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Bolton Learns That Trump’s Not a Listener. Pompeo’s Next

Timothy L. O'Brien

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Before calling it quits Tuesday with his national security adviser, John Bolton, President Donald Trump reportedly spent months phoning Bolton’s predecessor, H.R. McMaster, seeking advice.

During those calls, NBC News noted, Trump told McMaster “that he missed him.”

Awwww.

But enough of that.

Before giving in to the idea that humane longings glimmer beneath Trump’s leathery façade, consider McMaster’s own fate. Like Bolton, McMaster endured the very classy public spectacle of the president of the United States using Twitter to disclose their parting of ways. Trump had come to loathe Bolton so much that he excluded him from important diplomatic meetings. McMaster suffered different ritual humiliations before departing the White House, including Trump mocking him and his inexpensive, ill-fitting suits.

Yet Trump, after all of that, still managed to seek out McMaster when he needed him, and McMaster took the calls.

I disparaged you. I shanked you. I fired you. I need advice. I miss you.

Many of those who roll in and out of Trump’s business and political orbits are like abused spouses unable or unwilling to escape their tormentor. They are thumped, then thumped again, but they persist. In that capacity, Trump has the unique ability to make some unsympathetic people who work for him seem, however briefly, sympathetic.

There is another crop of ambitious, craven folks on Team Trump who have signed on for White House jobs simply to get their resumes stamped, and it’s hard (for me, at least) to shed a tear when Trump, inevitably, devours them.

One additional character chooses to venture into the Trump zone. That’s the tough, informed Washington veteran who embraces public service (think of former Defense Secretary James Mattis) or the policy evangelist who can give as good as he or she gets. I think Bolton falls firmly into that latter category.

Bolton, Trump’s third national security adviser, had to know at the very least that he was going to work for an unpredictable, undisciplined and unenlightened boss when he succeeded McMaster. What he may not have fully grasped is this essential truth about Trump: The president doesn’t take advice.

That’s no small matter. As I wrote two weeks after Trump’s inauguration in 2017, the appellation “Trump adviser” is a contradiction in terms. I wondered then how long advisers like Steve Bannon and Kellyanne Conway would last, and thought that Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump would be the only long-term survivors in the White House (at least in positions that Trump truly cared about).

Trump’s “entire business career, his presidential campaign, and now his presidency, have been routinely marked by chaos and seat-of-the-pants decision-making,” I wrote in 2017. “Some observers attribute this — as well as Trump's haphazard tweeting and his fondness for confrontational or unsettling statements — to various forms of the Trumpian dark arts and wily, strategic thinking. It's none of that. It's just Trump being Trump, and the country he's presiding over should brace itself accordingly.”

Bolton should have braced accordingly. A wizened policy hawk, he entered the White House stoked to put Iran, North Korea, Afghanistan, Venezuela and other countries on notice that hard-line intervention might be afoot. Trump wasn’t really on board, however.

It wouldn’t have mattered if Bolton was a dove, though. Trump wouldn’t have listened to that chatter either. He doesn’t listen to advice because, in part, he fancies himself an expert on everything. (Even though he has called Nepal “Nipple” and Bhutan “Button”; invented a country called “Nambia”; called Syria “Iraq” shortly after bombing Syria; confused South Korea with North Korea; described Belgium as a “beautiful city”; and was amazed early in his first term that the world “had so many countries.”)

Trump also isn’t a listener because he doesn’t really care about the nuts-and-bolts, or the long-term trajectory, of policy. He cares about theater, and most of his policy positions are performance art, including his approach to foreign affairs. Bolton the hard-line interventionist had hitched his wagon to Trump the showman and they never aligned. 

Trump liked the spectacle of chummy letters and dramatic meetings with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, while Bolton was opposed on principle to any get-togethers. Trump liked the spectacle, and seemed oblivious to the insensitivity, of inviting a terrorist group, the Taliban, to Camp David to resolve the Afghanistan war just days before the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Bolton opposed that meeting too, which made it the final, pivotal rift between the two men.

“Imagine getting fired for the advice ‘Don't throw a 9/11 party for the Taliban,’” the comedy writers at “The Daily Show” tweeted.

Trump enjoys military parades and the macho bluster of war threats but he lacks the clarity of purpose, the policy chops and the stomach to follow through on his saber-rattling — converting the old Teddy Roosevelt foreign policy adage “Speak softly and carry a big stick” to something more akin to “Speak loudly and carry a twig.”

For all of this, you can expect the national security apparatus at the White House to remain shambolic. In the wake of Bolton’s departure from the Trump administration on Tuesday, the White House put Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in front of the media as a show of foreign-policy depth. Mnuchin, a former financier who found a second career producing films such as “The Lego Batman Movie,” brings thimble-shallow national security expertise to the table, however.

And it’s not only a lack of depth wearing down the White House’s national security capabilities. It’s also a lack of leadership. In addition to the new vacancy at the national security adviser’s post, the White House has yet to appoint a permanent head of the Department of Homeland Security and it has no director of national intelligence. Should a crisis emerge, Trump’s national security team may offer weak support — which means the ultimate victim of Trump’s behavior will be average citizens and public safety.

For his part, Pompeo, who emerges from the Bolton debacle with enhanced influence, remains optimistic and appears to believe that the president will be taking his advice on board.

Trump “should have people that he trusts and values, and whose efforts and judgments benefit him in delivering American foreign policy,” he told reporters at the Tuesday news briefing.

To contact the author of this story: Timothy L. O'Brien at tobrien46@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Matthew Brooker at mbrooker1@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Timothy L. O’Brien is the executive editor of Bloomberg Opinion. He has been an editor and writer for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, HuffPost and Talk magazine. His books include “TrumpNation: The Art of Being The Donald.”

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