WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump said Tuesday he had fired national security adviser John Bolton, announcing in a tweet that he had told Bolton on Monday night that “his services are no longer needed” after the two had repeatedly clashed over foreign policy priorities and decisions.
The abrupt ouster of Trump’s third national security adviser comes as the White House grapples with a series of fraught challenges, including Trump’s cancellation of peace talks with the Taliban in Afghanistan, his costly trade war with China, his “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran, and his attempts, unsuccessful so far, to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear arsenal.
While Trump said he would name a new national security adviser next week, the latest high-level shake-up at the White House raised fresh doubts about Trump’s stewardship of foreign policy — and control of his own staff — as he headed into his reelection campaign.
The White House said Charles M. Kupperman, who joined the administration in January as deputy national security adviser, will serve in an acting role.
Kupperman, 68, a veteran of the country’s national security establishment, served in President Ronald Reagan’s administration and worked for defense contractors Boeing and Lockheed Martin. He has a doctorate in strategic studies from the University of Southern California and has focused on defense, arms control and aerospace during his career.
A White House spokesman, Hogan Gidley, said the president wanted a national security adviser “who can carry out his agenda,” which includes disengaging from foreign conflicts. “It’s very clear that John Bolton’s policies and priorities did not align with President Trump’s,” he said on Fox News.
As often happens under Trump, there was immediate confusion as to the sequence of events, and under what circumstances, with Trump and Bolton offering conflicting accounts of whether and when he had resigned or been fired.
Trump tweeted around noon Monday that he had informed Bolton of his decision “last night,” adding, “I disagreed strongly with many of his suggestions, as did others in the Administration.”
“I asked John for his resignation, which was given to me this morning. I thank John very much for his service,” he said.
But Bolton contradicted that sequence of events, throwing into question whether the two men had had a face-to-face discussion about the firing, something Trump has avoided in making other major personnel changes.
“I offered to resign last night and President Trump said, ‘Let’s talk about it tomorrow,’ ” Bolton tweeted about 10 minutes after Trump’s announcement.
As is typical under Trump, the firing unfolded on Twitter and Fox News in dramatic fashion. Bolton, from the White House, texted Fox News host Brian Kilmeade while he was on the air.
“John Bolton just texted me, just now, he’s watching,” Kilmeade said on the air. “He said, ‘Let’s be clear, I resigned.’ ”
Less than an hour earlier, the White House had notified reporters that Bolton would appear at a 1:30 p.m. briefing with two Cabinet officials.
Trump’s announcement came as a surprise, even though Bolton’s increasing isolation from Trump and lack of influence on foreign policy matters was no secret within the White House. Bolton pushed back on several of the president’s major initiatives, and the two often clashed when formulating policy. Trump had promised to reduce involvement in foreign conflicts, and he viewed Bolton as too eager to advocate military force.
After Trump canceled his proposed meeting last weekend at Camp David with members of the Taliban and the Afghan government, stories quickly emerged that Bolton had strongly opposed the summit and the proposed peace deal with the Taliban — and to some at the White House, he appeared to take credit for their collapse.
According to a senior administration official, Trump came to believe that Bolton “was not fully on the team” as he balked at defending Trump publicly and as forcefully as Secretary of State Michael Pompeo and Vice President Mike Pence have.
Trump, the official said, believed Bolton and his staff leaked stories about internal division, including those related to the president’s scuttled meeting with the Taliban last weekend. Pence ardently pushed back on that narrative in a tweet, and Pompeo took to the airwaves Sunday, appearing on all five morning politics shows to defend and explain the president’s decisions.
Bolton, who had canceled several recent television appearances, did not offer the same sort of public defense or praise for the president.
Bolton, a prominent hawk, was appointed in April 2018 — also announced by presidential tweet, surprising Bolton at the time. During his 17 months in the job, he advocated aggressive stances toward Iran, North Korea and Afghanistan that at times put him in conflict with the president.
Bolton also took the lead on Venezuela, assuring Trump that its socialist president, Nicolas Maduro, could be easily ousted from office. At one news briefing, Bolton stood with a notepad visible to the cameras on which he’d scrawled a line about “5,000 troops to Venezuela” that appeared to be a threat of a U.S. incursion.
Trump invested political capital in the project, welcoming Venezuelan opposition figures into the Oval Office and declaring recognition of opposition leader Juan Guaido as the legitimate president of the beleaguered oil-rich country. But nine months later, Maduro has not budged, the opposition is flailing, and the entire mission has stalled.
Bolton was an open skeptic of Trump’s warm embrace of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, warning that the dictator would never give up his nuclear weapons. When Trump became the first U.S. president to step into the Korean demilitarized zone in June, grasping hands with Kim, those present included Pompeo, the president’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Bolton was more than a thousand miles away in Mongolia.
At a White House briefing Tuesday afternoon, Pompeo didn’t sugarcoat the clashes.
“There were many times Ambassador Bolton and I disagreed,” Pompeo said. “That’s to be sure.”
Michael Doran, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington, said Bolton was never a clear fit for the role since the national security adviser’s job was to synthesize information for the president, whereas Bolton had always been more of an advocate.
Trump “likes to have a hard takeoff and a softer landing. Bolton is a hardliner across the board,” Doran said.
“I’m actually surprised that he lasted as long as he did,” he added.