President Donald Trump's choice of John Bolton as his new national security adviser and his ongoing escalation of trade hostilities and reshuffling of his legal team have been interpreted as evidence that Trump is finally governing and conducting himself as he wanted to all along. He's tired of advisers who are steering him away from his true agenda and persona, goes this narrative; instead, he's getting back to the basics that make Trump who he really is.
What's really happening is that Trump is increasingly surrounding himself with advisers skilled at manipulating his erratic and shifting impulses and whims, by giving a shape to them that he can accept and act upon.
Axios reported recently that sources close to Trump say he feels that Bolton "will finally deliver the foreign policy the president wants" on Iran and North Korea. What makes this account dead on is the word "feels." As Michael Warren of the Weekly Standard points out, Bolton has skillfully used his conservative media perches to send messages to Trump that nudge him toward "more hawkish stances" by "casting them as fulfillments of Trump's own pledges and true beliefs."
Bolton wants to bomb Iran. There is no reason to believe that Trump favors or opposes that stance. Trump knows that the Iran nuclear deal is bad because Barack Obama negotiated it; Trump knows Trump is strong and Obama is weak; and Trump knows his supporters cheered when he vowed to rip the agreement to shreds. But Trump has not meaningfully articulated why we should pull out of it, because he can't.
So when Trump was debating whether to certify the Iran deal last summer and was unhappy with advisers urging him to do so on substantive grounds, then-adviser Stephen K. Bannon handed him a piece by Bolton urging him to decertify. Bolton's piece cast that as the only course consistent with Trump's "view that the Iran deal was a diplomatic debacle," because Obama had given Iran "unimaginably favorable terms." Trump has no idea whether this is true or not (it isn't) but it persuaded Trump to come close to decertifying, though ultimately the adults prevailed.
The point is that Trump doesn't grasp the details, but Bolton skillfully gave shape to his impulses. Now Bolton will be in an even better position to persuade Trump to kill the Iran deal, and if and when that happens, to push Trump more in the direction of his own bellicose designs, which Bolton will almost certainly cast as in keeping with Trump's vow to be tougher than Obama.
Or take North Korea. Everyone knows that when Trump agreed to meet with Kim Jong Un he did so on an impulse, with no sense of the complexities involved. Bolton wants to go to war with North Korea and has dismissed talks. But he cleverly greeted Trump's announcement by describing it as "shock and awe" and an opportunity for Trump to give North Korea an ultimatum if it does not immediately begin "total denuclearization."
If Trump now feels that Bolton will give him the policies he wants on Iran and North Korea, it's because Bolton is skilled at making Trump feel that way. And that's ominous, because it means Bolton may be able to push Trump toward believing that Bolton's goals are a realization of his own foreign policy vision, such as it is.
And that foreign policy vision is formless. During the campaign, Trump opposed the Iraq War, sending the message that he won't get drawn into the misguidedly idealistic or stupidly conceived military adventurism so typical of our clueless, corrupt elites. But Trump has never been either antiwar or an isolationist. His posture was rather that he will magically smash our enemies and aggressively represent our interests abroad effortlessly because he's tougher, stronger, and smarter than those elites. How hard will it be for Bolton to shape those impulses into something more in line with his own vision?
On trade, the process leading up to Trump's decision to impose tariffs was a joke with no regard for specifics. But it did showcase the rising star of trade adviser Alex Navarro, who unabashedly stated that he had provided the "analytics" to "confirm his intuition," which is "always right." Trump just pushed out legal adviser John Dowd, who advised careful cooperation with Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller, and tried (but failed) to add Joe diGenova, who has fed Trump's fantasies of a deep state plot against him, signaling the much more aggressive confrontation with Mueller that Trump clearly craves, without having the foggiest strategic rationale.
As New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg recently observed, the people who are supposed to be "checking Donald Trump's worst instincts and most erratic whims" have departed. This doesn't mean Trump is getting back to being who he always wanted to be. It means he is increasingly listening to people who are good at exploiting and shaping those instincts and whims.
Editorial on 04/01/2018