Isn’t he already? For all intents and purposes, you betcha. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has steadily moved closer to Donald Trump over the last two-plus years on the direction of national security and foreign policy as others, such as James Mattis and John Kelly, have hit the exits. Bolton’s bolting leaves Pompeo as Trump’s last man standing:
The departure of John Bolton as national security adviser puts Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in the driver’s seat for the administration’s foreign policy debates.
With his chief rival for influence with the president suddenly out of the picture, Pompeo will have more autonomy and freedom to operate without being blocked by his polar opposite in style and temperament.
Why not, then, make it official? Kellyanne Conway tells Fox News Channel‘s Martha MacCallum that Trump has five others under consideration for nat-sec adviser, but Pompeo would be “five-plus.” And it wouldn’t be unprecedented, an argument Conway appeared very prepared to make this morning:
“It wouldn’t be unprecedented,” Conway told Fox News, referring to Henry Kissinger’s occupation of both offices for two years under former Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford.
“Under that scenario, I would call that five-plus, as the number of candidates,” she continued. “But clearly, [the] secretary of state has the president’s ear and his trust, and has been making great strides in implementing the president’s agenda around the globe, and he will continue to be a very important, strong voice here as America’s top diplomat.”
Conway suggested that even if Pompeo does not assume leadership of the National Security Council from his perch at the State Department, he will play an outsized role advising the president on the selection of the administration’s fourth national security adviser.
“I believe that Secretary of State Pompeo is doing an excellent job over at State, and that he will, of course, have input into who the next NSC head is, as well,” she said. “But there are many people of diverse backgrounds, all solid candidates, I know first-hand the president is considering for that position.”
Is a Nixon/Ford precedent really all that politically beneficial? It does exist, though, and there’s no particular bar against it, although it does mean that the Senate has more influence over nat-sec direction by dint of its oversight of Secretaries of State. That might be cheery news for Senate Republicans concerned that the next person to fill Bolton’s role could end up being Rand Paul. In fact, I’d be surprised if Paul wasn’t under consideration for the job, given his frequent input to Trump already and Trump’s informal assignment of the Iran portfolio to Paul.
In fact, the rift among the GOP foreign-policy factions has erupted into the open after Bolton’s departure, with Paul on one pole and practically everyone else on the other. Liz Cheney has taken the lead in challenging Paul, and it’s getting ugly:
Paul’s chief political strategist, Doug Stafford, followed that up by tweeting at Cheney, “Actually, @realDonaldTrump loves @RandPaul and I’m pretty sure they both think your family is a bunch of chickenhawk warmongers who personally benefited from the military industrial complex and are responsible for thousands of lost lives and trillions of lost dollars.”
If there’s a better metaphor for the GOP’s current foreign policy transformation and crossroads, it’s tough to do better than a Paul scion feuding with a Cheney scion. But as Bolton’s excommunication and recent developments show, it’s clearly the Paul-ite, non-interventionist approach that is ascendant in the Trump administration.
That’s actually not clear at all, although it’s one of a few different currents at play. Trump can’t seem to make up his mind whether he wants a hardline approach to national security or go the full, Paulite non-interventionist route. Pompeo may be the best man to bridge that gap at the moment, but Trump needs to pick a strategy and stick with it, as I argue in my column for The Week:
One could propose that Trump’s reliance on the generals, as well as Bolton’s hiring, was intended to build the oft-claimed “team of rivals” around a president, but that doesn’t fit Trump’s temperament or instincts. It looked more like an attempt to knit all Republican factions together in the same administration to show that they can co-exist within a broad coalition. Unfortunately, Bolton’s exit — and that of other key national security team members — suggests the opposite is true.
This disconnect will force a day of reckoning on national security and foreign policy between Trump and GOP leadership, almost certainly sooner rather than later. Mattis has been circumspect about his relationship with Trump in public, but his new memoir on leadership and foreign policy stresses the values of teamwork and alliances, both of which Trump’s instincts discount. Bolton will likely be more vocal and direct about his conflicts with Trump on policy, even without a memoir to sell.
The debate that arises will test Republicans’ ability to overlook Trump’s non-interventionist impulses at a time when Trump needs as much party loyalty as possible. As his re-election bid approaches, Trump might need to make more of an effort to find middle ground with his party’s desire to project American power around the world, or risk losing too many allies at home to keep those peace efforts going.
If combining the roles under Pompeo can quell the Cheney-Paul tension in the GOP, then perhaps it’s the smart move. If Trump does decide to choose a separate nat-sec adviser, that candidate should be aware that Pompeo’s got the inside track with Trump, and that Trump’s mercurial approach to strategy will make even a subsidiary advisory position difficult at best.