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Donald Trump undercuts John Bolton on North Korea and Iran

During a four-day visit to Japan that ended Tuesday, Trump contradicted Bolton by saying, inaccurately, that recent North Korean missile tests did not violate United Nations restrictions.

By: New York Times | Washington |
May 29, 2019 7:54:15 am
Donald Trump undercuts John Bolton on North Korea and Iran John Bolton, the national security adviser, looks on from the background as President Donald Trump meets with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg at the White House on May 17, 2018. (NYT)

Written by Peter Baker and Maggie Haberman

President Donald Trump publicly undercut John R. Bolton, his national security adviser, on Iran and North Korea in recent days, raising questions about the administration’s policy and personnel in the middle of confrontations with both long-term US adversaries.

During a four-day visit to Japan that ended Tuesday, Trump contradicted Bolton by saying, inaccurately, that recent North Korean missile tests did not violate United Nations restrictions. And Trump declared that he did not seek regime change in Iran, in contrast to Bolton, who has long advocated a new government in Tehran.

The president’s remarks appeared to lay bare a rift with his national security adviser, who is known for his bare-knuckled approach to foreign policy. In private, Trump has made fun of Bolton’s reputation for hawkishness, joking that the adviser would get him into war. As the coordinator of the president’s national security team, Bolton at times has also been at odds with the Pentagon and State Department.

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Trump chose Bolton as his third national security adviser last year, selecting a longtime conservative voice who shared the president’s penchant for blunt talk and who regularly defended him on Fox News. Bolton previously served in multiple Republican administrations, most recently as President George W. Bush’s ambassador to the United Nations.

But in some fundamental ways, the two diverge sharply over their approach to the world. Trump came to office vowing to pull out of overseas wars and he has made diplomacy with North Korea a centerpiece of his foreign policy. Bolton has been an advocate of military action and an opponent of negotiations with North Korea, which he has said cannot be trusted.

Those fault lines have been drawn more sharply in recent weeks as Trump resisted sending large numbers of additional U.S. troops to the Middle East to counter reported Iranian threats and played down the significance of North Korean short-range ballistic missile tests.

At a news conference in Tokyo on Monday, Trump maintained that the missile launches did not violate U.N. resolutions even though Bolton said correctly that they did.

“My people think it could have been a violation, as you know,” the president said. “I view it differently. I view it as a man, perhaps he wants to get attention, and perhaps not. Who knows? It doesn’t matter.”

Later during the same appearance, Trump suggested that he did not share Bolton’s enthusiasm for trying to overthrow the government in Iran. “It has a chance to be a great country, with the same leadership,” he said. “We’re not looking for regime change. I just want to make that clear. We’re looking for no nuclear weapons.”

Bolton made no comment afterward. It did not go unnoticed that after Trump’s comments, the national security adviser skipped the state dinner, although it was not clear why.

Bolton and Trump have never clicked personally, according to other advisers to the president. While Bolton has had more success in finding ways to brief the president than his predecessor, H.R. McMaster, officials said, there is little of the chemistry that Trump finds so important.

For his part, Bolton has privately expressed his own frustration with the president, according to several officials, viewing him as unwilling to push for changes in the Middle East. Trump has made clear he views Bolton as more willing to use force than he is. “If it was up to John, we’d be in four wars now,” one senior official has recounted Trump as saying in private.

Trump has also grown dissatisfied with the results of another of Bolton’s top priorities, the campaign to push out President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela. While Bolton has helped rally international condemnation of Maduro, the domestic opposition inside Venezuela has failed to turn the military against him and oust the president.

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