For nearly a year and a half, from April 2018 to September 2019, the Trump administration was in the hands of a “war cabinet.” With Mike Pompeo as Secretary of State, and John Bolton as National Security Adviser, Donald Trump created one of the most aggressive foreign policy teams in the history of the presidency. Bolton and Pompeo were fixated on going to war against Iran; were contemptuous toward our European allies and the entire European Community; and were opponents of arms control and disarmament.
President George W. Bush had his own “war cabinet” with Dick Cheney as Vice President and Donald Rumsfeld as Secretary of Defense. A compliant and deferential national security adviser at the time, Condi Rice, was no match for either one of them. President Dwight D. Eisenhower had a team of hawks that included Vice President Richard Nixon, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, and CIA director Allen Dulles, but Eisenhower was a commander-in-chief fully in control. He ignored their importuning to use force against Vietnam in the 1950s. Trump similarly rejected the use of force that Bolton and Pompeo relished.
Long before the publication of Bolton’s book (“The Room Where It Happened”), we knew that Trump was “erratic” and “stunningly uninformed.” Nevertheless, the media extolled his book before they actually had a copy because it would confirm Trump’s linkage between military aid to Ukraine and investigations into his political foe Joe Biden. The Washington Post even referred to Bolton as a “man of principle” and a fearless infighter for the “sovereignty of the United States.” Post oped writer Kathleen Parker noted that Bolton wasn’t interested in the money he will earn from the book, but that he was only interested in “saving his legacy.” And what a legacy!
Less than a month into the job of National Security Adviser, Bolton dissolved the Global Health Security Team, which the Obama administration had created to prepare and respond to pandemics and other biological threats. Bolton took this action as an Ebola outbreak was underway in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Two months later, Bolton requested the Pentagon to provide the White House with options for military strikes against Iran, a policy option that he had advocated since his days as an official in the Bush administration. Between his tours of duty with Bush and Trump, Bolton had written opeds that called for use of force and regime change in Iran and North Korea. Bolton was so opposed to Trump’s historic meeting with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un in the demilitarized zone in June 2019 that he flew to Mongolia for no obvious reason.
In May 2019, Trump—not known for a sense of humor—provided a good laugh when he remarked that “I actually temper John, which is a good thing.” In the cases of Iran and North Korea that was certainly true. But Bolton was also to the right of Trump on Cuba and Venezuela, where Bolton hatched a coup plot that resembled aspects of the Bay of Pigs in 1961 in terms of the “perfect failure” that it was.
Pompeo sided with Bolton on these issues and—like Bolton—was a veteran of politicizing intelligence to justify his positions. In his previous positions at the Department of State and the United Nations for the Bush administration, Bolton had falsified intelligence to argue for use of force against Cuba and Syria. Pompeo politicized intelligence on Iran and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the Iran nuclear accord) to justify withdrawal from a successful disarmament treaty. As CIA director, Pompeo took control of the Counterintelligence Center, presumably to interfere with the collection of intelligence regarding links between Trump associates and Russian officials during the 2016 presidential campaign. Bolton and Pompeo were formidable allies in removing the United States from the Iran nuclear accord and the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty.
When the CIA concluded with “high confidence” that Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the assassination of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, Pompeo disputed the assessment and declared there was no direct evidence linking the Crown Prince to the murder. Pompeo ignored congressional restrictions regarding military aid to Saudi Arabia that was used in war crimes in Yemen; he then fired the Department of State’s Inspector General who was investigating Pompeo’s deceit. No intelligence has ever been produced to justify Pompeo’s claim that the assassination of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani was needed to disrupt an “imminent attack” by Soleimani operatives.
Like Bolton, Pompeo opposed Trump’s summitry with Kim Jong-un and, on one occasion, sent a note to Bolton that stated Trump’s remarks to the North Korean leader were “full of shit.” Pompeo’s predecessor, Rex Tillerson, never recovered from calling Trump a “fucking moron,” so don’t expect Pompeo’s comments to be forgotten by the thin-skinned president. Foreign Service Officers will never forgive Pompeo’s disgraceful treatment of U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, the victim of a conspiracy-driven smear campaign by the Trump White House.
Peter Baker’s story on the Bolton book in the New York Times was titled “Bolton’s Book Reveals Portrait of a President Who’s In It for Himself.” Well, the same could be said for John Bolton. Times’ oped writer Bret Stephens, who professes to share “many of Bolton’s hawkish foreign-policy views, concluded “It’s a shame he didn’t” leave the administration “while he still had a chance to preserve his honor.” The last three decades of Bolton’s decision making indicates there has never been such an opportunity.
Trump certainly remains first and foremost in this loathsome trio for the damage and havoc he has done to governance, particularly his campaign against the Department of Justice and the justice system itself in undermining the rule of law. His war against the intelligence community has compromised our national security. His anti-intellectual campaign against science and reason harms key agencies of government and has cost lives in the pandemic. But we should never forget the truckling of Mike Pompeo and John Bolton.
In rejecting the administration’s efforts to stop publication of Bolton’s book, the federal judge conceded that the book could “imperil national security.” No, we have Trump, Bolton, and Pompeo to thank for the dangers to U.S. security.