The Reagan administration believed that “personnel is policy” and empowered conservatives by placing their ideological colleagues in positions of power throughout the government bureaucracy. President Trump has at times worked to disprove this maxim, continuing the trend of recent administrations of both parties. The president has centralized power in the White House at the expense of cabinet agencies. He has taken this trend a step farther by concentrating power in his own hands at the expense of the White House chief of staff and other senior advisers.
The reality-TV celebrity who enthusiastically enjoyed announcing firings on national TV was never going to assemble a team of rivals, a collection of distinguished statesmen with independent reputations, ideas, and power bases. Instead, he has delivered a historically high rate of turnover in senior positions, including the chief of staff, national-security adviser, communications director, and cabinet secretaries. Despite his amply demonstrated loyalty, even Vice President Pence has been the subject of rumors about his potential replacement. It is hardly surprising that the man who made the phrase “you’re fired” the climax of his weekly TV show would be willing to change his advisers so casually.
Yet despite the inside-the-Beltway hand-wringing and made-for-cable-TV personnel machinations, Trump has been able to advance his agenda in the legislative, regulatory, and public arenas. His opponents deride him not for being ineffective, but rather for being too energetic in pursuing the conservative and disruptive policy agenda he promised voters. Given the high stakes and bruised egos, no presidential administration is without drama; there is an endless supply of envious Washington denizens willing to second-guess every decision and criticize every official. Yet Trump has also attracted loyal and talented staffers, including Secretaries Mike Pompeo and Alex Azar, who have proven effective at advancing his agenda while also avoiding being damaged by the infighting.
Ambassador Bolton’s resignation seems more important than previous staff departures. There was always going to be conflict between Trump’s isolationist tendencies and desire to negotiate everything and Bolton’s neoconservative desire to remake the world in America’s image. One does not have to always agree with Bolton to believe his values-based approach was a good balance to Trump’s transactional approach to foreign affairs. Many who did not want to see Bolton unleashed still appreciated him as a counterbalance to Trump. It was helpful to have someone around who was willing to remind the State Department that many adversarial regimes are nothing but evil.
Bolton made two mistakes unforgivable in the Trump administration. First, he publicly opposed Trump. Second, he was right. He argued, privately and through leaks, against the Taliban coming to Camp David to negotiate with the president. When the Taliban summit blew up and it was evident Bolton was right, Trump did what came naturally and parted ways with him. Bolton already had a history of disagreeing with the president’s more personality-based and open approaches to North Korea and Iran, and he had taken a harder stand for regime change in Venezuela.
Trump can credibly claim his disruptive approach to foreign policy fulfills the promises he made to the American voters. He differs from his predecessors not in his excessive rhetoric on the campaign trail, but rather in his seriousness in following through. Voters had tired of the bipartisan consensus that America must simply continue abiding by unfair trade deals and bear a disproportionate burden to help keep the peace. Hard-working voters were tired of making all the sacrifices to benefit the nation’s elites and other countries’ emerging middle classes. Trump promised to exit the Paris climate treaty, the Iran nuclear deal, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership; move America’s embassy to Jerusalem; and renegotiate NAFTA. He has done these things. While he may not have succeeded in convincing Mexico to pay for his border wall, he has used the threat of tariffs to motivate Mexico to help dramatically stem the flow of illegal immigrants coming from Central America. All of these moves were considered impractical by the foreign-policy establishment ruling both parties, just as Reagan’s determination to take down the Evil Empire was also once derided as cowboy foolishness.
Yet Trump could use Bolton — or someone like him — to play the role of bad cop both within and outside his administration. He previously seemed to realize the value and leverage that Bolton’s hawkish views gave him with Iran, North Korea, and other adversaries. Better that Rouhani and Kim Jong-un demonized Bolton, while preserving their ability to work with Trump. Better that Trump could convincingly blame his intransigent staff for insisting on verifiable denuclearization from both countries.
Traditional conservatives once worried whether Trump would negotiate away their core values on domestic issues when dealing with Schumer and Pelosi, and they have been pleasantly surprised time and again with Trump’s fealty and effectiveness in pursuing their policy interests and judicial appointments. These same conservatives worry about Trump’s personality-based approach to foreign affairs but are now more willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.
Many have noted that the president has the right to choose his advisers. Yes, and grass is green and the sky is blue. The question is not whether he has the right to get rid of Bolton, but rather whether it was the right move. The president’s aversion to war and his willingness to meet with our nation’s adversaries is a strength. John Bolton’s willingness to be honest with the American people about the true intentions of our adversaries is also a strength and a necessity. Who will do that now?