John Bolton takes command: Is he now the power behind the Trump throne?

It's a tumultuous time for this dysfunctional White House. But amid a big shakeup, one guy's not going anywhere

By Heather Digby Parton


Published November 19, 2018 9:05AM (EST)

John Bolton; Donald Trump (Getty/Salon)
John Bolton; Donald Trump (Getty/Salon)

We knew politics was going to be tumultuous in the post-election period, and that's certainly been true. The days of dealing with some boring last-minute business in the lame-duck Congress, followed by a long holiday break after midterm elections are long over. With Donald Trump in the White House, it's obviously crazier than ever.

The president visited California on Saturday and mercifully didn't throw any paper towels at the victims of the horrific wildfires that have left more than 70 people confirmed dead, with more than 1,000 still missing. He screwed it up anyway, of course:

This assurance that forest fires will soon be fixed "spectacularly" is reminiscent of his other recent assurance that the nuclear threat had been eliminated because of his love affair with Kim Jong-un. It was reported last week that the U.S. intelligence community has determined that Kim is actually building 16 new missile facilities. In an interview with Chris Wallace which aired on Sunday, Trump dismissed that finding, saying that he simply doesn't believe it's true.

Trump also told Wallace that despite the CIA's "high confidence" that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey last month, the prince told him he didn't do it, so what can you do? You'll recall that he used the same excuse for Russian President Vladimir Putin's apparent interference in the 2016 election. If an authoritarian lies to him he just shrugs his shoulders and says, well, that's it then. If the prime minister of Canada or a European ally even whispers a complaint he immediately starts threatening them. This pattern is now firmly established and can no longer be ignored. His most valued allies are what we used to think of as adversaries, and vice versa.

The Wallace interview featured a number of interesting exchanges, including one shocking response to a long line of questions by Wallace about Trump and the media. Responding to some comments that the president's attacks on the press are the greatest threat to our democracy, Trump insulted retired Adm. Bill McRaven, a Navy SEAL and former head of special operations, by suggesting that he dropped the ball by not getting Osama bin Laden sooner. Then he went on a weird rant about how he'd seen better compounds than the one in Pakistan where bin Laden had been living.

Trump just can't seem to stop showing his contempt for the military and its leaders lately. Indeed, one of the more important bits of news in the interview was his tepid show of support for White House chief of staff and retired Marine Gen. John Kelly. Wallace asked Trump if he planned to keep Kelly on.

Trump: We -- I wouldn’t -- look, we get along well. There are certain things I love what he does. And there are certain things that I don’t like that he does -- that aren’t his strength. It’s not that he doesn’t do -- you know, he works so hard. He’s doing an excellent job in many ways. There are a couple of things where it’s just not his strength. It’s not his fault, it’s not his strength ...

Wallace: So 2020 is no longer written in stone?

Trump: It could happen. Yeah, it could -- I mean, it could be. But let’s see what happens. I have not -- look, I have three or four or five positions that I’m thinking about. Of that, maybe it’s going to end up being two. Maybe, but I want to -- I need flexibility.

It's also pretty clear that the rumors about Homeland Security director Kirstjen Nielsen being on the chopping block are true. Trump told Wallace that she just isn't "tough" enough on the border. It's hard to imagine what being tougher than putting babies is cages will look like, but it appears we're going to find out. As for the other three cabinet members likely to get the ax, the ones most often discussed are yet another military man, Defense Secretary James Mattis, along with Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, whose corruption charges are starting to pile up to a level that can't be ignored. But who knows? With the exception of the family, it could be anybody.

One person who is actually solidifying his relationship with the president (and who may be the ultimate catalyst for Kelly being fired) is National Security Adviser John Bolton. Despite recently having his second-in-command exiled to a different department by the first lady, according to the Wall Street Journal, Bolton is consolidating his power and consolidating his authority in the White House. Eschewing the adviser's traditional role as an honest, impartial broker for the various departments, he is imposing his worldview. This isn't really too difficult as long as he pays lip service to Trump's policy of ranting incoherently about trade, whining childishly about "fairness" and making foreign countries stop "laughing at us." He seems to have figured out how to flatter the boss while still advancing his own agenda, which is best described as good old-fashioned right-wing hawkishness.

The Wall Street Journal article points out one possible pitfall, however:

Mr. Bolton’s ability to shape Mr. Trump’s priorities and pursue his own causes have given rise to a new nickname among some critics: President Bolton. His allies know the term could earn him the ire of Mr. Trump, who has been known to turn on others seen as stealing his spotlight.

“If John ever behaved in a way that led people in the administration to refer to him as ‘President Bolton,’ his effectiveness would be destroyed,” said Elliott Abrams, a longtime Bolton friend and one-time member of President George W. Bush’s National Security Council. “It’s critical that the president never think that, and no one understands that better than John.”

That's something he really can't control. Trump will hear about it eventually. He's got a lot of "executive time" to fill.

Toward the end of their interview, Wallace asked Trump where he ranked himself in the pantheon of great presidents. He said, "There’s Lincoln and Washington, there’s FDR and Reagan, do you make the top 10?" Trump doesn't have the capacity to do such an analysis so he just said he's doing a great job and that we'd be at war with North Korea if Obama were still president. And then he added:

I would give myself, I would – look, I hate to do it, but I will do it, I would give myself an A+, is that enough? Can I go higher than that?

I think he actually believes that, which may be the most alarming thing about him. It's one thing to survive each day, barely balancing on the high-wire act of this crazy presidency. It's quite another to imagine you're actually flying.

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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