You don’t need any anonymous sources to convince you that this is plausible. What you already know about Pompeo and Bolton is enough. The North Korea negotiations are Pompeo’s baby; he’s so invested in the process that he’s already met face-to-face twice with Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang. As chief diplomat, he’s all-in on dialogue between the two countries. Bolton, meanwhile, is as vocal a skeptic of diplomacy with the North as it gets on the right. He was rolling his eyes on TV about the possibility of a peace deal before he became NSA, believing that North Korea has sunk far too much of its prestige into a nuclear equalizer with the United States to ever give up its weapons.
Bolton’s also the guy who infuriated the NorKs by talking about the “Libyan model” of denuclearization a few weeks ago on American television. That led to a series of belligerent statements from Pyongyang, which in turn led to Trump pulling out of the summit. Remember who encouraged him to do that, per NBC?
Bolton, who has led the effort on the White House side, has worked unilaterally to shape the summit. One person familiar with the summit preparations said it was Bolton who drove the decision to cancel and that he had convinced Trump to make the move. Trump then relayed his decision to Pompeo, who felt blindsided, according to multiple officials.
Bolton thinks the negotiations are a charade and a waste of time so he prevailed upon Trump to show “strength” by walking away. But suddenly, just like that, the summit was back on again — the fruit of Mike Pompeo’s labors as he worked behind the scene to soothe ruffled feathers and bring the parties back together. If Trump’s North Korea policy seems chaotic lately, that’s why. His top diplomat and his top national-security guy are at loggerheads on the value of talking to the NorKs. Go figure that when Pompeo wrangled an invite for Kim Yong Chol to come to the White House, he might not have wanted Bolton anywhere in the neighborhood for fear that his belligerence would spook the negotiations again. Or so says CNN:
Pompeo told Trump it would be “counterproductive” to allow Bolton to attend the Oval Office meeting with visiting North Korean official Kim Yong Chol, two people familiar with the matter said, citing an escalating feud between the top diplomat and Bolton. The simmering tensions between two of the President’s top foreign policy advisers reached a boiling point after Bolton went on television last month and cited the Libya model when talking about North Korea abandoning its nuclear program — and in doing so, also raising the specter of Libya’s subsequent invasion and its leader’s brutal murder…
Pompeo views Bolton skeptically, two people familiar with their relationship say, and doesn’t trust his motives on North Korea. The two men barely knew each other before Bolton’s arrival as national security adviser, but Pompeo has grown to dislike his approach and believes he is “trying to advance his own agenda,” one official said.
Supposedly there was a confrontation between them after Bolton’s “Libyan model” comments and “considerable tension between them ever since.” CNN’s not the only outlet to hear of tensions either. That NBC report I linked up top claimed that Pompeo “blamed Bolton for torpedoing the progress that had already been made” in convincing Trump to bail out of the summit and that the two have been at odds about it since it was proposed. Some foreign-policy smart guys think this is a sign that Bolton’s on thin ice and we could be headed for a fourth(!!!) National Security Advisor in Trump’s first two years as president.
I highly doubt it, though. Bolton, I suspect, is happy to play the long game here, assured that Trump will come around to his more hawkish point of view. If he’s right that the NorKs won’t ever meaningfully denuclearize, and he almost certainly is, then Trump will end up turning on Pompeo for having sold him a bill of goods. Let Trump get this diplomatic infatuation out of his system, Bolton’s probably thinking, and eventually he’ll realize that only force will remove the North Korean threat. Already there are things he can point to in order to show Trump that he’s being suckered. Did Kim really destroy his nuclear facility or was that a stunt for reporters? Why is the United States quietly looking to arrange payment for Kim Jong Un’s hotel in Singapore, an embarrassing favor for a monstrous thug? How comfortable do you feel about Kim meeting with Bashar Assad, who tried once before to import NorK nuclear bomb-making technology to Syria before the IAF paid him a visit? The Kim/Assad meeting must be especially galling to Trump and Bolton since it’s a dual-edged act of defiance. Assad won’t be intimidated by Trump into staying away from North Korean nuclear know-how and Kim won’t be intimidated by him into staying away from shopping it to other rogue leaders.
What Pompeo has going for him is that Trump famously likes and trusts him. He was forever being compared to H.R. McMaster when he was CIA chief for having a rapport with Trump in his briefings that McMaster never managed to achieve. That’s probably partly why Pompeo’s strategy is prevailing right now: Trump knows him better, and has more reason to trust him at this point, than he does Bolton. But partly too it’s natural that diplomacy would be exhausted before contemplating a cataclysmic war. It’s prudent of Trump to stick with the Pompeo approach as long as he can. It’s just that, if Bolton’s right, it won’t last forever. Maybe even not for much longer.