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Bolton's Exit Leaves U.S. Without A Permanent National Security Adviser


Remember Michael Flynn, H.R. McMaster? John Bolton has now joined their ranks in the list of national security advisers who have parted ways with President Trump. The president made the announcement on Twitter, saying he disagreed strongly with Bolton on foreign policy. In a tweet of his own, Bolton insisted it was he who offered to resign the night before. The real question, though, is what happens to U.S. foreign policy with John Bolton out?

We're joined now by Brett McGurk. He served across the Bush, Obama and Trump administrations, most recently, as part of the national security team under John Bolton. He resigned at the end of last year after President Trump's sudden decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria. He joins us now on the line from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

BRETT MCGURK: Thanks, Rachel.

MARTIN: How would you describe John Bolton's leadership as the national security adviser?

MCGURK: Well, you got to step back a little bit. I mean, we have a national security adviser - I mean, it came out of the National Security Act of 1947 - just given the complexities of the world and managing the bureaucracy of the U.S. government - to give the president good advice. And it's poignant that we're here on 9/11 because this is a really important position. It's one of the most important jobs in the world.

And I think two problems with John Bolton's leadership in this job - there is both a process problem - he didn't really run much of a process. He didn't really try to facilitate the Cabinet secretaries to give the president options and advice. But then he had a policy problem because he has a very maximalist view of America's role in the world with a very minimalist president. So you just had all these contradictions from the start. And they really came to a head yesterday.

MARTIN: Do you think that prevented him from giving this president good advice?

MCGURK: Well, the issue here also - I mean, I've read - you know, if you have someone new, will this change fundamentally? We're three years into the Trump administration, and we kind of have what we have. And I don't think - the president just kind of operates by chaos. And it leads to incoherence. And it leads to, you know, being 10 minutes away from a military strike on Iran without really thinking through the consequences. It leads to inviting the Taliban to Camp David without thinking through whether that's a good idea. So...

MARTIN: Although wasn't it John Bolton's - John Bolton had decided - or the decision to oust John Bolton came after the Trump administration called those peace talks off. And when you talk about Iran, it's been John Bolton who's been the hawkish of the two - more hawkish of the two. So how does that change President Trump's view of those issues with him gone now?

MCGURK: Yeah, so issue - both issues, I think, highlight the problem. And these talks with Taliban have been going on for not - for eight months. And the Taliban has been conducting attacks throughout this process; 16 Americans, tragically, have been killed. So where was the president throughout this process? Was he involved? Was he checking in as you would be in something of this high stakes and caliber? It seems like he wasn't. So then, suddenly, you have a crisis at the end.

On Iran, we have a policy of maximum pressure, which is really just trying to strangle the Iranian economy in every which way, which Iran is going to react to. And when they do react, the president has then - has a choice. Do we respond? How do we respond? And he seems to be surprised when these things happen. So, again, if you have a process in which there's regular check-ins with the president, there's less room for surprise. And there just didn't seem to be much of a process.

MARTIN: Yesterday, Max Boot, who has been a vocal critic of President Trump and also of John Bolton, a close national security watcher, wrote that Bolton's departure actually worried him. He said that in some ways, quote, "he's been an important check on the president." What do you make of that?

MCGURK: Well, I mean, in some - the president is a, at heart - and this is what I talked about, a maximalist foreign policy with a minimalist president. In part, the president doesn't want to be involved in these things. He doesn't want to be much involved around the world.

MARTIN: Doesn't want to be involved in U.S. endeavors around the world or he personally doesn't want to think about them or both?

MCGURK: Well, both. So he wants to pull back. I mean, that's kind of - I just want to - I don't want to oversimplify it. Whereas we have a very aggressive policy - whether it's Venezuela, whether it's Syria, whether it's Iran or some other things - which is kind of opposite to his instincts.

So I think the president now can do, really, one of two things. He can try to bring some coherence here. And he seems to trust Mike Pompeo. And he can dual-hat Mike Pompeo, as Nixon did with Henry Kissinger, and make him a national security adviser. That might actually make some sense because I think injecting someone new at this point would really complicate things. Or he could...

MARTIN: You...

MCGURK: ...Just put someone in a position that shares his foreign policy vision, you know, someone - it wouldn't be him but someone like Rand Paul, who has a more isolationist tendency of our role in the world, so you wouldn't have this coherence between maximalist objectives and minimalist resources.

MARTIN: Do you think there's anything about their relationship that worked?

MCGURK: I mean, it just - it's a good question. And I really can't speak to the, you know, the internal dynamics of what it was like between them day to day. But I do know there just - there wasn't a process. And without a process in which the national security adviser is harnessing all the incredible expertise around U.S. government to give fair warning, to give options to the president and to protect our country - that's really what this is about. So protecting our country - most important job in the world. And this chaos is just - it's extremely serious and puts our country at risk.

MARTIN: But do you believe that President Trump is interested in circumventing - in assuaging that chaos?

MCGURK: No. So I think we're in for at least another year of this.

MARTIN: Brett McGurk, former special envoy who oversaw the campaign to defeat ISIS, thanks for your time.

MCGURK: Thanks so much, Rachel. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.