Trump admin pressure on Iran strains Bolton-Pompeo relationship

Mike Pompeo and  John Bolton
Mike Pompeo and John Bolton

The Secretary of State has bridled at the seasoned national security adviser’s grip on the policy process, but is more in sync with the president they serve.

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Rising tensions between the U.S. and Iran are also magnifying strains among President Donald Trump’s top foreign policy advisers: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton.

Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign against the mullahs in Tehran has exacerbated fissures between the two men over the tight control Bolton has tried to exert over the national security decision-making process — and introduced new ones over the direction of U.S. policy.

Pompeo and his special representative for Iran, Brian Hook, have indicated that the administration’s goal in squeezing Iran is renewed negotiations with Iranian regime, according to two sources familiar with their thinking — something Trump has expressed a desire to do. But Bolton is a deep skeptic of the value of negotiating with adversaries who, before joining the White House, called publicly for regime change in Tehran.

While Pompeo has worked to carry out the president’s foreign policy directives, Bolton has done more to try to shape them — at times contradicting the president, as when he walked back Trump’s call for a rapid U.S. troop withdrawal from Syria.

Pompeo, 55, is widely seen as a loyalist to the president who rarely challenges Trump’s views. Some administration officials believe the former Kansas congressman, who recently flirted with a run for U.S. Senate, is exceedingly mindful of his own political future.

Bolton by contrast is capping a decades-long government career during which he has never hesitated to offer unpopular opinions — and is conscious that, at the age of 70, the position he holds as national security adviser is likely to be his last government post.

“Pompeo has demonstrated himself to be somebody who very much sees his job as realizing Trump’s vision for foreign policy, whatever that may be,” said David Rothkopf, a business consultant who has written books on the making of U.S. foreign policy.

In the case of Iran, U.S. officials say, their divergent approaches to working with the impulsive president has strained their relationship as the U.S. rattles a military saber at Tehran and the Iranians threaten to violate the 2015 nuclear deal struck with the Obama administration and five other nations.

Though Bolton and Pompeo largely have the same hawkish instincts, when disagreements have arisen, Bolton has made clear why he has a reputation as bare-knuckled bureaucratic infighter. He has placed the interagency national security process in a tight grip, aggressively shaping policy rather than acting as an impartial arbiter as many of his predecessors have done.

His predecessor, H.R. McMaster, was widely praised for the way he ran in the interagency process. Some officials, including Pompeo and former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, even complained that McMaster hosted too many meetings. On Bolton’s watch, those practices have gone by the wayside. The twice weekly 7:30 a.m. phone calls McMaster hosted to coordinate plans amongst senior national security officials stopped the day Bolton arrived at the White House.

A more informal process has since taken root, including a weekly breakfast attended by Bolton, Pompeo, and acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan.

One result is more centralized decision-making, which can leave Pompeo feeling excluded from a decision-making process he must later defend.

“Bolton is not very collaborative, he likes to do stuff himself. Pompeo is more collaborative by nature. And even if he weren’t inclined to be collaborative, he feels that he should be collaborated with because he’s the secretary of State,” said a former administration official who remains close to Pompeo.

Pompeo has specifically expressed irritation at Bolton’s use of Twitter to announce U.S. policy moves about which he has at times not been consulted about, said a senior administration official.

Bolton’s frequent tweeting is just one of several ways in which he has adopted an unusually visible profile more befitting a diplomat. While many national security advisers travel infrequently, he has made numerous foreign trips, including to Israel, Russia, Turkey, and Latin America.

Trump denied this week that there is “infighting” within his national security team. But days after Bolton released a strikingly bellicose statement threatening Iran with “unrelenting force,” Trump told reporters last week that he sometimes has to “temper” his senior aide’s “strong views.”

That same day, Pompeo issued a statement of his own that also threatened force, but ended on a markedly different note, citing Trump’s previous call for the Iranians to negotiate.

“As President Trump stated yesterday,” Pompeo wrote, “he ‘looks forward to someday meeting with leaders of Iran in order to work out an agreement and, very importantly, taking steps to give Iran the future it deserves.’”

Allies of both men dismissed any disagreements between the two as the vanity of small differences.

“I think this is a debate between two Iran hawks that’s taking place between the 40-yard lines,” said Mark Dubowitz, the CEO of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, who is close to senior Trump officials. “Any differences they have are tactical over the appropriate sequencing of maximum pressure measures and coercive diplomacy.”

“Secretary Pompeo and Ambassador Bolton and fully aligned on Iran policy,” said a State Department spokesman.

Further exacerbating the tension is a quiet campaign waged by Bolton’s team against Hook, Pompeo’s point man on Iran. Hook, backed by Pompeo, had sought to extend waivers granted by the Trump administration to eight countries allowing them to continue buying oil from Iran despite U.S. sanctions. That effort included outreach to friendly reporters with whispers that Hook was going weak on Iran and had landed on the wrong side of the debate — intended to shape the internal battle, in which Bolton ultimately prevailed. The State Department announced in early May that it would not grant additional waivers.

“At the president’s direction, Ambassador Bolton worked closely with departments and agencies to ensure the U.S. government brought Iran’s oil exports to zero,” said National Security Council spokesman Garrett Marquis.

Bolton and his allies say that he has not elbowed out his colleagues but reshaped the national security process to reflect Trump’s personal style. Bolton’s critics complain that he has largely phased out “principals committee” meetings, the forum for top Cabinet members to prepare and discuss policy options before presenting them to the president.

And he has also convened fewer formal in-depth meetings of the formal National Security Council with the president and more 15-minute Oval Office sessions where Bolton pulls in experts and advisers as he sees fit.

“You’ve got a national security adviser who doesn’t really want to have a process, he just wants to be the president’s chief adviser,” Rothkopf said.

That has frustrated Pompeo, who has joked about starting his own interagency, according to two sources with direct knowledge of the remark.

“The power of the national security adviser comes at the principals level, and the national security adviser controls access to the president,” said a senior administration official. “If you have lower-level meetings but very few Principals Committee meetings, then the final level is owned by the national security adviser.”

POLITICO