The Media Today

John Bolton is written out of Trump’s TV presidency

September 11, 2019

TV helped get John Bolton hired as Donald Trump’s national security adviser. Trump reportedly liked watching Bolton on Fox News, where he was a contributor; when Bolton was appointed, in March last year, he was the third TV personality in eight days to formally enter the president’s team. It’s fitting, then, that TV helped get Bolton “fired,” too. (Bolton says he wasn’t fired; more on that shortly.) A TV star, Tucker Carlson, contributed to Trump’s recent turn against Bolton; Carlson privately advised Trump to ditch him, having also slammed him on air. And Trump reportedly grew tired of Bolton’s failure to parrot his foreign-policy line. Advisers convinced the president that Bolton was a leaker (Bolton denies this) adept at spinning his own perspective into the press; in recent days, for example, Trump was unhappy that his decision to nix a deal with the Taliban was portrayed by the media as a victory for Bolton. According to CNN, Bolton even started refusing TV hits where he would have to defend controversial Trump stances, such as readmitting Russia to the G7. His departure seemed inevitable; yesterday it was confirmed. James Poniewozik, who just wrote a book about Trump’s relationship with TV, tweeted that officials such as Bolton “live by the tube, die by (the reluctance to go on) the tube.”

If Bolton was going to “die by the tube,” he was clearly determined to do so on his own terms. Twelve minutes after Trump tweeted that he’d asked for Bolton’s resignation, Bolton tweeted a rebuttal, insisting that he offered his resignation unprompted, and suggesting that Trump initially demurred. Shortly afterward, Bolton texted into Fox News. Brian Kilmeade read his message—“Let’s be clear, I resigned”—live on air. (“Why are we doing this?” Harris Faulkner, Kilmeade’s co-host, asked. “Like… I know why we’re doing this: it’s a talk show. Breaking news. But why are they doing it? Why are we seeing this play, one against the other almost, in terms of what the narrative is? Is it important?”) Bolton also texted his version of events to Robert Costa, of The Washington Post, and Peter Baker, of The New York Times. The Post and Rachel Maddow, among others, got to work figuring out whether Trump or Bolton should be believed. (The verdict? Bolton’s account, that he resigned, seems more credible.)

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Whatever the immediate impetus, it’s been clear for a long time that Bolton was not a good match for Trump. (It should be noted that when the Post reported tensions last month, a National Security Council spokesperson accused it of anti-Bolton bias, adding “There’s more truth in the National Enquirer.”) The conventional narrative here—that Bolton the hawkish interventionist chafed against Trump the “America First” isolationist—is basically true, but is overly simplistic. (Trump has done hawkish things, such as striking Syria and Afghanistan; Bolton, for his part, has explicitly rejected the “neocon” tag the media attached to him, calling it “clearly not accurate.”) Fittingly for this TV presidency, the pair’s differences were at least as much about perception as they were about ideology; as BuzzFeed’s Hayes Brown and Miriam Elder wrote yesterday, Trump liked the strength Bolton projected on TV, but did not want to follow through on Bolton’s aggressive impulses. Mike Pompeo, the secretary of State, has had more luck staying in Trump’s good books because he’s “a Plasticine version of Bolton,” the pair wrote; Pompeo shares many of Bolton’s views, but has been willing to shut up about them out of fealty to the boss.

Last night, Ben Rhodes, an adviser in the Obama White House, tweeted that Bolton ultimately failed to upend Trump’s “Fox News foreign policy.” In particular, Carlson, who often backs Trump’s anti-interventionist impulses, proved a reliable scourge. In June, he reportedly was influential in persuading Trump to call off a planned strike on Iran that Bolton had advocated; the next day, Carlson called Bolton a “bureaucratic tapeworm” on his show. The same month, when Carlson accompanied Trump to Asia for his historic meeting (and blatant photo op) with Kim Jong Un, Bolton was nowhere to be seen, having been dispatched to Mongolia instead. Last night, Carlson reveled in Bolton’s departure, calling him “a man of the left.” (Carlson, obviously, was wrong, but his point that Bolton believes in the “force of government” was not totally off.)

Trump might look to Fox for Bolton’s replacement: Douglas Macgregor, a retired Army colonel and frequent Carlson guest, is reportedly one name under consideration. (As the revolving door spins, it remains to be seen whether Bolton will regain his contributor status at Fox.) As several outlets have pointed out, whoever Trump picks next, the president will effectively act as his own national security adviser. Just as surely, he’ll continue to take counsel from the people in his TV.

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Below, more on John Bolton and Trump:

  • Having his say: Now that he’s out the White House door, will Bolton tell us how he really feels about Trump? Other figures ousted from the president’s foreign-policy orbit have kept their counsel—hawking a book recently, James Mattis, the former defense secretary, said it would be improper for him to be too candid—but Bolton told the Post last night, “I will have my say in due course.” The Atlantic’s David Frum argues that Bolton owes it to America to tell the truth about Trump.
  • All smiles: An hour before Trump tweeted Bolton’s departure, the White House press office announced that Bolton would appear at a press conference alongside Pompeo and Steve Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, later in the day. (The announcement was cited as evidence for Bolton’s claim that he did actually resign.) At the presser, Pompeo and Mnuchin, both of whom have clashed with Bolton, grinned during questioning about his departure. An official close to Pompeo said Pompeo’s smile “spoke for itself.”
  • The state of play: According to a CNN poll out yesterday, six in 10 Americans say Trump does not deserve a second term; a Post/ABC poll out today shows the president trailing all his top 2020 rivals on the Democratic side. (Per the CNN poll, 71 percent of respondents trust little or nothing of the official information disseminated by the White House.) There’s better news for the president in North Carolina, where Republican Dan Bishop won a Congressional special election yesterday—but Bishop’s narrow victory in a deep-red district underscored the GOP’s problem with suburban voters, per the Times.

Other notable stories:

  • Last week, when the Center for American Progress shut down ThinkProgress, its independent news website, CAP said it planned to keep the domain and populate it with the work of in-house experts. The union representing ThinkProgress staffers pointed out that such a move would see union workers replaced with non-union ones, and infringe on the site’s contractually guaranteed editorial independence. CAP soon shelved plans to keep ThinkProgress running; it will instead be archived, The Daily Beast’s Gideon Resnick reports. In her newsletter, HEATED, Emily Atkin bemoaned CAP’s move to shutter ClimateProgress, the site’s climate section. But there’s hope: the ClimateProgress brand has been sold back to its founder, Joe Romm. Watch this space.
  • Sabah, a newspaper close to Turkey’s government, revealed new details of the last moments of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi dissident writer who was murdered in his country’s Istanbul consulate last year, including his last words before he lost consciousness: “Don’t cover my mouth. I have asthma, don’t do it. You’ll suffocate me.” Elsewhere, Maine Senator Angus King and Indiana Senator Todd Young told CNN they raised Khashoggi’s murder with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) during a weekend meeting in Jeddah. MBS has consistently denied responsibility for the killing, but was “ready to talk about it and confront it,” King says. “I think he knows he’s got a problem.”
  • The Post’s Erik Wemple criticized NBC’s Ken Dilanian for reporting that a former Russian official who spied for the CIA now lives near Washington, DC, under his real name. Dilanian doorstepped the spy; five minutes later, his apparent American protectors showed up. NBC pointed out that the Post also visited the house and reported its location. (Wemple writes for the Post’s opinion section, not the news pages.)
  • For CJR, Emma Whitford profiles Monica Morales, a reporter with PIX11 in New York who has made conditions in public housing her beat. Morales spotlights tenants’ problems in the hope that city authorities will come and fix them. The result: “40 bathrooms, living rooms, and bedrooms repaired; heat and hot water restored to more than 55 buildings; six families transferred out of hazardous apartments.”
  • Researchers at Duke University found that local newspapers “significantly outperform” local TV and radio stations and online-only outlets when it comes to producing original news stories that address a critical informational need. “As much as newspapers may represent a dwindling presence in the local news ecosystem of many communities, they still provide nearly half of the original reporting to be found in our sample.”
  • In France, reporters and editors at Le Monde published an unprecedented column in the paper demanding the right to approve or reject any new shareholder who would have controlling rights in the company. It comes after Matthieu Pigasse, a private investor who partially owns Le Monde, sold 49 percent of his shares to Daniel Křetínský, a controversial Czech energy magnate, without first informing the paper’s staff or readers.
  • The executive arm of the European Union unveiled its new leadership team yesterday. Margrethe Vestager, the bloc’s competition commissioner who has emerged as a powerful and prolific scourge of big tech companies, will take on an expanded portfolio, in effect becoming the EU’s “digital czar.” Vestager “will be the most powerful regulator of Big Tech on the planet,” one Brussels-based antitrust lawyer told the Times.
  • Robert Frank, the influential Swiss-born documentary photographer, died on Monday. He was 94. His 1959 book The Americans, shot during cross-country road trips, “challenged the presiding midcentury formula for photojournalism,” Philip Gefter writes for the Times.
  • And Texas Monthly, which recently took on nine full-time editorial staffers, has now hired its first taco editor. José R. Ralat, who has written about tacos for the Dallas Observer, Cowboys & Indians, and his blog, the Taco Trail, joins barbecue editor Daniel Vaughn on the magazine’s masthead.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.