John Bolton

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Bolton Cared More About His Ego Than His Job

The former national security adviser failed to live up to the most basic requirements of his position.

Samantha Vinograd served on the White House National Security Council for four years under President Barack Obama and in the Treasury Department under President George W. Bush. She is a CNN national security analyst. Follow her on Twitter @sam_vinograd.

The Trump administration’s revolving door took another spin earlier today, when President Donald Trump announced that he asked Ambassador John Bolton to resign from his position as national security advisor. Bolton is Trump’s third National Security Council chief to cycle out and was reportedly fired because of his policy differences with the president. (Bolton said he chose to resign.)

Some have openly worried about what Bolton’s departure could mean for U.S. national security. Senator Mitt Romney lamented the loss of Bolton’s “contrarian” voice. At a time when the administration has been censoring contrarian views—including factual ones—telling the president what he needs to hear, and not just what he wants to hear, is an asset.

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But painting Bolton as a heroic truth teller is missing the point. Bolton was a hugely ineffective national security adviser. He didn’t occupy the role in any substantive way and failed to carry out the basic tasks that NSAs are expected to do—including holding regular national security policy meetings and getting through to the president. While he was ignoring his job, he instead focused on building up his own ego, publicly airing his disagreements with the president and pursuing his own policy convictions.

Bolton might try to drum up sympathy on a media tour—he has already contacted members of the media attempting to set the details of his White House departure straight—but no one should shed a tear for him. He met his demise because he cared more about his ego than the job he signed up for. U.S. national security took a hit for it.

Bolton was national security advisor in name only. His predecessors have all used the role differently depending on their personal styles and the presidents whom they served. But successive NSAs have still agreed that certain core responsibilities come with the job, including running a dynamic, high level interagency process. This process—in which the NSA solicits the views of relevant members of the national security team—is used to provide recommendations to the president on national security issues.

This requires endless hours in the situation room engaging with other members of the national security council, from the secretary of state and secretary of defense to the secretary of the treasury and chairman of the joint chiefs of staff. It also requires coordination with the intelligence community so that all members of the national security council, and the president, are operating from the same sheet of music.

While running this process, the NSA serves as the president’s senior most adviser on national security. He or she is successful when he or she knows the president’s every move and advises him on whether to take it—advice that is based on both his or her views and the views of the rest of the NSC.

Bolton dropped the ball on this important process. Early in his tenure, we learned that he had significantly scaled down critical national security council meetings, and the paucity of these “Principals Committee” meetings were worrying members of Trump’s cabinet.

Either because he wasn’t faithfully executing his job and representing the interagency’s views or because the president just didn’t want to hear what he had to say, Bolton didn’t earn the ear of the president. He was put to pasture in Mongolia when Trump met with Kim Jong Un at the DMZ and was not in a key meeting with a North Korean official in the Oval Office. More recently, reporting indicated that Bolton wasn’t even originally invited to a key meeting on Afghanistan let alone running it.

While Bolton wasn’t performing the core functions of his job in private, he was making a name for himself in public. He publicly contradicted Trump on issues like the U.S. troop withdrawal from Syria and used different talking points on core national security issues like North Korea.

Trump, too, spoke publicly about his differences with Bolton—particularly on issues that they used to be eye to eye on like North Korea. But the difference between the two is that Bolton chose to serve this president. In doing so, his job while national security adviser was to publicly support the president’s decisions, whether he agreed with them or not. Instead, Bolton distanced himself from the man he was supposed to be serving, and did little to signal that he was focused on much other than his preferred policy narrative.

There were even reports that the U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan reconciliation, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, didn’t want to leave Bolton with a copy of the peace deal under negotiation with the Taliban out of fear that Bolton would leak the details to the press, especially if he disagreed with them. More recently, Bolton’s disagreement with the president’s decision to meet with the Taliban at Camp David made its way into the press.

Internal divisions are nothing new on the national security council. President Barack Obama and members of his national security team didn’t agree on every issue, nor did they hold back when it came to sharing those differences. But disagreements were aired in the situation room, or behind other closed doors. The operating principle was, and should be, that the team hashes out differences privately so that it can present a united front behind the president in public.

There’s a reason for this. When internal divisions become public, classified discussions play out in the court of public opinion. U.S. diplomacy can become confused, and national security decisions look like they don't have full of buy-in. Foreign counterparts know which members of the national security apparatus are more in line with their objectives and can try to play members off against each other. That’s not in our national security interest—what happens in the Situation Room should stay in the Situation Room.

Even on Tuesday, on the day of his departure, Bolton was focused on establishing his personal narrative, publicly. Shortly after Trump claimed to have fired him, Bolton texted Fox News host Brian Kilmeade to assert that he had resigned and that he was not in fact fired. He’s reportedly already departed the White House rather than working with the president to ensure a smooth transition to whomever will act in his place. Whether that was his choice or Trump’s, it’s something that any NSA should have insisted on because it’s in the best national security interests of our country.

Bolton took the road less traveled when it comes to serving as a national security advisor. He didn’t perform the core functions of his job nor did he understand how to voice differences of opinion, whether with the president or with other members of the national security council, in an appropriate or useful fashion. Instead, he remained on the sidelines except when it came to making sure that things he wanted us to know he said were a matter of public record. Let’s hope that the next national security adviser does a lot better than Bolton.

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