By Anne Gearan, The Washington Post: John Bolton’s departure as national security adviser stemmed from a disagreement Monday over a suggestion from President Trump that the United States might lift some sanctions on Iran as a negotiation tool, a person close to Bolton said Saturday.
Bolton submitted a letter of resignation Tuesday morning, although Trump tweeted that he had fired his top in-house national security aide. Trump cited multiple policy differences with Bolton, and later claimed Bolton had “set us back” in negotiations with North Korea. Trump did not mention disagreement over Iran sanctions, and the direct link between the president’s alleged interest in easing sanctions and his break with Bolton has not been previously reported.
Bolton was a main architect of the administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign of escalating economic sanctions and threats of retaliation for Iran’s alleged support for terrorism. The idea has been to cripple Iran’s economy to the point that its leaders feel they must bargain away any nuclear ambitions and missile technology.
Trump has said he wants to open negotiations with Iran as soon as this month for a deal to replace the 2015 international nuclear agreement he called “horrible” and unfair to the United States.
Bolton has not explained the reasons behind his departure publicly. He told The Washington Post and other news outlets that he had resigned, and said the same on Twitter.
The person close to Bolton spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal administration discussions. The White House declined to comment Saturday.
Deputy White House press secretary Hogan Gidley had said Tuesday that no single thing led to Bolton’s departure.
The breach came just days after Trump had abruptly canceled a then-secret plan to hold talks to Camp David with the Taliban insurgents. Bolton had opposed that idea, arguing that Trump could and should move to end the Afghanistan war without bargaining with the insurgents. Since Secretary of State Mike Pompeo oversaw negotiations with the Taliban this year, the outcome had been seen as a victory for Bolton in the two men’s rivalry for Trump’s ear.
But Trump became angry over what he perceived as an effort by Bolton to go behind his back to get the talks scrapped, current and former administration officials said. People close to Bolton deny that he did any such thing, but Trump’s anger had emerged as a likely final straw.
Now it appears that the final straw was the Iran discussion during the meeting among national security Cabinet heads, Bolton and Trump at the White House on Monday.
Trump raised the prospect of lifting some sanctions as an inducement for Iran to want to talk, the person close to Trump said.
Asked about the future of Iran policy hours after his departure Tuesday, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin did not discuss the possibility of lifting sanctions, Mnuchin had been at the meeting.
“I would say Secretary Pompeo and myself and the president are completely aligned on our maximum pressure campaign. I think you know we’ve done more sanctions on Iran than anybody, and it’s absolutely working,” Mnuchin said at the White House.
“Now, the president has made clear he is happy to take a meeting with no preconditions, but we are maintaining the maximum pressure campaign.”
Trump took much of Bolton’s advice during a 17-month tenure, but also increasingly displayed irritation over their diverging views on U.S. engagement with Afghanistan, North Korea and Iran.
In each case, Trump wants to broker a deal that he says will improve U.S. safety and reduce U.S. obligations around the world, while Bolton was skeptical of diplomacy with regimes or groups he said cannot be trusted to bargain in good faith.
Bolton opposed a meeting between Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani when both are in New York for the U.N. General Assembly meeting this month. And in June, following Trump’s decision not to order a military attack on Iran after it downed an unmanned U.S. drone, Bolton was “devastated,” said one U.S. official familiar with the matter.
Bolton advocated removing the leaders of Iran and North Korea by force if necessary before he went to work for Trump, but said he had set those views aside.
Trump complained that Bolton had thrown a wrench in his North Korea diplomacy early on, when Bolton was quoted saying that the process of ridding North Korea of nuclear weapons could resemble what was done in Libya more than a decade ago. North Korea seized on the remark as evidence that Bolton, long a nemesis for the Kim family dynasty, wanted to see leader Kim Jong Un deposed and killed.
First published in The Washington Post. Cartoon by Phil Hands.
Anne Gearan is a White House correspondent for The Washington Post, with a focus on foreign policy and national security.