John Bolton’s appointment as national-security adviser does not require Senate confirmation. That doesn’t mean Congress is powerless
John Bolton is not a savvy analyst of global affairs with a record of smart thinking on the diplomatic and defense challenges facing the United States. He’s the opposite of that. Bolton’s not even a credible conservative veteran of the diplomatic corps. He’s a right-wing political hack whose electoral machinations go back to his days as a 15-year-old Students for Goldwater organizer and extend through his dramatic interventions on behalf of the George W. Bush campaign to shut down recounts of Florida’s 2000 presidential vote.
For his record of thuggish and unthinking partisanship, Bolton has been rewarded with positions of power and influence. But he has always made a mess of things—so much so that his “thanks-for-what-ya-done-in-Tallahassee” selection as Bush’s ambassador to the United Nations was cut short by the fact that he could never muster sufficient support from a Republican-run Senate to gain an initial confirmation or extend his recess appointment.
It was a Republican senator, Ohio’s George Voinovich, who in 2005 warned the chamber that giving in to Bolton’s nomination would “put at risk our nation’s ability to successfully wage and win the war on terror.” An even more conservative Republican, South Dakota Senator John Thune, said he rejected Bolton because the United States should “take our diplomatic posture just as seriously as we take our defense posture”—which was not something he imagined Bolton was capable of doing.
Bolton did nothing to ease concerns about his extremism during a brief yet chaotic tenure at the United Nations, or during an ensuing decade when he occupied himself by raising money for his political action committee and attempting to stir interest in 2012 and 2016 Republican presidential bids that both ended before they began. Indeed, he traveled in such nefarious international circles that one of the top Senate experts on foreign-policy concerns, Virginia Democrat Tim Kaine, has questioned whether Bolton will be able to obtain a full security clearance for White House work.
Shortly after the 2016 election, there was reason to believe that Bolton’s experience as a hyperventilating Fox News personality had impressed Donald Trump sufficiently to put the former UN ambassador in the running for a high-level State Department position. But that fantasy was abandoned after Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky announced that he would organize Republicans to vote with Democrats against Bolton. “I’ll do whatever it takes to stop someone like John Bolton being secretary of state,” said Paul. “He’s opposed to everything Donald Trump ran on: that the Iraq war was a mistake, regime change made us less safe in the Middle East, including in Iraq…. I don’t know how a President Trump could appoint someone who’s diametrically opposed to everything Donald Trump ran on.”
Paul was more or less right in his assessment. Trump had run as a critic of the Iraq War madness of Bush, Cheney, and neoconservative fabulists like Bolton. But Trump has not governed as a he ran; he has governed as the self-absorbed hypocrite that he is. So it should come only a small—if deeply unsettling—surprise that Bolton is now Trump’s pick to serve as the president’s national-security adviser.
The strategy behind appointing Bolton national-security adviser is clear enough: It puts him in a position of immense power that does not require Senate confirmation. Bolton’s war-hawk ranting about Iran, North Korea, and most other hot spots and his casual talk about regime change and first-strike assaults on states with nuclear programs would have sunk him in a confirmation fight.
The position of national-security adviser is a unique sinecure. It should be occupied by a responsible individual, but unfortunately it could be filled instead by a man who is referred to as “a warmongering lunatic.”
It will not be easy to challenge the Bolton selection, or to provide traditional oversight of Trump’s increasingly dangerous inner circle. But that should not prevent aggressive scrutiny and calculated moves to limit the threat posed by a nominee whom Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders correctly describes as “absolutely the wrong person to be national security adviser now.”
Congressman Barbara Lee, the California Democrat who has consistently seen through the cynical lies and crude political manipulations that have sought to steer the United States into unnecessary and frequently unconstitutional wars, has the right attitude regarding Bolton.
She has decried the selection, saying: “This is dangerous news for the country and the world. John Bolton was easily one of the most extreme, pro-war members of the Bush Administration. Imagine what havoc he could wreak whispering in Donald Trump’s ear.”
“I hear the drumbeats of war,” warns Lee, who last week explained: “A national security strategy developed by John Bolton will surely and inevitably lead to more war. I will do everything in my power to stop warmonger John Bolton from becoming National Security Adviser.”
The power of Congress to check and balance a president who selects an intellectually and emotionally unprepared partisan to serve as national-security adviser may be less clearly defined than it is for State Department picks and UN ambassadors. But it certainly exists. Congress retains the power of the purse, and with it the ability to prod and pressure the executive branch on all issues. In addition, argues Congressman Ro Khanna (D-CA), “Congress should act to limit Trump’s ability to unilaterally use military force, before Bolton can begin to influence his decisions.”
Long before the Bolton announcement, Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) and Congressman Ted Lieu (D-CA) introduced House and Senate versions of their “Restricting First Use of Nuclear Weapons Act of 2017.” That legislation, which has gained bipartisan support, now seems more urgent than ever.
Members of Congress keep objecting, and they should keep looking for ways to put pressure on the president to rethink a terrible choice—which will not be formalized until April 9.
Because Democrats are in the minority, they must reach out to Republicans and build coalitions of conscience in order to check and balance Bolton. Responsible Republicans must put aside partisanship and find ways to work with Democrats to reassert the role of Congress. This is not a time to divide along party lines. The Bolton selection demands a country-first response from members of both parties. And it can happen, because there are many, many members of Congress who recognize precisely why Senator Paul has warned that empowering Bolton is “a catastrophically bad idea.”
“Most disturbingly,” argues Paul, “Bolton recently called for preemptive war against North Korea, a massive undertaking with potentially horrific consequences for millions. He has doubled down on the decision to overthrow Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, which I agree with President Trump only further destabilized the Middle East. And earlier this year, Bolton explicitly stated, ‘Our goal should be regime change in Iran.’”
In an essay titled “Why I can’t support neocons [Mike] Pompeo at State, [Gina] Haspel at CIA and Bolton as NSA,” Paul argued: “The failed neocons’ legacy will not be stability, safety and peace. Following their course will only lead to more chaos and quagmires. It will only create more enemies to threaten the American people and result in more sons and daughters never coming home.”
Barbara Lee is right. Rand Paul is right. This choice by Donald Trump cannot be answered with politics as usual. It merits energetic bipartisan opposition.