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Bolton Melts in Trump’s Foreign-Policy Tinderbox

Jonathan Bernstein

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin was asked on Tuesday whether the foreign policy process of President Donald Trump’s administration is a mess after John Bolton was fired (or resigned; you rarely really know with this crowd) as national security adviser. 

Well, of course it’s a mess. Not just foreign policy of course; there’s no rhyme or reason to any policy process in the current White House, as anyone who has been paying attention all year, and especially over the last six weeks or so, can plainly see. 

Of course it all begins with a president who has no use for organizational structure and procedural regularity. He’s run his own small family business all his life with what he considers great success. Why, he apparently thinks, is the presidency any different? Never mind that the U.S. government dwarfs the Trump Organization in size, scale and complexity. Never mind that a president simply doesn’t “run” the government the way a family business is run — the lines of authority aren’t clear or aren’t there at all, or are shared with Congress or otherwise just different. Never mind that political incentives are complicated and very different from the incentives within a business setting.

The truth is that over the 70 years or so that the executive branch got very large and the presidential branch grew to match it, presidents have figured out how to run the White House. It takes a strong chief of staff with excellent political skills. Presidents who try to do it themselves, including Jimmy Carter and (for his first two years) Bill Clinton, wind up with chaos. Trump unwittingly has emulated those failures except to some extent for the first few months of John Kelly’s tenure as chief of staff, with predictable results. 

And so we get to John Bolton. To begin with, Bolton was always miscast for the job he was hired for. He’s an unusually strong policy advocate; the job of the national security adviser calls for more of a neutral broker who can bring together the important players in the foreign policy and defense departments and agencies, work out options and bring them to the president for decisions. The whole point of the job is to help the president gain control over the sprawling government agencies responsible for national security. Bolton wasn’t inclined to do so, and without a real White House chief of staff (remember that the current occupant of that office, Mick Mulvaney, is still just an acting chief who apparently ignores the foreign-policy side of things), there wasn’t anyone to push him.

So what wound up happening was that Bolton had one foreign policy, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had another, the Department of Defense yet another, and on and on. Trump had his own foreign policy impulses that may or may not have been connected to any of the other ones. That’s what we saw in the fiasco(es) surrounding the negotiations and collapse of negotiations with the Afghan Taliban over the last few weeks.

Procedural conflict isn’t the only mess. Look at executive-branch hiring practices. By all accounts, Trump hires based on how personally loyal he thinks someone will be; how they flatter him, especially on TV; and his cut-of-the-jib test — whether he thinks they look right for the job (remember that Bolton’s first big obstacle to a Trump administration job was reportedly his mustache). Sometimes, that yields people who have no idea what they’re doing. With Bolton, the problem is that Trump doesn’t seem to understand that personnel is policy, and that if you hire John Bolton you are in effect committing to a bunch of controversial policies — or at least to someone in a key job who is going to try to implement those policies. It’s no surprise that the result is incoherence. 

So Trump has now shredded three national security advisers. He’s had two secretaries each at State and Defense, and he still has a vacancy with no nominee at the Department of Homeland Security over five months after his second secretary at that department announced her resignation. He also hasn’t bothered to choose a new director of national intelligence; Dan Coats announced his resignation from that position back in July. 

That’s bad, and there’s every reason to believe that it will get worse. Bolton, at least, was qualified for his job, even if he wasn’t right for it, but at this point fewer and fewer qualified professionals are going to want to work in the Trump White House or anywhere in the administration. That’s always been something of a problem for this president, but all administrations have fewer great people to choose from as time goes on, and Trump’s habit of firing people willy-nilly isn’t going to increase the applicant pool. 

A mess? That’s too charitable. This is the abyss. Pure chaos.

To contact the author of this story: Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jonathan Landman at jlandman4@bloomberg.net

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

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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