A freakout by liberal Democrats over the return of John Bolton has gone on for days now, complete with predictions that war is just around the corner.
Commentator Andrew Sullivan, for example, writing in New York magazine, pronounced the former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations “an unrepentant architect of the most disastrous war since Vietnam.”
Similarly, Jake Sullivan, who was director of policy and planning at the State Department under then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, told Politico that it is “very difficult to overestimate the potential danger that John Bolton could put us in.”
New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd wrote that Bolton is a “fervent believer in pre-emptive war” and that President Donald Trump “seems determined to stay an empty vessel,” which makes him — like Bolton’s old boss, George W. Bush — “a magnet for extremists who want to hijack the Oval.”
So after faulting Trump for surrounding himself with sycophantic “yes men,” who parrot what the president says, critics now knock him for hiring someone who has advocated positions contrary to his own.
Despite Dowd’s assertion, however, the record does not indicate that Trump is an empty vessel who lets advisers lead him around by the nose. It is hard to see why Bolton (pictured above), whom Trump named to replace Gen. H.R. McMaster as national security adviser, will have any more success.
Consider the history of current and former advisers who have tried and failed to push Trump in a different direction on policy:
Gary Cohn. The Goldman Sachs executive left his lucrative Wall Street job to chair the White House National Economic Council.
He played an integral role in crafting the tax cut plan that Trump signed in December. But he also reportedly fought hard to persuade Trump to back off his plan to impose tariffs on foreign steel and aluminum — and quit over the issue.
Trump said goodbye to Cohn, and then imposed the tariffs. He followed up by directing Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer to identify Chinese-made products to tariff.
And in an indication that he is not afraid of dissent, Trump tapped another well-known free trader, Larry Kudlow, to replace Cohn.
Rex Tillerson. The president’s first secretary of state reportedly disagreed with Trump on virtually every major issue before the president finally fired him. Tillerson lobbied for the United States to stay in the Iran nuclear deal and counseled negotiations with North Korea, rather than “all-options-on-the-table” hard-lining.
On the first point, Trump has stayed in the deal but set a May 12 deadline for Europe to come up with a plan to strengthen the pact. On the latter, Trump publicly cut off Tillerson’s overtures to the North Korean regime — tweeting that the secretary of state was “wasting his time” — until North Korean leader Kim Jong-un approached the White House with an offer to unilaterally suspend nuclear and ballistic missile testing.
Tillerson also tried and failed to convince Trump that it was in America’s best interests to stay in the Paris climate accord negotiated by former President Barack Obama.
“My view didn’t change,” Tillerson told a Senate committee last summer. “My views were heard out. I respect that the president heard my views, but I respect the decision he’s taken.” He added that Trump was “quite deliberative.”
Stephen Miller. Perhaps no aide has been more important to Trump than his senior adviser for policy. Miller lent the Trump campaign heft on his signature issue, immigration, and crafted the president’s acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention.
At the White House, there is no more of a hard-liner on the immigration issue. In early January, Newsweek quoted sources identifying Miller as the chief obstacle to striking a deal to protect illegal immigrants enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, created under Obama to give work authorization to foreigners who were brought to America illegally as children.
A few weeks later, Trump stunned his supporters by offering full-fledged amnesty not just for the 690,000 DACA beneficiaries but up to 1.8 million illegal immigrants.
“I’m sure Stephen Miller was squirming in his chair,” Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) executive director Bob Dane remarked at the time.
Trump vs. everyone on Russia. Unlike most issues, during which Trump has to choose from among competing voices, he stands virtually alone in his administration on Russia.
Trump’s national security team is united in its belief that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election and that the United State should take a harsher stance with Russia. Bolton, for what it’s worth, also is a hard-liner on Russia.
Trump has been much more measured — to the consternation of his critics and arguably to his own political detriment. The president has not shied from action opposed by Russia. His advocacy of a military buildup is counter to Russian interests.
Last year, he decided to launch cruise missiles at Russian ally Syria in response to the regime’s use of chemical weapons. And just Monday, the president expelled 60 Russian diplomats in retaliation for the poisoning of a former agent living in Britain.
But Trump has been much less bellicose than his advisers and has avoided direct public criticism of Russian president Vladimir Putin. He has vacillated on the certainty of Russian interference in the election.
And Trump resisted aides who advocated a more forceful response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons.
John Dowd. The president’s former personal lawyer was not an adviser in the government, of course. But there probably is no one more likely to wield influence over a president’s actions than his attorney advising him on legal strategy.
And Dowd’s legal advice was clear — leave independent counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians to the lawyers and refrain from talking about the matter in public.
It is advice Trump roundly ignored. He has tweeted incessantly about the probe and earlier this month, criticized Mueller by name on Twitter.
It reportedly led Dowd to quit as the president’s lead attorney in the Russia matter.
Trump may be right or wrong about any of these issues. But it seems clear that when it comes to launching pre-emptive wars, he will make up his own mind and not act because Bolton whispers in his ear.