his wife.] Don’t get me wrong. I’m not discounting the horrible things they did, the people who died, the torture. But I teared up at the first big screening. I couldn’t believe it, but it was like a spiritual tragedy, not just for them, but for the entire country enduring this similar kind of loss.”

A Vice President With Few Virtues

A tough new Dick Cheney biopic is triggering some conservatives. Have they learned nothing?

So instead, I am summoned to a more urgent, if distasteful, task: to try and explain why anyone in the conservative movement (or anywhere else) would want to normalize Dick Cheneylet alone flat-out cheer for him. After all, this was a man who left office with an approval rating as low as 13 percent.

.. That’s lower than Richard Nixon when he resigned, lower than Jimmy Carter when he was replaced by Ronald Reagan. It’s as low as Herbert Hoover during the Great Depression and as low as Barack Obama among Republicans and conservatives.

Even today, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump both have triple the approval ratings that Cheney left office with.

.. To plagiarize what Andrew Sullivan famously said about Hillary, anyone with Cheney’s destructive track record towards his own movement should have been drummed out “under a welter of derision.”

.. We don’t have to be “ordered” to remember and revere historical figures like Reagan, MLK, and JFK, or be shamed into doing so. But who the heck did Dick Cheney ever benefit outside of the corporate-crony one percent?

  • What small, non-monopoly business did he ever give a chance to grow?
  • What did he do to improve our schools and police?
  • What did he do for balanced-budget conservatism, as he overruled Alan Greenspan and his own treasury secretary, gloating that “deficits don’t matter”?
  • How did Cheney make us more secure, with Iraq and Afghanistan all but ruined, Iran and Syria feeling stronger every day,
  • and ISIS having wrought its destruction—and with Osama bin Laden still livin’ large for two-and-a-half years after Cheney retired?
  • How do you defend someone who literally went to the Supreme Court to keep the minutes of his infamous 2001 energy task force meetings secret (they were co-chaired by Kenny-Boy Lay during the height of Enron’s rape of California’s power grid),
  • while at the same time suggesting the outing of a truly top secret CIA agent (Valerie Plame) just to get revenge on her journalist husband?
  • How did Cheney uphold Ronald Reagan’s mantra of curbing big government excesses when he justified warrantless surveillance and straight-up torture?
  • And what lasting benefit did Dick Cheney bestow on the conservative or Republican brand, with Barack Obama winning the biggest landslides since Reagan and Bush Senior?

It was my respected colleague Kelley Vlahos who solved the mystery of why some members of the Beltway press just can’t quit Cheney: “because they still won’t admit that the war was wrong.” Bingo. Expecting the U.S. to export insta-democracy to decidedly non-Western cultures? Putting overwhelmingly Christian and Jewish “viceroys” in charge of historically Muslim nations? Gee, what could possibly go wrong…

.. As chilling and thrilling as Christian Bale is as Dick Cheney, perhaps no scene in Vice is as squirmy as Richard Dreyfus’s impersonation of Cheney in Oliver Stone’s W., when he stands in front of a CGI map in the War Room and smirkingly announces, “There is no exit strategy. We STAY!” (If that scene didn’t actually take place, it might just as well have.)

.. Still, there are scenes in Vice that come close. For a biopic about a man who defined the adage “personnel is policy,” it’s fitting that director Adam McKay, who has a strong comedy background, chose actors who are known for being funny just as much as for their work in dramas. Those include Sam Rockwell as George W., Tyler Perry as Colin Powell, and Steve Carell as Donald Rumsfeld. (Reuniting Bale and Carell also indicates that McKay rightly sees Vice as an unofficial prequel to his financial meltdown dark farce The Big Short.) Like the aforementioned W., McKay’s Vice is a sometimes frenetic, sometimes eerily calm black comedy satire. And like Josh Brolin in W., Sam Rockwell plays George Jr. as an easily played and comical doofus. There’s no doubt in this film as to who the real president was from December 2000 to the end of 2008

.. Watching Bale as a terse, leering, manipulative young reactionary as he grindstones and plays people against each other from the late ‘60s to his Bush-Cheney heyday, one is struck by his shameless entitlement. Cheney uses movement conservatism and old boy connections as his own Uber. If Christian Bale is a slim and athletic man trapped in a fat and ugly body, Cheney sees himself as the Richelieu or Machiavelli of his own real-life movie, trapped just one step behind the real decision-makers—until he finally gets that chance to ride his horse from Aqueduct to Santa Anita.

.. The other key role among these garbage men is Amy Adams’ take-no-prisoners performance as Lynne Cheney. Mrs. Cheney had the straight-A brains and Ph.D.-level drive to be a powerful judge or executive in her own right, and was, according to Adams, a better “natural politician” than her husband. But as a card-carrying member of the Phyllis Schlafly/Anita Bryant/Beverly LaHaye-era Right from rural Wyoming, Lynne had less than zero plans to transform herself into another bra-burning icon. Instead, “she lived her [considerable] ambitions through her husband,” as Adams said. Adams even added that compared to the iron-fisted Lynne, her husband Dick might have been the “velvet glove”!

.. And as these Cheney-rehabilitating articles prove, Lynne wasn’t the only one who got off on Dick’s raw exercise of power and privilege. Watching Dick Cheney at work must have been intoxicating for a Dwight Schrute or Montgomery Burns in his small pond, for someone who coveted the kind of vulgar bullying power that Cheney wielded. It was no accident that Stephen Bannon famously and semi-humorously put Dick Cheney in his own hall of heroes, behind only Darth Vader and Satan, citing Cheney’s peerless talent at “disrupting” established orders.

.. Sorry, I’m just not there for conservative writers infantilizing Cheney and going all triggered snowflake at what big meanies the Hollywood libr’als are being to him. Christian Bale said it himself: “[Cheney’s] a big boy…he says himself he has no remorse, no regrets, he’d do everything again in a minute.” Exactly.