President-elect Donald Trump is leaning toward naming as secretary of state John Bolton, a bellicose enemy of Russia and Iran who is among the most hawkish members of the Republican foreign policy community, according to two sources familiar with Trump’s thinking.
Bolton is the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, but served less than two years, as Democrats banded together to block his long-term appointment. His time was marked by a rapid uptick in anti-American sentiment among the global diplomatic community. Bolton remains one of the most disliked foreign policy operators on the world stage.
One source said that Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker still had an outside chance of winning the position, if he made a play for it and enough Republicans rallied to his side. The Wall Street Journal reported Monday that Rudy Giuliani is also under consideration for the post.
Bolton would be an aggressive selection for Trump, shattering his pledge to work peacefully with other countries. Bolton, who has called for the bombing of Iran, held high-level roles in three different Republican administrations between 1998 and 2006. He is now a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank whose vice president has described Trump as “an idiot.”
Bolton, though an assistant, declined to comment.
If confirmed as Trump’s top diplomat, Bolton would be reporting to a commander-in-chief who appears to espouse a worldview that is diametrically opposed to his own. Bolton has repeatedly slammed President Barack Obama for his willingness to engage in limited cooperation with Russia in Syria and Iran.
“While Mr. Obama sleepwalks, Mr. Putin is ardently pursuing Russia’s Middle East objectives,” Bolton wrote in a 2013 op ed that argued against assuming the U.S. has common interests with Russia in Syria.
In 2014, speculating that Russia was responsible for the downing of a Malaysian plane over Ukraine, Bolton told Fox News, “I think we’ve got to begin to treat Russia like the adversary that Putin is currently demonstrating it to be.”
Two years later, Bolton expressed hope that that Obama wouldn’t do anything in his final year in office to legitimize Russia’s military efforts in Syria, where U.S. defense officials say Russia is focused on bombing Syrian opposition fighters rather than ISIS. “Until Mr. Obama departs the White House,” Bolton wrote in October 2015, “Washington must not do anything perceived as legitimizing Moscow’s new Latakia air base, or the presence of Russian aircraft and cruise missiles in the skies over the region. The suggestion that we exchange deconfliction codes with Russia is what the French call a fausse bonne idee, a superficially appealing bad idea.”
Bolton’s potential new boss, a man who has extensive financial ties with Russia, is far more likely than Obama to legitimize Moscow’s military endeavors in the Middle East. Trump broke with the Republican orthodoxy by suggesting that the U.S. abandon its efforts to fight ISIS in Syria and let Russia take over. “This has happened before. We back a certain side, and that side turns out to be a total catastrophe,” Trump said in September, referring to the U.S. support for the opposition groups fighting ISIS and Syrian president Bashar Assad. “Russia likes Assad, seemingly, a lot — let them worry about ISIS. Let them fight it out.”
On Monday, as talk of Bolton as secretary of state swirled, Trump called Putin. The two leaders committed to working to normalize relations, a Kremlin readout of the call said. The current relationship, Trump and Putin agreed, is “extremely unsatisfactory.”
Trump listed Bolton as one of his “go-to” experts on national security issues during a “Meet the Press” interview in August. “He’s, you know, a tough cookie, knows what he’s talking about,” Trump said of Bolton.
It was a curious comment from a man who had spent the previous several months (falsely) boasting that he was opposed to the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and hitting his opponent for her vote in support of the war. Bolton was in favor of invading Iraqas early as 1998. In the lead-up to the invasion, Bolton, then under secretary of state for arms control, peddled false information about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction program. Even after it became clear that the former Iraqi dictator did not possess such weapons, Bolton maintained that the war was a good idea.
Trump ran as the candidate who would break the stranglehold of big money on the nation’s politics, but the rise of Bolton suggests money may still win out. Robert Mercer, a hedge fund billionaire who provided the lion’s share of the financial backing for Trump’s candidacy, is a major supporter of Bolton. The largest donor to John Bolton’s Super PAC over the years has been the Mercer family; in 2014, Trump gave $5,000 to the Super PAC.
During the presidential campaign, some antiwar critics of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that Trump would be a less hawkish president than Clinton. Trump naming Bolton as secretary of state would call the quality of that analysis into question.