Donald Trump and John Bolton were a terrible match. Not because they didn’t deserve each other. Not that they weren’t absolutely alike in their vaunting egos. It was exactly because Bolton is so like Trump that there was an eventual falling out between them—two people who adamantly believe that they, and only they, know the “truth” in the face of all those pesky facts don’t seem destined to stick together all that long. Unfortunately, it was plenty long enough to make one of the worst decisions of Trump’s time in the White House; a decision that is still costing the nation, and the world.
Bolton’s predecessor as national security adviser was H.R. McMaster. McMaster, with his decades of military experience, was exactly the idea one of the “grownups in the room” who many people, back in those heady days before the United States had entered full-time chaos, expected to keep us from reaching the place we’re in right now. McMaster was willing to provide a bland defense of Trump when he engaged in such activities as sliding classified information to the Russians, a defense that seemed to come down to Trump not knowing what he was doing. McMaster was organized and informed, but while he was willing to play defense for Trump in public, he seemed less than willing to indulge nonsense claims, and very willing to say what he thought of the “idiot kindergartner” in private. That was enough to get him canned a year after he started.
Trump brought Bolton in on the same day that McMaster went out. Three weeks later, Trump ordered missiles and planes to strike locations across Syria. Three weeks after that, Trump pulled the United States out of the nuclear agreement with Iran.
Neither of those things was coincidental. Throwing Bolton on top of Trump was like suddenly having Trump squared. Blowing up things in Syria, and blowing up everything in Iran, were things the two agreed on; though for very different reasons. For Bolton, destruction is the reason. Step one, blow things up. Step two, who cares? That’s the Bolton doctrine. For Trump, the actions in Syria and Iran had a different purpose—they were not what President Obama would do.
In particular, Bolton’s long-term desire to see Iran burn, and Trump’s everlasting need to prove himself better than Obama, meant that the United States walked away from an international treaty without cause and over the loud complaints of allies. In that one moment, Donald Trump and John Bolton conspired to do lasting damage to the nation, and that moment is still affecting everything from the stability of the Middle East to the cost of soybeans.
In destroying the Iran nuclear agreement, Bolton and Trump laid the table to destabilize the government in Iran and invite a new round of warfare in the Middle East. For Trump this had the added benefit of opening possibilities for his pal Mohammed bin Salman. For Bolton, it was all about the boom.
But the not-even side effect of this was that the United States abandoned its allies on a matter of deep concern to all involved, and showed that the country would act without evidence and beyond any appeal to reason. For a United States whose international stock was at a record low after two decades of engaging in large-scale war, small-scale war, and threats of war in dozens of nations … this moment was a turning point.
Across the globe, the way that Trump simply declared that he would break the six-nation treaty and walk away made a definitive statement that the United States could not be viewed as a stabilizing force, but was in fact a source of instability. Trump had already withdrawn from the Paris agreement and had already announced that he would no longer honor trade agreements still theoretically in effect. As an end of the American Century, withdrawing from the Iran treaty makes a pretty good marker of a nation throwing its last scrap of credibility down the drain.
Bolton played a big role in making that happen.
Unfortunately for the second Trump in the Trump White House, there can be only one giant ego in chief and not every issue comes attached with a neat “Obama would hate this” tag. Soon enough people who had reconciled themselves to years of being screamed at by Trump were also being screamed at by Bolton, often with opposing demands. Bolton brought in a crew of similarly abrasive SOBs and sent them wandering through everything related to national security, screaming at ambassadors and generals alike. All of whom complained to Trump.
As The Washington Post notes, it got so bad that Trump was deliberately telling his team to cut Bolton out of negotiations, leave him out of guests lists, and cut him off from information. Bolton’s response to this was profoundly strange. He went to Republican senators and tried to get them to talk to Trump to get him to do what Bolton wanted. A member of Trump’s Cabinet was out there in the Congress complaining about his boss and recruiting people to tell Trump to give Bolton more authority.
Trump also suspected Bolton of leaking on a number of issues. That could be because Trump constantly obsesses over leaking, loyalty, and all the little (and big) secrets he keeps clutched to his chest. But it was probably also because Bolton was leaking.
Now what started as two Trumps amplifying each other’s ambitions, even when the resulting action was hugely detrimental to the nation, has ended with two Trumps out of sync, yelling at each other over the trivia of Bolton’s departure. The best thing to be said about it is that this change hasn’t, so far, come attached to missiles.