WASHINGTON — President Trump on Tuesday pushed out John R. Bolton, his third national security adviser, amid fundamental disputes over how to handle major foreign policy challenges like Iran, North Korea, and most recently Afghanistan.
The departure ended a 17-month partnership that had grown so tense that the two men even disagreed over how they parted ways, as Trump announced on Twitter that he had fired the adviser only to be rebutted by Bolton, who insisted he had resigned of his own accord.
A longtime Republican hawk known for a combative style, Bolton spent much of his tenure trying to restrain the president from making what he considered unwise agreements with the United States’ enemies. Trump bristled at what he viewed as Bolton’s militant approach, to the point that he made barbed jokes in meetings about his adviser’s desire to get the United States into more wars.
Their differences came to a climax in recent days as Bolton waged a last-minute campaign to stop the president from signing a peace agreement at Camp David with leaders of the radical Taliban group. He won the policy battle as Trump scrapped the deal but lost the larger war when the president grew angry about the way the matter played out.
Trump and his aides privately blamed the national security adviser for news reports describing Bolton’s opposition to the deal. Vice President Mike Pence and his camp likewise grew angry at reports suggesting he had agreed with Bolton, seeing them as an effort to bolster the adviser’s position.
“I informed John Bolton last night that his services are no longer needed at the White House,” the president wrote on Twitter. “I disagreed strongly with many of his suggestions, as did others in the Administration, and therefore I asked John for his resignation, which was given to me this morning. I thank John very much for his service.”
Bolton disputed the president’s version of how the end came in his own message on Twitter shortly afterward. “I offered to resign last night and President Trump said, ‘Let’s talk about it tomorrow,’ ” Bolton wrote.
Responding to a question from The New York Times via text, Bolton said his resignation was his own initiative, not the president’s. “Offered last night without his asking,” he wrote. “Slept on it and gave it to him this morning.”
Trump said he would appoint a replacement “next week,” setting off a process that should offer clues to where the president wants to take his foreign policy before next year’s election. In the meantime, a White House spokesman said Charles Kupperman, the deputy national security adviser, would be his acting adviser.
The national security adviser’s dismissal came so abruptly that it was announced barely an hour after the White House scheduled a briefing on terrorism for 1:30 p.m. at which Bolton was supposed to appear alongside Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. But Bolton left the White House, and the briefing proceeded without him.
Pompeo, who has feuded with Bolton for months, shed no tears about the president’s decision. “He should have people he trusts and values,” Pompeo told reporters. And he made no effort to hide his rivalry with Bolton. “There were definitely places that Ambassador Bolton and I had different views about how we should proceed,” he said.
Bolton’s departure came as Trump is pursuing diplomatic openings with some of the United States’ most intractable enemies, efforts that have troubled hard-liners in the administration, like Bolton, who view North Korea and Iran as profoundly untrustworthy.
Bolton saw his job as stopping Trump from making unwise agreements. “While John Bolton was national security adviser for the last 17 months, there have been no bad deals,” a person close to Bolton said minutes after the president’s announcement on Tuesday, reflecting the ousted adviser’s view.
To Bolton’s aggravation, the president has continued to court Kim Jong Un, the repressive leader of North Korea, despite Kim’s refusal to surrender his nuclear program and despite repeated short-range missile tests by the North that have rattled its neighbors.
In recent days, Trump has also expressed a willingness to meet with President Hassan Rouhani of Iran under the right circumstances, and even to extend short-term financing to Tehran. Pompeo confirmed on Tuesday that it was possible such a meeting could take place this month on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly session in New York.
The rift between the president and his national security adviser owed as much to personality as to policy. The president never warmed to him, a dynamic that is often fatal in this White House. Bolton’s critics inside the administration said he irritated the president by undermining policies even after they were decided.
At its core, the schism reflected a deep-seated philosophical difference that has characterized the Trump presidency. While given to bellicose language, Trump came to office deeply skeptical of overseas military adventures and promising negotiations to resolve volatile conflicts.
Bolton, however, has been one of Washington’s most outspoken hawks and unapologetic advocates of American power to defend the country’s interests.
To his admirers, Bolton was supposed to be a check on what they feared would be naive diplomacy, a cleareyed realist who would keep a president without prior experience in foreign affairs from giving away the store to wily adversaries. But Trump has long complained privately that Bolton was too willing to get the United States into another war.
Bolton’s departure caught White House aides and lawmakers off guard. Senator Mitt Romney, Republican from Utah and a former party nominee for president, called the news “an extraordinary loss for our nation and the White House.” Romney said he was “very, very unhappy.”
“The fact that he was a contrarian from time to time was an asset, not a liability,” Romney said.
But Republicans like Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky who have tried to push Trump away from foreign intervention were openly gleeful. “The threat of war worldwide goes down exponentially with John Bolton out of the White House,” Paul told reporters. “
Among others pleased to be rid of Bolton were Iran’s leaders, who viewed him as an enemy of peace. Hesameddin Ashena, Rouhani’s top political adviser, tweeted that Bolton getting sidelined was “a definitive sign that Washington’s maximum pressure on Iran has failed” and that “Iran’s blockade will end.”
A former undersecretary of state and ambassador to the United Nations under President George W. Bush, Bolton, 70, was tapped as national security adviser in March 2018 after impressing Trump with his outspoken performances on Fox News.