Is it common for the president’s National Security Advisor to skip a high-stakes summit involving nuclear diplomacy on the Korea peninsula and, just maybe, a brief meeting with North Korea’s supreme leader? Let’s ask an expert.
— Susan Rice (@AmbassadorRice) July 1, 2019
As he made history Sunday by becoming the first United States president to cross the demilitarized zone into North Korea, Donald Trump was joined not by national security adviser John Bolton, but by Tucker Carlson. In some ways, the choice makes sense—the Fox News host has counseled the president in the past, apparently including urging him not to attack Iran, something Bolton had encouraged. It also makes sense that Trump wouldn’t want Bolton around; it’s no secret Pyongyang considers the hawkish national security adviser, who once called for a preemptive strike against North Korea, persona non grata. Trump’s attempt to continue nuclear talks, which broke down in February when he walked away from the negotiating table, surely stood a better chance without Bolton there.
But allowing Carlson to tag along—and banishing Bolton to Mongolia to “to consult with officials on regional security issues”—only added to the bizarre spectacle of the impromptu meeting which was, like much of Trump’s diplomacy with North Korea, more about pageantry than policy.
It’s true that the North Koreans despise Bolton and target him sporadically with propaganda, but foreign countries don’t dictate which advisors accompany the president on diplomatic visits. If need be, Trump could have brought Bolton along and asked him to hang back during the visit with Kim. It’s also true, as a Twitter pal reminded me, that Bolton wasn’t off playing golf this weekend while Trump was in Korea. He was in Mongolia, a nation eyed by the U.S. as a potential player in diplomacy with the NorKs. Maybe Bolton was chatting with them about hosting a third Trump/Kim summit. He might not have been excluded from the Korean denuclearization process, in other words, so much as he was working on a different arm of it.
But why couldn’t he have met with Mongolia’s leadership after the Korean summit? And how can we overlook the symbolism of Tucker Carlson accompanying Trump on his Korean rapprochement while the NSA was off in another country? Carlson has attacked Bolton viciously on his show lately, describing him amid the debate over war with Iran as a “bureaucratic tapeworm” who “live[s] forever in the bowels of the federal agencies, periodically reemerging to cause pain and suffering but never suffering himself.” (An odd criticism in Bolton’s case, as he spent more than a decade out of government before reemerging as Trump’s NSA — much of that time on, er, Fox News.) The Tucker narrative is that Trump is forever being tempted by the sirens of interventionism, with Bolton the demonic face of that effort. Trump seems to share that belief, allegedly telling a “confidant” last week of his advisors, “These people want to push us into a war, and it’s so disgusting.” Trump watches Carlson’s show regularly, of course, and he’s discussed Iran policy with him personally. To have Tucker on hand for the Kim meeting while Bolton is on assignment abroad reeks of a deliberate snub.
And so the question: Is Bolton being marginalized by the president? This tweet, about the NYT story that Jazz wrote about earlier, got some attention online this morning.
I read this NYT story with curiosity. Neither the NSC staff nor I have discussed or heard of any desire to “settle for a nuclear freeze by NK.” This was a reprehensible attempt by someone to box in the President. There should be consequences. https://t.co/TTRPQkksza
— John Bolton (@AmbJohnBolton) July 1, 2019
Maybe he’s right and the Times piece is the product of some disgruntled aides trying to force a nuclear freeze onto Trump’s menu of options on the peninsula. (The Times stood by its reporting, for what that’s worth.) But maybe Bolton, the National Security Advisor, is simply out of the loop of the president’s thinking. If so, it wouldn’t be the first time that Trump has soured on a top advisor and chosen to cut him out of his deliberations instead of firing him forthrightly. John Kelly, remember, was brought in as chief of staff with plans to serve as an absolute gatekeeper to the president. All requests for face time with Trump, even by Jared and Ivanka, would go through him. He’d attend all presidential meetings personally. “Discipline” was the West Wing’s motto at the start of the Kelly era. In less than a year, discipline had broken down so completely that Kelly was reportedly seen going to the gym in the middle of the day and telling friends that he didn’t care if Trump was impeached. And yet, he lingered. From Trump’s perspective, it seems, so long as Kelly wasn’t making too much trouble for him, it was easier for awhile just to keep him on staff and ignore him rather than fire him, endure another round of “White House in disarray” headline, and then have to go looking for a new chief.
Is that Bolton’s fate now? NSA in name only, a figurehead kept around to reassure hawks that they have a forceful voice inside the building while Trump charts a path for America’s future abroad with Fox News’s 8 p.m. guy? I’m thinking no: If Trump were to come out today and confirm that he’s considering a nuclear freeze with the NorKs, just as the Times said and Bolton denied, Bolton would have to resign on principle. It’s one thing to be marginalized, it’s another to look ridiculous.
Here’s Tucker sounding even more Tucker-y than usual yesterday on Fox.
Tucker Carlson defends Trump’s friendliness with brutal dictator Kim Jong-Un: “You’ve got to be honest about what it means to lead a country. It means killing people.” pic.twitter.com/Pzbek65vMm
— TPM Livewire (@TPMLiveWire) June 30, 2019
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