John Bolton on Trump-Tillerson Feud: The President ‘Needs to Get Control of His Entire Government’

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Former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton joined SiriusXM host Alex Marlow on Thursday’s Breitbart News Daily to talk about the news of three U.S. special forces troops killed in an ambush in Niger. He also discussed reports of strife between Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and President Donald Trump, the Catalan and Kurdish independence movements, and the waning political fortunes of British Prime Minister Theresa May.

“There’s been a U.S. military presence, largely special operators and advisers, in many of the countries in North Africa going back 15 years,” Bolton noted. “It was one of the reasons why the Pentagon created the African Command, separating it off from the European Command because Islamic terrorists, in particular, were spreading throughout North Africa.”

“We saw a few years ago in Mali, terrorists almost took control of the entire country until the French intervened militarily. We saw it recently with the overthrow of Qaddafi, Libya has descended into chaos. Terrorists groups are roaming all over Libya and spreading throughout Africa. You’ve got Boko Haram in northern Nigeria and Cameroon, right near Niger and Mali, where this incident took place yesterday,” he said.

“Basically there’s a seam between Saharan Africa, northern Africa, and sub-Saharan Africa – between Islamists in the north and Christian and animist populations to the south of that seam,” Bolton explained. “The Islamists have been radicalized in North Africa, just like they have been across the Middle East, increasingly threatening governments really from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean. Our presence there was intended to help out the legitimate governments fight against those terrorist threats.”

Bolton said the news of three American troops killed in Niger might “reveal to the American public how deeply we’ve been involved because of our fear of the spread of terrorism.”

On the subject of Secretary of State Tillerson’s reported feuds with President Trump, Bolton said there seems to be a “disconnect” between the State Department and White House.

“Secretaries of State follow different patterns of behavior,” he noted. “Some of them become captured by the building. This is sometimes called ‘going native.’ They become really the voice of the State Department.”

“I thought Secretary of State James Baker summed it up the best way, when he was at the beginning of his service for President George H.W. Bush, Bush 41,” Bolton recalled. “Baker said this publicly, I think in an interview with Newsweek. He said, ‘I will be the president’s envoy to the State Department, not the other way around.’ That is the right way to be.”

“The idea that somehow the Secretary of State runs foreign policy on his own is just deeply misguided. The president may not be involved in the nitty-gritty of a lot of domestic issues – he gets a good Cabinet secretary like Betsy DeVos at Education, for example, and says ‘go to it’ – but it is central to the president’s job that he be involved in key national security issues,” he said.

“To be an effective secretary of state, you have to have the confidence of the president, because if you lose that, you and the 80,000 people that work in the State Department are just floating out of Earth orbit. That obviously makes it far more difficult to have any influence,” he pointed out.

“I think you need the Baker approach,” Bolton recommended. “You need to understand, as Dean Acheson said, this is a classic quote about why his relationship with President Truman was so good, and they were so effective as a team. He said it’s because ‘neither one of us ever forgot who the president was.’”

He said it was difficult to tell if some top jobs might turn over at the State Department, but observed that during his time in public service, he has “read many stories in the newspapers about something that I supposedly did, or something I was involved in or was a participant in some way, that often looked as though it were written by somebody in a parallel universe.”

“The State Department’s denials are unequivocal. NBC stands by its story,” he said of the report that Rex Tillerson called President Trump a moron. “I wouldn’t wager a lot of money on NBC’s credibility while we’re on the subject. I don’t think it really tells you one way or the other.”

One of the major foreign policy debates at the moment concerns recertification of the Iran nuclear deal, with signals coming from the Trump administration that certification will be denied this time.

“The deal is an abysmal deal,” said Bolton, who has long called for certification to be withheld. “It’s the worst diplomatic failure by the United States, I think, in its history.”

“The president has been unequivocal, what he thinks of it,” Bolton continued. “He’s also said it’s the worst deal we’ve ever negotiated. He’s called it an embarrassment. He appreciates how grave a threat Iran’s nuclear weapons program is. It’s just inconceivable to me that if the president followed his own instincts that we wouldn’t get out of this deal.”

“This really brings me to the heart of what I think the actual decision next week is going to be. It may sound like it’s down in the weeds, but it’s another example of how Washington gets people wrapped around the axle. We’re all talking about should the president certify the deal or decertify the deal. This is the only international agreement of any substance that I’m aware of that has this bizarre congressional provision about certifying or decertifying it’s in American national interest,” he said.

“Let’s just forget that for a minute,” he proposed. “Just like any other treaty or international agreement the United States has, let’s just consider the deal itself. If you believe the deal is not in America’s national interest, and I don’t think the president does, how can you possibly stay in it? And yet that’s what’s being recommended to him, as far as I can tell, almost unanimously by his advisers.”

“So this where you get to what may seem down in the weeds: the president will not certify, as the legislation requires, that the deal is in American national interests – but he’ll still stay in the deal. That’s the recommendation. I just think that’s one-shoe-on, one-shoe-off. It represents a failure of clarity and decisiveness if that’s the route the president goes,” he said.

“I quoted former Senator Paul Laxalt in an op-ed I wrote a couple of days ago that I think should apply here. He was talking to Philippine President Marcos, advising him to get out of the country, and Laxalt said to him: ‘Cut, and cut cleanly.’ That’s what Trump ought to do with this deal. Decertify? Absolutely, and then withdraw from the deal,” Bolton recommended.

Bolton identified three general positions on the Iran deal: “One is the deal is in America’s national interest, we should certify that and stay in the deal. That’s one position. The polar opposite position, the one I hold, is the deal is not in America’s interest, we should not certify that it is, and we should withdraw from the deal. Now, you can agree with either one of those positions, but at least they’re logical and consistent. The problem is that the president’s advisers seem to be pushing for the third, the middle alternative, which is yeah, the deal’s not in America’s interest, so we’re not going to certify that because it’s not true, but nonetheless we’re going to stay in the deal. I think it will make the president look foolish if that’s the option they forced on him.”

Turning to the Catalan and Kurdish independence movements, Bolton said they are “two very different things.”

“In Catalonia, there are a group of people who are just determined to separate from Spain. You can’t just declare you’re going to have a referendum on independence. You couldn’t do that in Mississippi today, if somebody decided they didn’t want to stay in the Union, or California for that matter,” he pointed out. “The entire nation has to decide whether a particular region is going to get that kind of vote. The Catalonians took it on themselves. Every indication is the real majority of Catalonians don’t want to secede.”

“I think the government of Spain here is in the right. Nobody likes to see force used in these contexts, but this is a democratic country, and it ought to follow its own constitution, which the Catalonian separatists did not do,” he said.

“Kurdistan I think is very different. Iraq has ceased to exist as a country, really ceased to exist 25 years ago. I think Kurdistan does deserve the backing of the United States if it declares formal independence, and I would expect that’s going to happen probably fairly soon,” Bolton recommended.

“I think it’s a mistake to say every secessionist movement is exactly equivalent to every other one,” he stressed. “I think the facts are different in these two cases.”

“I think the president honestly needs to get control of his entire government,” Bolton said when Marlow pointed out that the State Department is not supporting the Kurds. “That doesn’t stop when you appoint Cabinet members. You have to appoint the subordinates all the way down the line in large, powerful bureaucracies like the State Department, the Defense Department, the intelligence community. It takes time and effort for a president to get control of his own executive branch.”

“By the way, he needs control of the National Security Council too, which is supposed to be focused on making sure he gets all the options that are available, and when he makes a decision it actually gets carried out,” he added.

Returning to Catalonia, Bolton noted that the “opposition boycotted the referendum, so the results are not really reflective of however you want to define true opinion in the region because it was deemed to be illegitimate.”

“The breakup of the nation-state in Europe, which this is part of, is a bad idea for many reasons,” he said. “If all the regions of countries of Europe that had ever been independent or thought of independence gained it, they would not become more powerful. They would become less powerful, and Brussels, the capital of the European Union, would get more powerful.”

“The nation-state is the only thing that’s keeping the flow of power of power and authority to Brussels within the European Union in check now. It’s a bad precedent to see the membership of the European Union in effect become larger if you break down nation-states into hundreds of grand duchies,” he elaborated.

Bolton said he largely agreed with Marlow’s analysis of British Prime Minister Theresa May’s failure to exploit her opportunity to become a strong anti-establishment leader after the Brexit vote.

“This is not a Margaret Thatcher, by any stretch of the imagination, not in terms of her leadership for Britain internationally, and certainly not in terms of her domestic policy,” he lamented.

“Her speech yesterday was a mishmash of Conservative thoughts from the 1950s when there wasn’t much to distinguish them from the Labor Party, the socialists in Britain. She has made a hash of the Brexit negotiations. I find it very difficult to believe she is going to survive,” he predicted.

“I think it goes to a basic point people argued about right after Brexit, when David Cameron stepped down: could you put in as Prime Minister, to negotiate the exit, somebody who wanted to stay in? Which is what Theresa May’s position was, and I think now we can see the answer is, that was a mistake,” Bolton said.

“I think they need to get clarity in these negotiations to stop the squabbling inside the government, to reunite the Conservative Party, to face what is now apparently a real challenge from Jeremy Corbyn and this left-wing cabal that now completely dominates the Labor Party,” he advised.

“It’s much the same as what’s happening in the Democratic Party in this country,” Bolton reflected. “This is a very, very critical period. There’s a lot of speculation there may be a new prime minister by the end of the year.”

John Bolton is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and head of his own political action committee, BoltonPAC.

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