CHAPTER 1 THE LONG MARCH TO A WEST WING CORNER OFFICE
One attraction of being National Security Advisor is the sheer multiplicity and volume of challenges that confront you. If you don’t like turmoil, uncertainty, and risk—all while being constantly overwhelmed with information, decisions to be made, and the sheer amount of work, and enlivened by international and domestic personality and ego conflicts beyond description—try something else. It is exhilarating, but it is nearly impossible to explain to outsiders how the pieces fit together, which they often don’t in any coherent way.
I cannot offer a comprehensive theory of the Trump Administration’s transformation because none is possible. Washington’s conventional wisdom on Trump’s trajectory, however, is wrong. This received truth, attractive to the intellectually lazy, is that Trump was always bizarre, but in his first fifteen months, uncertain in his new place, and held in check by an “axis of adults,” he hesitated to act. As time passed, however, Trump became more certain of himself, the axis of adults departed, things fell apart, and Trump was surrounded only by “yes men.”
Pieces of this hypothesis are true, but the overall picture is simplistic. The axis of adults in many respects caused enduring problems not because they successfully managed Trump, as the High-Minded (an apt description I picked up from the French for those who see themselves as our moral betters) have it, but because they did precisely the opposite. They didn’t do nearly enough to establish order, and what they did do was so transparently self-serving and so publicly dismissive of many of Trump’s very clear goals (whether worthy or unworthy) that they fed Trump’s already-suspicious mind-set, making it harder for those who came later to have legitimate policy exchanges with the President. I had long felt that the role of the National Security Advisor was to ensure that a President understood what options were open to him for any given decision he needed to make, and then to ensure that this decision was carried out by the pertinent bureaucracies. The National Security Council process was certain to be different for different Presidents, but these were the critical objectives the process should achieve.
Because, however, the axis of adults had served Trump so poorly, he second-guessed people’s motives, saw conspiracies behind rocks, and remained stunningly uninformed on how to run the White House, let alone the huge federal government. The axis of adults is not entirely responsible for this mind-set. Trump is Trump. I came to understand that he believed he could run the Executive Branch and establish national-security policies on instinct, relying on personal relationships with foreign leaders, and with made-for-television showmanship always top of mind. Now, instinct, personal relations, and showmanship are elements of any President’s repertoire. But they are not all of it, by a long stretch. Analysis, planning, intellectual discipline and rigor, evaluation of results, course corrections, and the like are the blocking and tackling of presidential decision-making, the unglamorous side of the job. Appearance takes you only so far.
In institutional terms, therefore, it is undeniable that Trump’s transition and opening year-plus were botched irretrievably. Processes that should have immediately become second nature, especially for the many Trump advisors with no prior service even in junior Executive Branch positions, never happened. Trump and most of his team never read the government’s “operators’ manual,” perhaps not realizing doing so wouldn’t automatically make them members of the “deep state.” I entered the existing chaos, seeing problems that could have been resolved in the Administration’s first hundred days, if not before. Constant personnel turnover obviously didn’t help, nor did the White House’s Hobbesian bellum omnium contra omnes (“war of all against all”). It may be a bit much to say that Hobbes’s description of human existence as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” accurately described life in the White House, but by the end of their tenures, many key advisors would have leaned toward it. As I explained in my book Surrender Is Not an Option,1 my approach to accomplishing things in government has always been to absorb as much as possible about the bureaucracies where I served (State, Justice, the United States Agency for International Development) so I could more readily accomplish my objectives.
My goal was not to get a membership card but to get a driver’s license. That thinking was not common at the Trump White House. In early visits to the West Wing, the differences between this presidency and previous ones I had served were stunning. What happened on one day on a particular issue often had little resemblance to what happened the next day, or the day after. Few seemed to realize it, care about it, or have any interest in fixing it. And it wasn’t going to get much better, which depressing but inescapable conclusion I reached only after I had joined the Administration.
Former Nevada Senator Paul Laxalt, a mentor of mine, liked to say, “In politics, there are no immaculate conceptions.” This insight powerfully explains appointments to very senior Executive Branch positions. Despite the frequency of press lines like “I was very surprised when President Smith called me…,” such expressions of innocence are invariably only casually related to the truth. And at no point is the competition for high-level jobs more intense than during the “presidential transition,” a US invention that has become increasingly elaborate in recent decades. Transition teams provide good case studies for graduate business schools on how not to do business. They exist for a fixed, fleeting period (from the election to the inauguration) and then disappear forever. They are overwhelmed by hurricanes of incoming information (and disinformation); complex, often competing, strategy and policy analyses; many consequential personnel decisions for the real government; and media and interest-group scrutiny and pressure.
Undeniably, some transitions are better than others. How they unfold reveals much about the Administration to come. Richard Nixon’s 1968–69 transition was the first example of contemporary transitions, with careful analyses of each major Executive Branch agency; Ronald Reagan’s in 1980–81 was a landmark in hewing to the maxim “Personnel is policy,” intently focused on picking people who would adhere to Reagan’s platform; and Donald Trump’s 2016–17 transition was… Donald Trump’s.
I spent election night, November 8–9, in Fox News’s Manhattan studios, waiting to comment on air about “the next President’s” foreign-policy priorities, which everyone expected would occur in the ten p.m. hour, just after Hillary Clinton was declared the winner. I finally went on the air around three o’clock the next morning. So much for advance planning, not only at Fox, but also in the camp of the President-Elect. Few observers believed Trump would win, and, as with Robert Dole’s failed 1996 campaign against Bill Clinton, Trump’s pre-election preparations were modest, reflecting the impending doom. In comparison with Hillary’s operation, which resembled a large army on a certain march toward power, Trump’s seemed staffed by a few hardy souls with time on their hands. His unexpected victory, therefore, caught his campaign unready, resulting in immediate turf fights with the transition volunteers and the scrapping of almost all its pre-election product. Starting over on November 9 was hardly auspicious, especially with the bulk of the transition staff in Washington, and Trump and his closest aides at Trump Tower in Manhattan. Trump didn’t understand much of what the huge federal behemoth did before he won, and he didn’t acquire much, if any, greater awareness during the transition, which did not bode well for his performance in office.
I played an insignificant part in Trump’s campaign except for one meeting with the candidate on Friday morning, September 23, at Trump Tower, three days before his first debate with Clinton. Hillary and Bill were a year ahead of me at Yale Law School, so, in addition to discussing national security, I offered Trump my thoughts on how Hillary would perform: well prepared and scripted, following her game plan no matter what. She hadn’t changed in over forty years. Trump did most of the talking, as in our first meeting in 2014, before his candidacy. As we concluded, he said, “You know, your views and mine are actually very close. Very close.”
At that point, I was widely engaged: Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute; Fox News contributor; a regular on the speaking circuit; of counsel at a major law firm; member of corporate boards; senior advisor to a global private-equity firm; and author of opinion articles at the rate of about one a week. In late 2013, I formed a PAC and a SuperPAC to aid House and Senate candidates who believed in a strong US national-security policy, distributing hundreds of thousands of dollars directly to candidates and spending millions in independent expenditures in the 2014 and 2016 campaigns, and preparing to do so again in 2018. I had plenty to do. But I had also served in the last three Republican Administrations, and international relations had fascinated me since my days at Yale College. I was ready to go in again.
New threats and opportunities were coming at us rapidly, and eight years of Barack Obama meant there was much to repair. I had thought long and hard about America’s national security in a tempestuous world: Russia and China at the strategic level; Iran, North Korea, and other rogue nuclear-weapons aspirants; the swirling threats of radical Islamicist terrorism in the tumultuous Middle East (Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen), Afghanistan and beyond; and the threats in our own hemisphere, like Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua. While foreign-policy labels are unhelpful except to the intellectually lazy, if pressed, I liked to say my policy was “pro-American.” I followed Adam Smith on economics, Edmund Burke on society, The Federalist Papers on government, and a merger of Dean Acheson and John Foster Dulles on national security. My first political campaigning was in 1964 on behalf of Barry Goldwater.
I knew senior Trump campaign officials like Steve Bannon, Dave Bossie, and Kellyanne Conway from prior associations, and had spoken to them about joining a Trump Administration should one happen. Once the transition began, I thought it reasonable to offer my services as Secretary of State, as did others. When Chris Wallace came off the Fox set early on November 9, after the race was called, he shook my hand and said, smiling broadly, “Congratulations, Mr. Secretary.” Of course, there was no dearth of contenders to lead the State Department, which generated endless media speculation about who the “front-runner” was, starting with Newt Gingrich, proceeding to Rudy Giuliani, then Mitt Romney, and then back to Rudy. I had worked with and respected each of them, and each was credible in his own way. I paid special attention because there was constant chatter (not to mention pressure) that I should settle for being Deputy Secretary, obviously not my preference. What came next demonstrated Trumpian decision-making and provided (or should have) a cautionary lesson.
While all the early “leading contenders” were broadly conservative philosophically, they brought different backgrounds, different perspectives, different styles, different pluses and minuses to the table. Among these possibilities (and others like Tennessee Senator Bob Corker and former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman), were there common, consistent attributes and accomplishments Trump sought? Obviously not, and observers should have asked: What is the real principle governing Trump’s personnel-selection process? Why not have Giuliani as Attorney General, a job he was made for? Romney as White House Chief of Staff, bringing his undeniable strategic planning and management skills? And Gingrich, with decades of creative theorizing, as White House domestic policy czar?
Was Trump looking only for people from “central casting”? Much was made of his purported dislike of my moustache. For what it’s worth, he told me it was never a factor, noting that his father also had one. Other than shrinks and those deeply interested in Sigmund Freud, which I assuredly am not, I don’t really believe my looks played a role in Trump’s thinking. And if they did, God help the country. Attractive women, however, fall into a different category when it comes to Trump. Loyalty was the key factor, which Giuliani had proved beyond peradventure in the days after the Access Hollywood tape became public in early October. Lyndon Johnson once reportedly said of an aide, “I want real loyalty. I want him to kiss my ass in Macy’s window at high noon and tell me it smells like roses.” Who knew Trump read so much history? Giuliani was later extremely gracious to me, saying after he withdrew from the Secretary of State melee, “John would probably be my choice. I think John is terrific.”3
The President-Elect called me on November 17, and I congratulated him on his victory. He recounted his recent calls with Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, and looked ahead to meeting that afternoon with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. “We’ll have you up here in the next couple of days,” Trump promised, “and we are looking at you for a number of situations.” Some of the new President’s first personnel announcements came the next day, with Jeff Sessions picked as Attorney General (eliminating that option for Giuliani); Mike Flynn as National Security Advisor (appropriately rewarding Flynn’s relentless campaign service); and Mike Pompeo as CIA Director. (A few weeks after Flynn’s announcement, Henry Kissinger told me, “He’ll be gone within a year.” Although he couldn’t have known what was about to happen, Kissinger knew Flynn was in the wrong job.) As the days passed, more Cabinet and senior White House positions emerged publicly, including, on November 23, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley as Ambassador to the UN, with Cabinet rank, a bizarre step to take with the Secretary of State still unchosen. Haley had no qualifications for the job, but it was ideal for someone with presidential ambitions to check the “foreign policy” box on her campaign résumé. Cabinet rank or no, the UN Ambassador was part of State, and coherent US foreign policy can have only one Secretary of State. Yet here was Trump, picking subordinate positions in State’s universe with no Secretary in sight. By definition, there was trouble ahead, especially when I heard from a Haley staff person that Trump had considered her to be Secretary. Haley, her staffer said, declined the offer because of lack of experience, which she obviously hoped to acquire as UN Ambassador.4
Jared Kushner, whom Paul Manafort had introduced me to during the campaign, called me over Thanksgiving. He assured me I was “still very much in the mix” for Secretary of State, and “in a whole bunch of different contexts. Donald is a big fan of yours, as we all are.” Meanwhile, the New York Post reported on decision-making at Mar-a-Lago at Thanksgiving, quoting one source, “Donald was walking around asking everybody he could about who should be his secretary of state. There was a lot of criticism of Romney, and a lot of people like Rudy. There are also many people advocating for John Bolton.”5 I knew I should have worked the Mar-a-Lago primary harder! Certainly, I was grateful for the considerable support I had among pro-Israel Americans (Jews and evangelicals alike), Second Amendment supporters, Cuban-Americans, Venezuelan-Americans, Taiwanese-Americans, and conservatives generally. Many people called Trump and his advisors on my behalf, part of the venerable transition lobbying process.
The transition’s spreading disorder increasingly reflected not just organizational failures but Trump’s essential decision-making style. Charles Krauthammer, a sharp critic of his, told me he had been wrong earlier to characterize Trump’s behavior as that of an eleven-year-old boy. “I was off by ten years,” Krauthammer remarked. “He’s like a one-year-old. Everything is seen through the prism of whether it benefits Donald Trump.” That was certainly the way the personnel-selection process appeared from the outside. As one Republican strategist told me, the best way to become Secretary of State was to “try to be the last man standing.”
Vice President–Elect Pence called on November 29 to ask to meet in Washington the next day. I knew Pence from his service on the House Foreign Affairs Committee; he was a solid supporter of a strong national-security policy. We conversed easily about a range of foreign and defense policy issues, but I was struck when he said about State: “I would not characterize this decision as imminent.” Given subsequent press reports that Giuliani withdrew his candidacy for Secretary at about that time, it could be the entire selection process for State was starting all over again, an almost certainly unprecedented development that far into the transition.
When I arrived at the transition offices the next day, Representative Jeb Hensarling was leaving after seeing Pence. Hensarling, it was reported, was so sure of getting Treasury that he told his staff to begin planning. His not being named matched Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers’s finding she was not to be Interior Secretary after being told she would, as well as former Senator Scott Brown’s learning he would not become Secretary of Veterans Affairs. The pattern was clear. Pence and I had a friendly half-hour talk, during which I recounted, as I had several times with Trump, Acheson’s famous remark when asked why he and President Truman had such an excellent working relationship: “I never forgot who was President, and who was Secretary of State. And neither did he.”
Trump announced Jim Mattis as Defense Secretary on December 1, but the uncertainty about State continued. I arrived at Trump Tower the next day for my interview and waited in the Trump Organization lobby with a State Attorney General and a US Senator also waiting. Typically, the President-Elect was behind schedule, and who should emerge from his office but former Defense Secretary Bob Gates. I surmised later that Gates was there to lobby for Rex Tillerson as Secretary of Energy or State, but Gates gave no hint of his mission, just exchanging pleasantries as he left. I finally entered Trump’s office, for a meeting lasting just over an hour, also attended by Reince Priebus (soon to become White House Chief of Staff) and Bannon (who would be the Administration’s Chief Strategist). We talked about the world’s hot spots, broader strategic threats like Russia and China, terrorism, and nuclear-weapons proliferation. I started with my Dean Acheson story, and, in contrast with my previous Trump meetings, I did most of the talking, responding to questions from the others. I thought Trump listened carefully; he didn’t make or receive any phone calls, and we weren’t interrupted until Ivanka Trump came in to discuss family business, or perhaps try to get Trump vaguely back on schedule.
I was describing why State needed a cultural revolution to be an effective instrument of policy when Trump asked, “Now, we’re discussing Secretary of State here, but would you consider the Deputy job?” I said I would not, explaining that State could not be run successfully from that level. Moreover, I was uneasy about working for someone who knew I had competed for his job and who might wonder constantly if he needed a food taster. As the meeting ended, Trump took my hand in both of his and said, “I am sure we will be working together.”
Afterward, in a small conference room, Priebus, Bannon, and I caucused. Both of them said the meeting had gone “extremely well,” and Bannon said Trump had “never heard anything like that before” in terms of the scope and detail of the discussion. Nonetheless, they pressed me to take Deputy Secretary, which told me they were not optimistic I would get the top job. I explained again why the Deputy idea was unworkable. The next day, I learned Trump would interview Tillerson for State, the first time I heard Tillerson’s name raised, which likely explained why Priebus and Bannon asked me about being nominated for Deputy. Neither Trump nor the others raised the issue of Senate confirmation. Most Trump nominees could expect significant or even unanimous Democratic opposition. Rand Paul’s well-known isolationist views meant he would be a problem for me, but several Republican Senators (including John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Cory Gardner) told me his opposition would be overcome. Nonetheless, after this meeting, there was silence from Trump Tower, convincing me that I would remain a private citizen.
Tillerson’s December 13 nomination, however, only unleashed another wave of speculation (for and against) about my becoming Deputy. One Trump advisor encouraged me, saying, “In fifteen months, you’ll be Secretary. They know his limitations.” One of those limitations was Tillerson’s relationship from his years at ExxonMobil with Vladimir Putin and Russia, precisely at a time Trump was coming under early but steadily increasing criticism for “colluding” with Moscow to defeat Clinton. While Trump was ultimately vindicated on collusion, his defensive reaction willfully ignored or denied that Russia was meddling globally in US and many other elections, and public-policy debate more broadly. Other adversaries, like China, Iran, and North Korea, were also meddling. In comments at the time, I stressed the seriousness of foreign interference in our politics. McCain thanked me in early January, saying I was a “man of principle,” which likely wouldn’t have endeared me to Trump had he known.
At Defense, there was also turmoil over the Deputy Secretary job, as Mattis pushed for Obama-era official Michèle Flournoy. Flournoy, a Democrat, might have been Secretary of Defense herself had Clinton won, but why Mattis wanted her in a Republican Administration was hard to fathom.6 Subsequently, Mattis also pressed for Anne Patterson, a career Foreign Service officer, to fill the critical job of Under Secretary of Defense for Policy. I had worked several times with Patterson and knew her to be philosophically compatible for a senior policy position in a liberal Democratic Administration, but hardly in a Republican one. Senator Ted Cruz questioned Mattis about Patterson, but Mattis was unable or unwilling to explain his reasons, and the nomination, under increasing opposition from Republican Senators and others, ultimately collapsed. All this turmoil led Graham and others to counsel that I stay out of the Administration in its early days and wait to join later, which I found persuasive.
For a time, there was consideration of my becoming Director of National Intelligence, to which former Senator Dan Coats was ultimately named in early January. I thought that the office itself, created by Congress after the 9/11 attacks to better coordinate the intelligence community, was a mistake. It became simply a bureaucratic overlay. Eliminating or substantially paring back the Director’s Office was a project I would have enthusiastically undertaken, but I concluded quickly Trump himself was insufficiently interested in what would necessarily be a hard slog politically. Given the ensuing, prolonged, almost irrational war between Trump and the intelligence community, I was lucky the Director’s job didn’t come my way.
And so the Trump transition ended with no visible prospect of my joining the Administration. I rationalized the outcome by concluding that if Trump’s post-inaugural decision-making process (using that word loosely) was as unconventional and erratic as his personnel selections, I was fine staying outside. If only one could say that for the country.
Then, less than a month into the Administration, Mike Flynn self-destructed. It started with Flynn’s facing criticism for alleged remarks to Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak, someone I knew well; he had been my Moscow counterpart for a time when I was Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security in the Bush 43 Administration. The criticism intensified dramatically when Flynn seemingly lied to Pence and others about the Kislyak conversation. Why Flynn would lie about an innocent conversation, I never understood. What senior Administration aides, and indeed Trump himself, told me a few days later made more sense, namely, that they had already lost confidence in Flynn for his inadequate performance (much as Kissinger had predicted), and the “Russian issue” was simply a politically convenient cover story. Flynn resigned late on February 13, after a day of White House Sturm und Drang, just hours after Kellyanne Conway unhappily received the unfair and unfortunate job of telling the ravenous press corps that Flynn had Trump’s full confidence. This is the very definition of confusion and disorder.
Confusion and disorder unfortunately also marked the NSC staff in the Administration’s first three weeks. Personnel choices were in disarray, as CIA Director Mike Pompeo personally took the stunning, nearly unprecedented step of denying “sensitive compartmented information” clearance to one of Flynn’s choices to be a Senior Director, one of the top-rung NSC jobs.7 Denying this critical clearance, as everyone knew, effectively barred that person from working at the NSC, a stinging blow to Flynn. He also faced innumerable battles with career officials detailed to the NSC during Obama’s tenure but, as is customary, still there as the Trump presidency began. These battles provided frequently leaked accounts of bureaucratic blood on the floor at the White House and the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, the great gray granite Victorian pile across West Executive Avenue housing the bulk of the NSC staff.
Similarly, on one of Trump’s signature campaign issues—stemming illegal immigration—the White House stumbled through one mistake after another in the early days, trying to craft Executive Orders and policy directives. Judicial challenges were inevitable, and likely to be hotly litigated in a judiciary filled with eight years of Obama appointees. But the White House entirely owned the initial immigration debacles, betraying a lack of transition preparation and internal coordination. A “dissent channel” cable at State, intended to be internal, found its way onto the Internet, signed by over a thousand employees, criticizing the immigration initiative. The press feasted on it, although the cable’s arguments were weak, disjointed, and poorly presented. But somehow the cable, and similar arguments by media commentators and Hill opponents, went unanswered. Who was in charge? What was the plan?
Surprisingly, Tillerson called three days after the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved his nomination on January 23 by an 11–10 party-line vote, pulling me from a corporate board meeting. We talked for thirty minutes, mostly about State organizational issues and how the interagency decision-making process worked. Tillerson was gracious and professional, and utterly uninterested in having me as his Deputy. Of course, had I been in his shoes, I would have felt the same way. Tillerson later told Elliott Abrams, whom he also considered, that he wanted someone who would work behind the scenes supporting him, not someone who had gained public attention, as I had at the UN and as a Fox commentator. Tillerson asked if I was interested in anything at State other than Deputy, and I said no, having already had the second-best job as UN Ambassador. Tillerson laughed, and we talked about the often-fraught relations between Secretaries and UN Ambassadors. It was clear he had not spoken with Haley about their relationship and that he had no idea how to handle this ticking time bomb.
I worried that Tillerson was susceptible to capture by the State Department bureaucracy. He had spent his entire forty-one-year career at Exxon, in an environment where there were clear metrics for performance, profit-and-loss statements being harsh taskmasters, and where the corporate culture was hardly subject to revolutionary change from within. After years of perching at the top of Exxon’s hierarchy, believing that all his subordinates were on the same team, it would have been remarkable for Tillerson, sitting in the Secretary’s seventh-floor suite, to assume anything else about the careerists on the floors below him or posted around the world. Precisely because of his background, Tillerson should have surrounded himself with people familiar with the Foreign and Civil Services’ strengths and weaknesses, but he went a very different way. He neither sought a cultural revolution (as I would have done), nor embraced “the building” (as all who worked there referred to it), nor sought to control the bureaucracy without fundamentally changing it (as Jim Baker did). Instead, he isolated himself with a few trusted aides, and paid the inevitable price.
But with Flynn, fairly or unfairly, crashing and burning, the National Security Advisor job, which I hadn’t previously considered because of Flynn’s closeness to Trump, was now open. The press speculated that Flynn’s successor would be another general, mentioning David Petraeus, Robert Harward (formerly Navy, now at Lockheed, pushed vigorously by Mattis), or Keith Kellogg (a longtime Trump supporter and now NSC Executive Secretary). Tillerson seemed to be uninvolved, another sign of trouble, both because he was not in the loop and because he didn’t seem to realize the potential problem for him if a Mattis ally got the job, potentially making Tillerson’s relations with the White House more difficult. Indeed, news stories were noting Tillerson’s low profile generally.8
Bannon texted me on Friday, February 17, asking me to come to Mar-a-Lago to meet Trump over President’s Day weekend. That day, MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough tweeted, “I strongly opposed @AmbJohnBolton for SecState. But the former UN ambassador is Thomas Jefferson in Paris compared to Michael Flynn.” In Trumpworld, this could be helpful. During the Mar-a-Lago primary that weekend, a guest told me he had heard Trump say several times, “I’m starting to really like Bolton.” Hadn’t I concluded before that I needed to work that crowd harder? Trump interviewed three candidates: Lieutenant General H. R. McMaster, author of Dereliction of Duty, a superb study of civil-military relations in America; Lieutenant General Robert Caslen, Commandant of West Point; and me. I had met and spoken with McMaster years before and admired his willingness to espouse controversial positions. Meeting Caslen for the first time, I saw him as a personable and highly competent official. Both were in full-dress uniform, immediately demonstrating their marketing skills. Me, I still had my moustache.
Trump greeted me warmly, saying how much he respected me and that he was happy to consider me to be National Security Advisor. Trump also asked if I would consider a “title like Bannon’s” (who was also present in the private bar on Mar-a-Lago’s first floor, along with Priebus and Kushner), covering strategic issues. Thus, apparently, I could be one of many generic “Assistants to the President,” of which there were already too many in Trump’s White House, with only slapdash efforts at defining their roles and responsibilities. This was a complete nonstarter for me, so I politely declined, saying I was only interested in the National Security Advisor job. As Henry Kissinger once reportedly said, “Never take a government job without an inbox.”
The President assured me that Flynn’s successor would have a free hand in organizational and personnel matters, which I believed essential in running an effective NSC staff and interagency process. We covered the full range of world issues, a tour d’horizon, as the State Department loves to call it, and Trump interjected at one point, “This is so great. John sounds just like he does on television. I could just keep listening. I love it.” Kushner asked, “How do you handle the point that you’re so controversial, that people either love you or hate you?” As I was opening my mouth to answer, Trump said, “Yeah, just like me! People either love me or hate me. John and I are exactly alike.” I added only that one should be judged on performance, listing a few of what I considered to be my foreign-policy achievements. The meeting ended with a discussion about Russia, as Trump said, “I saw you talking the other day about the INF issue,” referring to the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia. He then explained why it was so inequitable that no nations other than Russia and America (such as China, Iran, or North Korea) were limited in developing intermediate-range capabilities, and that the Russians were violating the treaty. This was almost exactly what I had said, so I had no doubt he was still watching and absorbing Fox News! I suggested we tell Putin to comply with Russia’s INF obligations or we would withdraw, which Trump agreed with.
Bannon and I left together, Bannon saying, “That was great.” Nonetheless, my clear impression was that Trump was going to pick a general. I returned to my hotel, and later in the day Bannon and Priebus asked me to breakfast with them at Mar-a-Lago the next morning. Priebus suggested alternatives to the National Security Advisor position, saying of Trump, “Remember who you’re dealing with.” They promised real influence, access to Trump, and the inevitability of Administration turnover, meaning I would eventually become Secretary of State or something. Based on my government experience, I explained that to run the bureaucracy, you needed to control the bureaucracy, not just watch it from the White House. The NSC was a mechanism to coordinate the national-security agencies, and the job required someone who had experience at lower levels on how it worked and didn’t work. I didn’t make an impression. I think Trump had said to them, in effect, “Get him into the Administration so he can defend us on television.” That was exactly the last thing I intended to do, regarding policies I had little or nothing to do with formulating. At one point, Bannon said, “Help me out here, Ambassador,” which was actually what I was trying to do, although he meant that I should tell him what else would induce me to join the Administration.
Flying back to Washington, I saw on the airplane Wi-Fi that Trump had picked McMaster. That was no surprise, but I was surprised to hear Trump then say: “I know John Bolton. We’re going to be asking him to work with us in a somewhat different capacity. John is a terrific guy. We had some really good meetings with him. He knows a lot. He had a good number of ideas, that I must tell you, I agree with very much. So, we’ll be talking to John Bolton in a different capacity.”
I clearly hadn’t made my point about the best role for me, certainly not to Kushner, who texted me shortly thereafter, “Great spending time together—we really want to get you on the team. Let’s talk this week to find the right spot as u have a lot to offer and we have a unique chance to get some good done.” Madeleine Westerhout, Trump’s secretary in “the Outer Oval” (the room where Trump’s personal assistants sat), called on Tuesday to connect me to Trump, but I had my cell phone on silent and didn’t catch it. Predictably, Trump was tied up when I later called back, so I asked Westerhout if she knew what the subject was, fearing a true full-court press. She said, “Oh, he just wanted to tell you how wonderful you are,” and said he wanted to thank me for coming to Mar-a-Lago. I told her that was very kind, but not wanting to burden his schedule, I said he didn’t really need to call again, hoping to dodge the bullet. A few days later, Westerhout, always exuberant back then, left another message saying the President wanted to see me. I was convinced I would be pitched on some amorphous position, but fortunately I left the country for almost two weeks and dodged the bullet again.
You can run, but you cannot hide, and a meeting with Trump was finally scheduled for March 23, after lunch with McMaster at the White House mess. I texted Bannon in advance to be transparent: I was only interested in the Secretary of State or the National Security jobs, and neither was open as far as I could tell. By coincidence, I entered the West Wing for the first time in over ten years as the press scrum waited outside to interview Republican House members meeting with Trump on the failing effort to repeal Obamacare. Just what I needed, even though I didn’t plan to answer any questions. In the Twitter era, however, even a nonstory is a story, as one reporter tweeted:
I saw later that the Washington Post’s Bob Costa had tweeted while I was walking in:
I had a perfectly pleasant lunch with McMaster, discussing Iraq, Iran, and North Korea, and we then went to the Oval to see Trump, who was just finishing lunch with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Nelson Peltz, a New York financier.
Trump was sitting behind the Resolute desk, which was completely bare, unlike the desk in his New York office, which seemed always covered with newspapers, reports, and notes. He had a picture taken of the two of us, and then McMaster and I sat down in front of the desk for our discussion. We talked a bit about the Obamacare repeal effort and then turned to Iran and North Korea, repeating much of the ground McMaster and I had covered at lunch. Trump said, “You know, you and I agree on almost everything except Iraq,” and I replied, “Yes, but even there, we agree that Obama’s withdrawal of American forces in 2011 led us to the mess we have there now.” Trump then said, “Not now, but at the right time and for the right position, I’m going to ask you to come into this Administration, and you’re going to agree, right?” I laughed, as did Trump and McMaster (although I felt somewhat uncomfortable on his behalf), and answered, “Sure,” figuring I had again dodged the bullet I had feared. No pressure, no rush, and no amorphous White House job without an inbox.
The meeting lasted about twenty-plus minutes, and then McMaster and I left, stopping by Bannon’s office on the way out. Bannon and I visited for a while with Priebus, running into Sean Spicer in the hallway and then later the Vice President, who greeted me warmly. The atmosphere reminded me of a college dorm, with people wandering in and out of each other’s rooms, chatting about one thing or another. Weren’t these people in the middle of a crisis trying to repeal Obamacare, one of Trump’s signature 2016 issues? This was not a White House I recognized from past Administrations, that was for sure. The most ominous thing I heard was Mike Pence saying, “I’m really glad you’re coming in,” which was not what I thought I was doing! I finally left at about two fifteen, but I had the feeling I could have hung around all afternoon.
I could see this pattern of contact with the Trump White House lasting for an indefinite period, and to an extent it did. But I ended the Administration’s first hundred days secure in my own mind about what I was prepared to do and what I wasn’t. After all, as Cato the Younger says in one of George Washington’s favorite lines from his favorite play, “When vice prevails, and impious men bear sway, the post of honor is a private station.”
Life under Trump, however, did not resemble life in Joseph Addison’s eponymous Cato, where the hero strove to defend the failing Roman Republic against Julius Caesar. Instead, the new Administration resembled much more closely the Eagles song “Hotel California”: “You can check out any time you like / But you can never leave.”
It was not long before Bannon and Priebus were again calling and texting me to come into the White House in some capacity, as they sought to overcome the mismatches between Trump, McMaster, and Tillerson. The most palpable manifestation of the problems was Iran, specifically the 2015 nuclear deal, which Obama considered a crowning achievement (the other being Obamacare). The deal was badly conceived, abominably negotiated and drafted, and entirely advantageous to Iran: unenforceable, unverifiable, and inadequate in duration and scope. Although purportedly resolving the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear-weapons program, the deal did no such thing. In fact, it exacerbated the threat by creating the semblance of a solution, diverting attention from the dangers, and lifting the economic sanctions that had imposed substantial pain on Iran’s economy, while allowing Tehran to proceed essentially unimpeded. Moreover, the deal did not seriously address other threats Iran posed: its ballistic-missile program (a thinly disguised effort to develop delivery vehicles for nuclear weapons); its continuing role as the world’s central banker for international terrorism; and its other malign activity in the region, through the intervention and growing strength of the Quds Force, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’s external military arm, in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and elsewhere. Freed from sanctions, benefiting from the transfer of $150 million in “cash on pallets” in cargo airplanes and the unfreezing of an estimated $150 billion in assets globally, Tehran’s radical ayatollahs were back in business.
Trump and other 2016 GOP candidates campaigned against the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the lumbering formal title of the Iran deal, and it was widely believed to be ready for extreme unction following his inauguration. But a combination of Tillerson, Mattis, and McMaster frustrated Trump’s efforts to break free from this wretched deal, earning them the plaudits of the adoring media as an “axis of adults” restraining Trump from indulging in wild fantasies. If only they knew. In fact, many of Trump’s supporters saw their efforts as preventing him from doing what he had promised voters he would do. And McMaster wasn’t doing himself any favors by opposing the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism” to describe things like… radical Islamic terrorism. Jim Baker used to tell me when I worked for him at Bush 41’s State Department and pressed for something Baker knew Bush didn’t want, “John, the guy who got elected doesn’t want to do it.” That was usually a signal I should stop pushing, but in the Trump Administration’s infant national-security apparatus, what “the guy who got elected” wanted was only one of many data points.
In early May, after I had another White House discussion with Priebus and Bannon, they took me to what turned out to be a photo opportunity with Trump and Pence in the colonnade that connects the Residence to the West Wing. “John, so good to see you,” said Trump as we walked along the colonnade, surrounded by photographers. We talked about the Philippines and the Chinese threat to bring nearly the entire South China Sea under its sovereignty. When we finished, Trump said loud enough for the trailing mob of reporters to hear, “Is Rex Tillerson around? He should talk to John.” And with that, Trump was off to the Oval. Priebus said, “That was great. We want to get you back over here regularly.”
Life at the White House developed its own rhythm, with Trump firing FBI Director James Comey later in May (at Kushner’s suggestion, according to Bannon), then meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (whom I had known for over twenty-five years at that point) and allegedly being less than cautious in discussing classified material, calling Comey a “nutjob,” according to the unbiased New York Times.9 I was in Israel in late May to give a speech and met with Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, whom I had first met in the Bush 41 years. Iran’s threat was the centerpiece of our attention, as it should have been for any Israeli Prime Minister, but he was also dubious about assigning the task of bringing an end to the Israel-Palestinian conflict to Kushner, whose family Netanyahu had known for many years. He was enough of a politician not to oppose the idea publicly, but like much of the world, he wondered why Kushner thought he would succeed where the likes of Kissinger had failed.
I was back at the White House in June to see Trump, walking with Priebus to the Outer Oval. Trump saw us through his open door and said, “Hi, John, give me just a minute, I’m signing judges’ commissions.” I was happy to give him all the time he needed, because Trump’s growing record on judicial nominations, in due course to be graced by the confirmation of Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, was for conservatives the highest priority and greatest achievement of his tenure. When Priebus and I entered, I congratulated Trump on withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement, which the “axis of adults” had failed to stop him from doing and which I saw as an important victory against global governance. The Paris Agreement was a charade, for those truly concerned about climate change. As in many other cases, international agreements provided the semblance of addressing major issues, giving national politicians something to take credit for, but made no discernible real-world difference (in this case giving leeway to countries like China and India, which remained essentially unfettered). I gave Trump a copy of a 2000 article of mine called “Should We Take Global Governance Seriously?” from the Chicago Journal of International Law, not because I thought he would read it, but to remind him of the importance of preserving US sovereignty.
I warned Trump against wasting political capital in an elusive search to solve the Arab-Israeli dispute and strongly supported moving the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, thereby recognizing it as Israel’s capital. On Iran, I urged that he press ahead to withdraw from the nuclear agreement and explained why the use of force against Iran’s nuclear program might be the only lasting solution. “You tell Bibi that if he uses force, I will back him. I told him that, but you tell him again,” Trump said, unprompted by me. As the conversation ranged on, Trump asked, “Do you get along with Tillerson?” and I said we hadn’t spoken since January. Bannon told me a few days later that Trump was pleased with the meeting. And indeed, a few weeks on, Tillerson called to ask me to be special envoy for Libyan reconciliations, which I saw as another exercise in box-checking; if asked, Tillerson could tell Trump he had offered me something but I turned it down. Tillerson almost simultaneously asked Kurt Volker, a close associate of McCain’s, to become special envoy for Ukraine. Neither job required full-time government employment, but my view was you were either in the Administration or not, and halfway houses wouldn’t work.
North Korea was also on the Administration’s mind, with the release of Otto Warmbier, who suffered barbaric treatment at Pyongyang’s hands and died upon returning to the United States. The North’s brutality told us everything we needed to know about its regime. Moreover, Pyongyang was launching ballistic missiles, including on the Fourth of July (how thoughtful), followed by another on July 28, which ultimately led to further UN Security Council sanctions on August 5. A few days later, Trump was prompted to threaten “fire and fury like the world has never seen” against North Korea,10 though Tillerson immediately said Americans should “sleep well at night” and have “no concern about this particular rhetoric of the past few days,” hardly clarifying things.11 I wondered if Tillerson was pooh-poohing North Korea or Trump, who upped the ante on August 11 by saying the US was “locked and loaded” on North Korea.12 There was little visible evidence that any new military preparations were under way.
On August 30, Trump tweeted that we had talked to North Korea for twenty-five years without result, and there wasn’t much point in talking further. Trump reiterated the point on October 7:
Mattis, in South Korea, almost immediately contradicted Trump, saying there was always room for diplomacy, although he quickly walked it back, claiming there was no daylight between him and the President.13 The dissonance was getting louder. North Korea had chimed in with its sixth nuclear-weapons test on September 3, this one almost certainly thermonuclear, followed twelve days later by firing a missile over Japan, underlining Trump’s point in his tweet. Almost immediately thereafter, Japanese Prime Minister Abe wrote a New York Times op-ed concluding that “more dialogue with North Korea would be a dead end” and saying, “I fully support the United States position that all options are on the table,” which is as close as any Japanese politician can get to saying he could support offensive military operations.14 By contrast, Tillerson was announcing we wanted “to bring North Korea to the table for constructive, productive dialogue.”15 He was obviously deep in the grip of “the building.” When Trump announced new financial sanctions on North Korea, China responded by saying its central bank had directed all Chinese banks to cease doing business with Pyongyang, which was quite a step forward if actually carried out (and many were dubious).16
Iran remained the most visible flashpoint, however, and in July Trump faced his second decision whether to certify Iran was complying with the nuclear deal. The first decision to do so had been a mistake, and now Trump was on the verge of repeating it. I wrote an op-ed for The Hill that appeared on its website on July 16,17 apparently setting off a daylong battle inside the White House. McMaster and Mnuchin held a conference call to brief reporters on the decision to certify Iranian compliance, and the White House e-mailed “talking points” to the media explaining the decision as their call was under way. But an outside analyst told me, “There’s chaos at the NSC,” the talking points were pulled back, and the decision to certify compliance was reversed.18 The New York Times, citing a White House official, reported on a nearly hour-long confrontation between Trump, on one side, and Mattis, Tillerson, and McMaster, on the other, on the certification issue, confirming what I had heard earlier. Other sources said the same thing.19 Trump ultimately succumbed, but not happily, and only after yet again asking for alternatives, of which his advisors said there were none. Bannon texted me, “POTUS loved it… Your op-ed drove him on Iran.”
Trump called me a few days later to complain about how the Iran certification issue had been handled, and especially about “people in the State Department” who hadn’t given him any options. Then he said, referring to my last conversation with Tillerson, “I hear what Rex talked to you about won’t work. Don’t take some half-assed position over there. If he offers you something that’s really great, okay, whatever, but otherwise just wait. I’m going to call you,” concluding the call by saying I should “come and see [him] next week” on Iran. Bannon texted me right afterward, “We talk about it/u everyday.” I told Bannon I would write a plan about how the US could withdraw from the Iran deal. It would not be hard.
The next day, Sean Spicer resigned as White House spokesman to protest Anthony Scaramucci’s being named Communications Director, with Sarah Sanders picked as Spicer’s successor. One week later, Trump fired Priebus, naming John Kelly, then Homeland Security Secretary and a former four-star Marine general, as White House Chief of Staff. On Monday, July 31, Kelly fired Scaramucci. In mid-August, controversy erupted over Trump’s comments about neo-Nazi demonstrators in Charlottesville, Virginia. He fired Bannon on August 18. Was this what business schools taught about running large organizations?
What was not happening was any White House sign of life on my Iran-deal exit strategy, which I had earlier transmitted to Bannon. When I sought a meeting with Trump, Westerhout suggested I first see Tillerson, which would have been a waste of time for both of us. I suspected that Kelly’s efforts to bring discipline to White House operations and limit Oval Office anarchy in particular had resulted in my “walk-in” privileges’ being suspended, along with those of many others. I thought it would be a shame to let my Iran plan wither, so I suggested to National Review editor Rich Lowry that he publish it, which he did at the end of August.20 Iran’s Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, immediately denounced my plan as “a huge failure for Washington.”21 I knew I was on the right track. Most of the Washington media, instead of focusing on the plan’s substance, wrote instead on my loss of access to Trump, probably because they understood palace intrigue better than policy. Kushner texted me to say, “You are always welcome at the White House,” and “Steve [Bannon] and I disagreed on many things, but we were in sync on Iran.” In fact, Kushner invited me to meet on August 31 to go over his emerging Middle East peace plan, along with Iran. After a relatively long hiatus, I didn’t think this meeting was accidental.
Nonetheless, still no word from Trump, although another Iran compliance certification, required every ninety days by statute, came due in October. The White House announced Trump would make a major Iran address on October 12, so I decided to stop being shy, phoning Westerhout to ask for a meeting. By then, Tillerson had reportedly called Trump “a fucking moron,” which he refused to deny flatly. Rumors flew that Kelly wanted to resign as Chief of Staff and that Pompeo would replace him, although it was also regularly rumored that Pompeo would replace McMaster. I was still focused on Iran and wrote another op-ed for The Hill, hoping the magic might work again.22 It appeared on October 9, the same day I had lunch with Kushner in his West Wing office. Although we talked about his Middle East plan and Iran, what really got his attention was the photo I brought of the gaudy entrance to Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s office, located in the building where my SuperPAC was located.
The media reported Trump’s advisors were urging he decline to certify Iran as complying with the nuclear agreement but that the US nonetheless stay in the deal. I saw this as self-humiliation, but so desperate were the deal’s advocates that they were willing to concede a critical point on compliance just to save the deal. Trump called me in the late afternoon of October 12 (the speech having been moved to Friday the thirteenth) to talk. “You and I are together on that deal, you may be a little tougher than I am, but we see it the same,” he said. I answered that I could see from the press coverage he was likely to decertify Iran but still remain in the deal, which I said was at least a step forward. I asked to discuss the issue further when there was more time. “A hundred percent,” said Trump. “Hundred percent. I know that’s your view. I watch what you say very carefully.” I asked if he would put a line in his speech that the agreement was under 24/7 review and that it was subject to being terminated at any time (thus eliminating the need to wait ninety days before having another shot at withdrawal and plainly making the fight over withdrawal rather than “compliance,” as the deal’s supporters preferred). We talked about the language Trump might actually use as he dictated to others in the room.
Trump then raised the topic of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, asking if he should designate it as a Foreign Terrorist Organization, thereby subjecting it to additional penalties and constraints. I urged him to do so because of the organization’s control of Iran’s nuclear and ballistic-missile programs, and its extensive support for radical Islamic terrorism, Sunni and Shia. Trump said he was hearing Iran would be particularly upset by this specific designation, and there might be blowback against US forces in Iraq and Syria, which I learned later was Mattis’s position. But his argument was misdirected; if Mattis was correct, the answer was to provide more protection for our troops or withdraw them to focus on the main threat, Iran. As it turned out, it would take nearly two years to get the Revolutionary Guard designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization, showing the immense staying power of a dug-in bureaucracy.
Trump also said he was thinking of saying something on North Korea, which I urged him to do. On Friday, he said: “There are also many people who believe that Iran is dealing with North Korea. I am going to instruct our intelligence agencies to do a thorough analysis and report back their findings beyond what they have already reviewed.”23 I was delighted. I said I looked forward to talking with him again, and Trump said, “Absolutely.” (Later, in November, on my birthday, purely coincidentally I am sure, Trump returned the North to the list of state sponsors of terrorism, from which the Bush 43 Administration had mistakenly removed it.)
I thought the Trump call had accomplished four things: (1) having the speech announce that the Iran deal was under continuous review and subject to US withdrawal at any time; (2) raising the connection between Iran and North Korea; (3) making it clear the Revolutionary Guard should be designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization; and (4) getting a renewed commitment that I could see him without other approvals. Ironically, by having me on the speakerphone, all of those points were clear to whoever was in the Oval with him. I wondered, in fact, if I could do much more if I were actually in the Administration, rather than just calling in from the outside a few hours before a speech like this one.
Kushner had me back to the White House on November 16 to discuss his Middle East peace plan. I urged that we withdraw from the UN Human Rights Council, rather than follow Haley’s plan to “reform” it. (See chapter 8.) The Council was a sham when I voted against it in 2006, having abolished its equally worthless predecessor.24 We should never have rejoined, as Obama did. I also advocated defunding the UN Relief and Works Agency, ostensibly designed to aid Palestinian refugees but that over decades had become, effectively, an arm of the Palestine apparat rather than the UN. Kushner said twice how much better I would be handling State than present management. In early December, Trump, fulfilling a 2016 commitment, declared Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and announced that he would move the US embassy there. He had called me a few days before, and I’d expressed support, although he had clearly already decided to act. It was long overdue and utterly failed to produce the crisis in “the Arab street” regional “experts” had endlessly predicted. Most Arab states had shifted their attention to the real threat, which was Iran, not Israel. In January, the US cut its funding for the UN Relief and Works Agency, contributing only $60 million of an expected tranche of $125 million, or roughly one-sixth of the estimated total fiscal year 2018 US contribution of $400 million.25
Trump again invited me to the White House on December 7. I was sitting in the West Wing lobby admiring the huge Christmas tree when Trump came in leading Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi, just after a congressional leadership meeting. We all shook hands, and the various leaders began posing for pictures in front of the tree. As I was watching, John Kelly grabbed my elbow and said, “Let’s get out of here and go back for our meeting.” We went to the Oval and Trump came in almost immediately, along with Pence; we exchanged greetings; and then Pence departed and Kelly and I sat in front of Trump, who was behind the Resolute desk. I welcomed the embassy move to Jerusalem, and we quickly turned to Iran and North Korea. I explained some of the linkages between the two rogue states, including the North’s sale of Scud missiles to Iran over twenty-five years ago; their joint missile testing in Iran after 1998 (following Japanese protests, Pyongyang had declared a moratorium on launch testing from the Peninsula after landing a projectile in the Pacific east of Japan); and their shared objective of developing delivery vehicles for nuclear weapons. On nuclear capabilities, Pakistani proliferator A. Q. Khan had sold both countries their basic uranium-enrichment technology (which he stole for Pakistan from Europe’s Urenco Ltd.) and nuclear-weapons designs (initially provided to Pakistan by China). North Korea had been building the reactor in Syria destroyed by Israel in September 2007,26 almost certainly financed by Iran, and I described how Iran could simply buy what it wanted from North Korea at the appropriate time (if it hadn’t already).
The threat of North Korea’s acquiring deliverable nuclear weapons manifests itself in several ways. First, strategy depends on analyzing intentions and capabilities. Intentions are often hard to read; capabilities are generally easier to assess (even granted that our intelligence is imperfect). But who wants to bet on what is really on the minds of the leaders in the world’s only hereditary Communist dictatorship, in the face of hard evidence of accelerating nuclear and missile capabilities? Second, a nuclear-armed North Korea can conduct blackmail against nearby non-nuclear-weapons states like Japan and South Korea (where we have large deployed forces ourselves) and even against the United States, especially under a weak or feckless President. The dangers do not come simply from the risk of a first strike but from mere possession, not to mention the incentives for onward proliferation in East Asia and elsewhere created by a nuclear Pyongyang. Third, the North had repeatedly demonstrated it will sell anything to anybody with hard cash, so the risks of its becoming a nuclear Amazon are far from trivial.
I explained why and how a preemptive strike against North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic-missile programs would work; how we could use massive conventional bombs against Pyongyang’s artillery north of the DMZ, which threatened Seoul, thereby reducing casualties dramatically; and why the United States was rapidly approaching a binary choice, assuming China didn’t act dramatically, of either leaving the North with nuclear weapons or using military force. The only other alternatives were seeking reunification of the Peninsula under South Korea or regime change in the North, both of which required cooperation with China, which we had not even begun to broach with them. Trump asked, “What do you think the chances of war are with North Korea? Fifty-fifty?” I said I thought it all depended on China, but probably fifty-fifty. Trump turned to Kelly and said, “He agrees with you.”
In the course of this conversation (which lasted about thirty-five minutes), Trump raised his dissatisfaction with Tillerson, saying he didn’t seem to have control of State. Trump asked why, and I said it was because Tillerson hadn’t filled the subordinate ranks with appointees who would advance the Administration’s policies and that he had, in effect, been captured by the careerists. I also explained why State needed a “cultural revolution” because of its desire to run foreign policy on its own, especially under Republican Presidents, during which both Trump and Kelly nodded affirmatively. Trump asked Kelly what he thought Tillerson was doing wrong, and Kelly said Tillerson was trying to centralize decision-making too much in his own hands. I agreed but said delegating authority had to go hand in hand with getting the right people in place to delegate it to. Kelly agreed, saying, “Delegation with supervision.”
Trump then said to Kelly, “John knows that place [State] backwards and forwards.” Kelly nodded agreement. I thought it was striking that Trump did not raise McMaster. As we ended the meeting, Trump said, “You’re still ready to come in for the right position, am I right?” I laughed and said, “For the right position, yes.” As Kelly and I walked back to the West Wing lobby, he said, “The guy loves you. After we’ve been here all day, he’ll call me at home at nine thirty at night and say, ‘Did you just see Bolton on television?’ ” I told Kelly to call me if I could be of help and left the building.
A week before Christmas, I met again with Kushner on the Middle East peace plan for about forty minutes and had a couple of other spare calls with him during the month. Other than that, things were quiet for the rest of the month. Happy New Year!
On January 6, 2018, during a maelstrom of press commentary on the new Fire and Fury book about Trump, he tweeted that he was a “very stable genius.” With another statutorily required presidential decision approaching on whether to have the pre-Iran-deal sanctions come back into force, I decided to sit back. They knew how to get me if they wanted to, and no one made contact. Trump reprised what he had done in October, keeping the sanctions from coming back into effect but not certifying that Iran was complying with the deal. No progress.
And then North Korea returned to the spotlight as South Korea hosted the Winter Olympics. Pence and Ivanka Trump represented the US, amid speculation of talks with the North Korea delegation. I gave interviews applauding Pence for not letting the North gain a propaganda edge or drive wedges between us and South Korea. Pence tweeted in response, “Well said @AmbJohnBolton,” a nice signal. Of course, South Korean President Moon Jae-in was going all out for domestic political purposes to highlight his “success” in having high-level North Koreans attend, particularly Kim Jong Un’s younger sister, Kim Yo Jong (sanctioned by the US as a known violator of human rights). In fact, Kim Yo Jong did have a mission, inviting Moon to the North, which he accepted instantly. It trickled out later that Seoul had paid Pyongyang’s costs of participating in the games, not from any Olympic spirit, but following a sad, well-established pattern.27 South Korea’s left worshipped this “Sunshine Policy,” which basically held that being nice to North Korea would bring peace to the Peninsula. Instead, again and again, it merely subsidized the North’s dictatorship.
On March 6, I had yet another meeting with Trump. Waiting in the West Wing lobby, I watched on television as reporters asked why he thought the North was now ready to negotiate, and Trump replied happily, “Me.” I hoped he understood North Korea truly feared that he, unlike Obama, was prepared if necessary to use military force. I went to the Oval at about 4:40, once again sitting in front of the completely clean Resolute desk. Trump said to me, just as Kelly entered, “Did I ask for this meeting or did you?” I said I had, and he responded, “I thought I had, but I’m glad you came in because I wanted to see you.” We started off talking about North Korea, and I explained I thought Kim Jong Un was trying to buy time to finish the relatively few (albeit critical) tasks still necessary to achieve a deliverable nuclear-weapons capability. That meant that Kim Jong Un now especially feared military force; he knew economic sanctions alone wouldn’t prevent him from reaching that goal. I wasn’t quite sure Trump got the point, but I also raised reports of North Korea’s selling chemical-weapons equipment and precursor chemicals to Syria, likely financed by Iran.28 If true, this linkage could be pivotal for both North Korea and Iran, showing just how dangerous Pyongyang was: now selling chemical weapons, soon enough selling nuclear weapons. I urged him to use this argument to justify both exiting the Iran nuclear deal and taking a harder line on North Korea. Kelly agreed and urged me to keep pounding away in public, which I assured him I would.
On the Iran nuclear deal, Trump said, “Don’t worry, I’m getting out of that. I said they could try to fix it, but that won’t happen.” He turned to how much he wanted to fire Tillerson, saying, “You know what’s wrong. I’d love to have you over there.” But he said he thought confirmation, with just a 51–49 Republican majority, would be difficult. “That son of a bitch Rand Paul will vote against you, and McConnell is worried he may persuade other Republicans, who need his vote on judges and other things. What do you hear?” I said I wouldn’t get Paul’s vote, but I would be surprised if he dragged other Republicans along with him. (The real count in the Senate, however, increasingly looked to be 50–49, as John McCain’s health continued to deteriorate, raising the prospect he might never return to Washington.) I also said, based on earlier conversations with Republican Senators, that we could roll up a handful of Democrats, especially in an election year. I doubted I’d persuaded Trump, and he asked, “What else would you be interested in?” I answered, “National Security Advisor.” Kelly broke his silence to underline that that job did not require Senate confirmation, and Trump asked happily, “So I don’t have to worry about those clowns up there?” and both Kelly and I said, “Right.”
I then launched into a description of what I thought the core duties of the National Security Advisor’s job were, namely, ensuring that the full range of options was put before the President and that his decisions were then carried out, at which Kelly nodded vigorously. I said I thought my training as a litigator equipped me for that role, because I could present the options fairly but still have my own point of view (as one does with clients), and that I understood he made the final decisions, once again telling him the Dean Acheson/Harry Truman story. Trump and Kelly both laughed. Trump asked me what I thought McMaster had done right, and I said it was a real achievement to write a good national-security strategy in a President’s first year in office, something that had not occurred, for example, in Bush 43’s tenure, among others. Trump asked what I thought Mattis had done well, and I cited the major defense budget increase over the Obama years the Administration had recently won. Before I could finish, both Trump and Kelly said simultaneously the budget win was Trump’s accomplishment, not Mattis’s. I thought that was a real revelation about Trump’s attitude toward Mattis.
The meeting ended after about thirty-five minutes, and Trump said, “Okay, stay patient, I’ll be calling you.” Kelly and I walked out of the Oval, and he asked, “Have you thought about the media reaction if you get named?” I had, saying I had been through it already when nominated to the UN ambassadorship. Kelly said, “Yes, that was outrageous. But think about it again, anyway, because he’s serious.” I had put up with so much from the media over the years that I really didn’t care what their reaction was; by that point, my scar tissue had scars. As the Duke of Wellington once said (perhaps apocryphally), my attitude was, “Print and be damned.”
I felt pretty good until that evening. While addressing a fund-raiser in Northern Virginia for Republican Congresswoman Barbara Comstock, whom I first met at the Reagan Justice Department, I heard Kim Jong Un had invited Trump to meet, and he had accepted. I was beyond speechless, appalled at this foolish mistake. For a US President to grant Kim a summit with no sign whatever of a strategic decision to renounce nuclear weapons—in fact, giving it away for nothing—was a propaganda gift beyond measure. It was worse by orders of magnitude than Madeleine Albright clinking glasses with Kim Il Sung during the Clinton years. Fortunately, I had no Fox interviews that night because of the fund-raiser, so I had time to think about it. The next day, Sarah Sanders seemed to walk things back, saying our existing policy had not changed.
As I had left the White House earlier on Tuesday, the White House had announced Gary Cohn’s resignation as Chairman of the National Economic Council. Larry Kudlow was named to replace him. In the meantime, in February, White House Staff Secretary Rob Porter resigned because of damaging personal information revealed in his FBI background investigation, followed shortly thereafter by Trump’s longtime staffer Hope Hicks, then Communications Director. The bloodletting continued on March 13, with the announcement that Tillerson had been unceremoniously fired as Secretary of State; that Pompeo would be nominated to replace him; and that Pompeo’s CIA Deputy, Gina Haspel, a career intelligence officer, would succeed him. Kushner called me the next day for another meeting on his Middle East peace plan, which I again found difficult to believe was entirely coincidental. Then, on March 16, Jeff Sessions resumed the bloodletting by firing FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe.
Life around the world, however, was still rolling along. A Russian hit squad, using chemical weapons from the Novichok family, attacked former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury, England. After Moscow disdainfully refused even to address the attack, Prime Minister May expelled twenty-three undeclared Russian intelligence agents.29 In interviews, I took a very tough view of how America should respond to this attack, a view I still hold. So, it was unsettling to read that Trump had congratulated Putin on “winning” reelection as President of Russia, over McMaster’s advice, which had been promptly and widely leaked to the media. Nonetheless, Trump later expelled over sixty Russian “diplomats” as part of a NATO-wide effort to show solidarity with London.30 As several House members helping me with my National Security Advisor campaign confided, we were within days of Trump’s deciding who would replace McMaster. I gritted my teeth, because the job was looking more arduous than before, but I decided not to pull back now.
On Wednesday, March 21, my cell phone rang as I was riding down a snowy George Washington Memorial Parkway to do an interview at Fox’s DC studio (the federal government and most area schools and businesses being closed). “Good morning, Mr. President,” I said, and Trump replied, “I’ve got a job for you that is probably the most powerful job in the White House.” As I started to answer, Trump said, “No, really better than Chief of Staff,” and we both laughed, which meant Kelly was probably in the room with him. “And you won’t have to deal with the Democrats in the Senate, no need for that. You should come in and we’ll talk about this, come in today or tomorrow. I want someone with gravitas, not some unknown. You have great support, great support, from all kinds of people, great support, like those Freedom Caucus guys” (a group of Republicans in the House). I thanked Trump and then called my wife and daughter, Gretchen and JS (Jennifer Sarah), to tell them, stressing that for Trump it was never over until something was publicly announced, and sometimes not then.
I met with Trump in the Oval the next day at four o’clock. We started into what seemed like another interview, talking about Iran and North Korea. Much of what Trump said harked back to his campaign days, before a series of speeches had positioned him in the broad Republican mainstream foreign-policy thinking. I wondered if he was having second thoughts about making me an offer, but at least he said unequivocally he was getting out of the Iran deal. He said almost nothing about the supposed upcoming summit with Kim Jong Un, an omission I found hard to read. The largest single block of time was spent discussing again how I thought the NSC should work. Although I didn’t mention Brent Scowcroft by name, the system I explained, as Kelly well knew, was what Scowcroft had done in the Bush 41 Administration. First, it was the NSC’s responsibility to provide the President with the available options and the pluses and minuses of each. Second, once a decision was made, the NSC was the President’s enforcer to ensure that the bureaucracies carried out the decision. All this resonated with Trump, although he didn’t directly offer me the job, asking instead, “So you think you want to do this?” I was beginning to wonder if this now hour-long meeting was just going to dribble off inconclusively when Westerhout came in to tell Trump he had another meeting. He stood up, and of course so did I. We shook hands over the Resolute desk. Although there had been no clear “offer” and “acceptance,” both Kelly and I knew what had in fact happened, in the Trumpian way.
Given the experiences already recounted here, and more, why accept the job? Because America faced a very dangerous international environment, and I thought I knew what needed to be done. I had strong views on a wide range of issues, developed during prior government service and private-sector study. And Trump? No one could claim by this point not to know the risks in store, up close, but I also believed I could handle it. Others may have failed for one reason or another, but I thought I could succeed. Was I right? Read on.
Outside the Oval, I encountered White House Counsel Don McGahn going in with folders on potential judicial nominations. Kelly and I spoke for a few minutes, and I said it was clear to me that neither one of us could accomplish anything unless we worked together, which was my intention, and he readily agreed. I also asked what the timing of an announcement might be, and he thought the next day or the following week at the earliest. I later learned (as did Kelly) that within minutes of my leaving the Oval, Trump called McMaster to tell him he would be announcing the switch later that same afternoon. I went to the West Wing lobby to retrieve my coat, and the receptionist and a White House communications staffer said there was a mob of reporters and photographers waiting for me to exit the north door to the driveway. They asked if I would mind going out the “back way,” through the White House’s Southwest Gate onto Seventeenth Street, and walking “behind” the Eisenhower Executive Office Building to miss the press, which I happily did. I called Gretchen and JS again, and began to think about preparations for starting at the White House.
On my way to the Fox News studio for an interview on Martha MacCallum’s show, Trump tweeted:
At that point, my cell phone felt like a hand grenade going off, with incoming calls, e-mails, tweets, and news alerts.
I now had some two weeks to make the necessary transition away from private life to government service, and the pace was frenetic. The next day, Trump called me during his intelligence briefing, saying, “You’re getting great press,” that the announcement was “playing very big,” getting “great reviews… the base loves it,” and so on. He said at one point, “Some of them think you’re the bad cop,” and I replied, “When we play the good cop/bad cop routine, the President is always the good cop.” Trump responded, “The trouble is, we’ve got two bad cops,” and I could hear the others in the Oval for the intel briefing laughing, as was I.
Since Trump had announced I would start on April 9, the first priority was the White House Counsel’s vetting process. This consisted of filling out extensive forms and undergoing questioning by the Counsel’s Office lawyers on financial disclosure issues, possible conflicts of interest, requirements for divestiture of assets (not that I had all that much to divest), unwinding existing employment relationships, freezing my PAC and SuperPAC during my government service, and the like. Also required was what baby boomers called the “sex, drugs and rock and roll” interview, where typically the trap was not what foolish things you had done in your life but whether you admitted them in response to questions or volunteered them if they were exotic enough. Since my last government job as UN Ambassador, I had received plenty of media coverage, so I took care to mention even the outlandish things that lazy, biased, incompetent reporters had published at my expense, including that Maria Butina had tried to recruit me as a Russian agent. (I do not think the press is “an enemy of the people,” but, as Dwight Eisenhower said in 1964, its ranks are filled with “sensation-seeking columnists and commentators” whose writings mark them as little more than intellectualoids.) Then there was the mandatory urine sample I provided for drug testing; let’s not forget that.
I also tried to consult with former National Security Advisors, starting of course with Kissinger, who said, “I have great confidence in you, and I wish you every success. You know the subject. You know the bureaucracy. I know you are able to handle it.” And most important, Kissinger, like every predecessor with whom I spoke, Republican and Democrat alike, offered their support. I spoke with Colin Powell (who had been my boss when he was Secretary of State in Bush 43’s first term), Brent Scowcroft, James Jones, Condi Rice, Steve Hadley, Susan Rice, John Poindexter, and Bud McFarlane, as well as Bob Gates, who had been Scowcroft’s Deputy and later Secretary of Defense. Scowcroft said succinctly, “The world is a mess, and we’re the only ones who can straighten it out.”
I spoke with former Secretaries of State for whom I had worked, including George Shultz and Jim Baker (Powell and Condi Rice, of course, fell into both categories), and also Don Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney. Finally, I spoke with President George W. Bush, who was very generous with his time, wishing me “all the best.” I asked about calling his father, for whom I had also worked, and he said it would be “difficult” at that time, so I simply asked that he pass on my regards.
I had lunch with McMaster on March 27 in the Ward Room, part of the White House Navy mess facility. He was gracious and forthcoming in his assessments of issues, policies, and personnel. A few days later, I had breakfast with Jim Mattis at the Pentagon. Mattis showed his flair with the press, as he greeted me at the entrance, by saying he had heard I was “the devil incarnate.” I thought of replying, “I do my best,” but bit my tongue. We had a very productive discussion. Mattis suggested that he, Pompeo, and I have breakfast once a week at the White House to go over pending issues. Although we were all on the telephone with each other several times most days, the breakfasts proved to be a very important opportunity for the three of us alone to discuss key issues. When one might be traveling, the other two would get together, usually in the Ward Room, but often at State or the Pentagon.
When Mattis and I finished, he took me to meet Joe Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, whose term as Chairman would last through September 2019. I recalled to Dunford his remarks on the North Korea nuclear issue at the summer 2018 Aspen Security Forum:
Many people have talked about the military options with words such as unimaginable. I would probably shift that slightly and say it would be horrific and it would be a loss of life unlike any we’ve experienced in our lifetime, and I mean anyone who’s been alive since World War II has never seen a loss of life that could occur if there is a conflict on the Korean Peninsula. But as I’ve told my counterparts, both friend and foe, it is not unimaginable to have military options to respond to North Korea’s nuclear capability. What is unimaginable to me is allowing the capability to allow nuclear weapons to land in Denver, Colorado. My job will be to develop military options to make sure that doesn’t happen.31
Dunford seemed surprised I knew of his comments, and we had a good discussion. Dunford had a reputation as an outstanding military officer, and I had no reason to doubt that, then or later.
I broached Mattis’s three-way-breakfast idea with Mike Pompeo at the CIA a few days later. He readily agreed. He and I had already exchanged a number of e-mails, one from him saying, “I’m truly excited to get started as a co-founder of the war cabinet. I will send Sen. Paul your regards.” I also had a chance to meet his Deputy and likely successor, Gina Haspel.
I had watched Trump closely during his nearly fifteen months in office, and I had no illusions that I could change him. Any number of National Security Council “models” might have been academically sound but would make no difference if they simply spun in a vacuum, disconnected, admiring themselves and lauded by the media but not actually engaging the sitting President. I was determined to have a disciplined, thorough process, but I would judge my performance on how it actually shaped policy, not how outsiders compared it to prior Administrations.
Several decisions flowed from this analysis. First, the NSC staff (roughly 430 people when I arrived, 350 when I left) was not a think tank. Its product was not discussion groups and staff papers but effective decision-making. The organization should be simple and direct. I planned to eliminate many duplicative, overlapping structures and staff. Since Trump had given me full hiring and firing authority, I acted quickly and decisively, among other things naming only one Deputy National Security Advisor, instead of several, to strengthen and simplify the National Security Council staff’s effectiveness. This critical role I filled first with Mira Ricardel, a longtime defense expert with extensive government service and as a senior Boeing executive, and later with Dr. Charles Kupperman, a defense expert with similar credentials (including Boeing!). They had strong personalities; they would need them.
On the Saturday before Easter at six thirty p.m., I had a somewhat bizarre conversation with Trump. He did almost all the talking, starting with “Rex was terrible” and then explaining why, focusing on a decision to commit $200 million for Syrian reconstruction. Trump didn’t like it: “I want to build up our country, not others.” As a US Agency for International Development alumnus, I supported using US foreign assistance to advance national-security objectives, but I also knew such efforts had their weaknesses as well as strengths. I tried to get a word in edgewise, but Trump rolled right along, saying periodically, “I know you get this.” He then said, “You’ve got a lot of leakers down there. You can get rid of anybody you want,” which I was already preparing to do. Finally, the conversation ended, and we both said, “Happy Easter.”
On Easter Monday, Trump called again. I asked, “How’s the Easter Egg Roll going, Mr. President?” “Great,” he said as Sarah Sanders, her children, and others came in and out of the Oval, and then returned to his Saturday-night monologue, saying, “I want to get out of these horrible wars [in the Middle East].” “We’re killing ISIS for countries that are our enemies,” which I took to mean Russia, Iran, and Assad’s Syria. He said his advisors were divided into two categories, those who wanted to stay “forever,” and those who wanted to stay “for a while.” By contrast, Trump said, “I don’t want to stay at all. I don’t like the Kurds. They ran from the Iraqis, they ran from the Turks, the only time they don’t run is when we’re bombing all around them with F-18s.” He asked, “What should we do?” Figuring the Easter Egg Roll might not be the best time to discuss Middle East strategy, I said I was still waiting to get my temporary security clearance lined up. Pompeo, who had arrived in the Oval, said, “Give John and me a little bit of time—” before he was cut off by more children and parents traipsing through. It was pretty clear Trump wanted to withdraw from Syria, and indeed at an NSC meeting the next day (see chapter 2), he voiced precisely these sentiments. Still, much remained to be decided, giving me confidence we could protect US interests as the struggle to destroy the ISIS territorial caliphate neared a successful conclusion.
On Friday, April 6, heading into the weekend before my first official day, I met again with Kelly and several others to review West Wing procedures. I explained some of the NSC personnel changes I planned and the reorganizations I intended. I had Trump’s authority to do these things, but I didn’t mind informing Kelly in advance. He spent the rest of the meeting, which lasted an hour, explaining how Trump acted in meetings and on phone calls. The President used “very rough language,” said Kelly, which was true, “and of course, he’s entitled to do that,” also true. Trump despised both Bush Presidents and their Administrations, leading me to wonder if he had missed my almost ten years of service in those presidencies. And Trump changed his mind constantly. I wondered listening to all this how close Kelly was to just walking away. Kelly concluded by saying graciously, “I’m glad you’re here, John. The President hasn’t had a National Security Advisor for the past year, and he needs one.”
I spent the weekend reading classified materials and otherwise preparing for April 9. But as the next chapter will show, the Syria crisis came unannounced and unexpected, like much of the next seventeen months. Acheson had written about Roosevelt’s replacement of Cordell Hull as Secretary of State with Edward Stettinius, which had led the press to speculate that Roosevelt “would continue to be… his own Secretary of State.” Acheson had a firm view: “The President cannot be Secretary of State; it is inherently impossible in the nature of both positions. What he can do, and often has done with unhappy results, is to prevent anyone else from being Secretary of State.”32 Although not written about the National Security Advisor position, Acheson’s insight was profound. Perhaps that is what Kelly was trying to say in his final comment to me before I started. And as Condi Rice said to me much later, “Secretary of State is the best job in the government, and National Security Advisor is the hardest.” I am sure she is right.
CHAPTER 2 CRY “HAVOC!” AND LET SLIP THE DOGS OF WAR
On Saturday, April 7, 2018, Syrian armed forces, using chemical weapons, attacked the city of Douma in southwest Syria and other nearby locations. Initial reports had perhaps a dozen people killed and hundreds wounded, including children, some grievously sickened by the dangerous chemicals.1 Chlorine was the likely base material for the weapons, but there were claims of sarin gas activity and perhaps other chemicals.2 Bashar al-Assad’s regime had similarly used chemical weapons, including sarin, one year earlier, on April 4, 2017, at Khan Shaykhun in northwest Syria. Only three days later, the United States responded forcefully, launching fifty-nine cruise missiles at the suspected site from which the Syrian attack emanated.3
Syria’s dictatorship obviously had not learned its lesson. Deterrence had failed, and the issue now was how to respond appropriately. Unhappily, a year after Khan Shaykhun, Syria policy remained in disarray, lacking agreement on fundamental objectives and strategy.4 Now it was again in crisis. Responding to this latest Syrian chemical-weapons attack was imperative, but we also urgently needed conceptual clarity on how to advance American interests long-term. An NSC meeting held the week before Douma, however, pointed in exactly the opposite direction: US withdrawal from Syria. Leaving would risk losing even the limited gains achieved under Barack Obama’s misbegotten Syria-Iraq policies, thereby exacerbating the dangers his approach fostered. Responsibility for this policy disarray, one year after Khan Shaykhun, rested at that iconic location where the buck stops: the Resolute desk in the Oval Office.
At about nine a.m. on April 8, in his own personal style and the style of our times, Donald J. Trump, President of the United States of America, tweeted:
Minutes later, he tweeted again:
These were clear, forceful statements, but Trump tweeted before consulting his national security team. Lieutenant General H. R. McMaster, my predecessor as National Security Advisor, had left Friday afternoon, and I didn’t start until Monday. When I tried to pull together a meeting on Sunday, White House lawyers blocked it, because I would not officially become a government employee until Monday. This gave the word “frustration” new meaning.
Trump called me Sunday afternoon, and we (mostly he) talked for twenty minutes. He mused that getting out of the Middle East the right way was tough, a theme he raised repeatedly during the call, interspersed with digressions on trade wars and tariffs. Trump said he had just seen Jack Keane (a four-star general and former Army Vice Chief of Staff) on Fox News and liked his idea of destroying Syria’s five main military airfields, thereby essentially knocking out Assad’s entire air force. Trump said, “My honor is at stake,” reminding me of Thucydides’s famous observation that “fear, honor and interest” are the main drivers of international politics and ultimately war. French President Emmanuel Macron had already called to say France was strongly considering participating in a US-led military response.5 Earlier in the day, presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner had told me that UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson had phoned him to relay essentially the same message from London. These prompt assurances of support were encouraging. Why a foreign minister was calling Kushner, however, was something to address in coming days.
Trump asked about an NSC staffer I planned on firing, a supporter of his since the earliest days of his presidential campaign. He wasn’t surprised when I told him the individual was part of “the leak problem,” and he continued, “Too many people know too many things.” This highlighted my most pressing management problem: dealing with the Syria crisis while reorienting the NSC staff to aim in a common direction, a bit like changing hockey lines on the fly. This was no time for placid reflection, or events would overtake us. On Sunday, I could only “suggest” to the NSC staff that they do everything possible to ascertain all they could about the Assad regime’s actions (and whether further attacks were likely), and develop US options in response. I called an NSC staff meeting for six forty-five a.m. Monday morning to see where we stood, and to assess what roles Russia and Iran might have played. We needed decisions that fit into a larger, post-ISIS Syria/Iraq picture, and to avoid simply responding “whack-a-mole” style.
I left home with my newly assigned Secret Service protective detail a little before six a.m., heading to the White House in two silver-colored SUVs. Once at the West Wing, I saw that Chief of Staff John Kelly was already in his first-floor, southwest-corner office, down the hall from mine on the northwest corner, so I stopped by to say hello. Over the next eight months, when we were in town, we both typically arrived around six a.m., an excellent time to sync up as the day began. The six forty-five NSC staff meeting confirmed my—and what seemed to be Trump’s—belief that the Douma strike required a strong, near-term military response. The US opposed anyone’s use of WMD (“weapons of mass destruction”)—nuclear, chemical, and biological—as contrary to our national interest. Whether in the hands of strategic opponents, rogue states, or terrorists, WMD endangered the American people and our allies.
A crucial question in the ensuing debate was whether reestablishing deterrence against using weapons of mass destruction inevitably meant greater US involvement in Syria’s civil war. It did not. Our vital interest against chemical-weapons attacks could be vindicated without ousting Assad, notwithstanding the fears of both those who wanted strong action against his regime and those who wanted none. Military force was justified to deter Assad and many others from using chemical (or nuclear or biological) weapons in the future. From our perspective, Syria was a strategic sideshow, and who ruled there should not distract us from Iran, the real threat.
I called Defense Secretary Jim Mattis at 8:05 a.m. He believed Russia was our real problem, harking back to Obama’s ill-advised 2014 agreement with Putin to “eliminate” Syria’s chemical weapons capability, which obviously hadn’t happened.6 And now here we were again. Unsurprisingly, Russia was already accusing Israel of being behind the Douma strike. Mattis and I discussed possible responses to Syria’s attack, and he said he would be supplying “light, medium, and heavy” options for the President’s consideration, which I thought was the right approach. I noted that, unlike in 2017, both France and Britain were considering joining a response, which we agreed was a plus. I sensed, over the phone, that Mattis was reading from a prepared text.
Afterward, UK national security advisor Sir Mark Sedwill called me to follow up Johnson’s call to Kushner.7 It was more than symbolic that Sedwill was my first foreign caller. Having our allies more closely aligned to our main foreign-policy and defense objectives strengthened our hand in critical ways and was one of my top policy goals. Sedwill said deterrence had obviously failed, and Assad had become “more adept at concealing his use” of chemical weapons. I understood from Sedwill that Britain’s likely view was to ensure that our next use of force was both militarily and politically effective, dismantling Assad’s chemical capabilities and re-creating deterrence. That sounded right. I also took a moment to raise the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, even in the midst of the Syria crisis, emphasizing the likelihood, based on my many conversations with Trump, that America now really would be withdrawing. I emphasized that Trump had made no final decision, but we needed to consider how to constrain Iran after a US withdrawal and how to preserve trans-Atlantic unity. Sedwill was undoubtedly surprised to hear this. Neither he nor other Europeans had heard it before from the Administration, since, before my arrival, Trump’s advisors had almost uniformly resisted withdrawal. He took the point stoically and said we should talk further once the immediate crisis was resolved.
At ten a.m., I went down to the Situation Room complex for the scheduled Principals Committee meeting of the National Security Council, a Cabinet-level gathering. (Old hands call the area “the Sit Room,” but millennials call it “Whizzer,” for the initials “WHSR,” “White House Situation Room.”) It had been completely renovated and much improved since my last meeting there in 2006. (For security reasons as well as efficiency, I later launched a substantial further renovation that began in September 2019.) I normally would chair the Principals Committee, but the Vice President decided to do so, perhaps thinking to be helpful on my first day. In any case, I led the discussion, as was standard, and the issue never arose again. This initial, hour-long session allowed the various departments to present their thoughts on how to proceed. I stressed that our central objective was to make Assad pay dearly for using chemical weapons and to re-create structures of deterrence so it didn’t happen again. We needed political and economic steps, as well as a military strike, to show we had a comprehensive approach and were potentially building a coalition with Britain and France. (UK, US, and French military planners were already talking.)8 We had to consider not just the immediate response but what Syria, Russia, and Iran might do next. We discussed at length what we did and didn’t know regarding Syria’s attack and how to increase our understanding of what had happened, especially whether sarin nerve agent was involved or just chlorine-based agents. This is where Mattis repeated almost verbatim his earlier comments, including that the Pentagon would provide a medium-to-heavy range of options.
Further work on Syria, not to mention filling out more government forms, swirled along until one p.m., when I was called to the Oval. UN Ambassador Nikki Haley (who had participated in the Principals Committee via secure telecommunications from New York) was calling to ask what to say in the Security Council that afternoon. This was apparently the normal way she learned what to do in the Council, completely outside the regular NSC process, which I found amazing. As a former UN Ambassador myself, I had wondered at Haley’s untethered performance in New York over the past year-plus; now I saw how it actually worked. I was sure Mike Pompeo and I would be discussing this issue after he was confirmed as Secretary of State. The call started off, however, with Trump asking why former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, before he left office, had approved $500 million in economic assistance to Africa. I suspected this was the amount approved by Congress in the course of the appropriations process, but said I would check. Trump also asked me to look into a news report on India’s purchasing Russian S-400 air defense systems because, said India, the S-400 was better than America’s Patriot defense system. Then we came to Syria. Trump said Haley should basically say, “You have heard the President’s words [via Twitter], and you should listen.” I suggested that, after the Security Council meeting, Haley and the UK and French Ambassadors jointly address the press outside the Council chamber to present a united front. I had done that many times, but Haley declined, preferring to have pictures of her alone giving the US statement in the Council. That told me something.
In the afternoon, I met with NSC staff handling the Iran nuclear-weapons issue, asking them to prepare to exit the 2015 deal within a month. Trump needed to have the option ready for him when he decided to leave, and I wanted to be sure he had it. There was no way ongoing negotiations with the UK, France, and Germany would “fix” the deal; we needed to withdraw and create an effective follow-on strategy to block Iran’s drive for deliverable nuclear weapons. What I said couldn’t have been surprising, since I had said it all before publicly many times, but I could feel the air going out of the NSC staff, who until then had been working feverishly to save the deal.
I was back in the Oval at four forty-five p.m. for Trump to call Macron.9 I typically joined in the President’s calls with foreign leaders, which had long been standard practice. Macron reaffirmed, as he was doing publicly, France’s intention to respond jointly to the chemical attacks (and which, after the fact, he actually took credit for!).10 He noted UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s desire to act soon. He also raised the attack earlier on Monday against Syria’s Tiyas airbase, which housed an Iranian facility, and the risk of Iran’s counterattacking even as we planned our own operations.11 I spoke later with Philippe Étienne, my French counterpart and Macron’s diplomatic advisor, to coordinate carrying out the Trump-Macron discussions.
As I listened, I realized that if military action began by the weekend, which seemed likely, Trump couldn’t be out of the country.12 When the call ended, I suggested he skip the Summit of the Americas conference in Peru scheduled for that time and that Pence attend instead. Trump agreed, and told me to work it out with Pence and Kelly. When I relayed this to Kelly, he groaned because of the preparations already made. I responded, “Don’t hate me on my first day,” and he agreed a switch was probably inevitable. I went to the VP’s office, which was between my office and Kelly’s, to explain the situation. While we were talking, Kelly came in to say the FBI had raided the offices of Michael Cohen, a Trump lawyer and chief “fixer” for nondisclosure agreements with the likes of Stormy Daniels, not exactly a matter of high state. Nonetheless, in the time I spent with Trump the rest of the week, which was considerable, the Cohen issue never came up. There was no trace of evidence to suggest Cohen was on Trump’s mind, in my presence, other than when he responded to the incessant press questioning.
On Monday evening, Trump hosted a semiannual dinner with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the military combatant commanders to discuss matters of interest. With all of them in town, it also provided an opportunity to hear their views on Syria. Had this not been my first day, with the Syria crisis overshadowing everything, I would have tried to meet them individually to discuss their respective responsibilities. That, however, would have to wait.
The next day, at eight thirty, I spoke again with Sedwill, calling to prepare for May’s telephone conversation to Trump, scheduled shortly thereafter. Sedwill again pressed on the timing issue, and I wondered if domestic political pressures in Britain were weighing on May’s thinking, given that parliament was coming back into session on April 16. Former Prime Minister David Cameron’s failure to obtain House of Commons approval to attack Syria, after the Assad regime crossed Obama’s “red line” on chemical weapons, worried me as a precedent. Obviously, if we acted before Parliament came back into session, I thought that risk would be eliminated.13 Sedwill was also happy to hear that the Pentagon was thinking heavier rather than lighter for the military response, which was consistent with UK preferences, and in seeking a broader conceptual framework for Syria. When May and Trump spoke, she echoed Sedwill’s comments on the need to act promptly.14 Throughout the call, Trump seemed resolved, although it was clear he didn’t like May, a feeling that struck me as reciprocal. I also spoke frequently through the week with my Israeli counterpart, Meir Ben-Shabbat, about reports regarding an air strike against Syria’s Tiyas air base, and Iran’s highly threatening presence in Syria.15
Through the week, more information on the attacks came in, and I spent considerable time reviewing this data, as well as reams of classified material on the rest of the world. My practice in prior government jobs had always been to consume as much intelligence as I could. I might have agreed or disagreed with analyses or conclusions, but I was always ready to absorb more information. Proof of the Assad regime’s chemical-weapons usage was increasingly clear in public reporting, although left-wing commentators, and even some on Fox, were saying there was no evidence. They were wrong.
The second Syria Principals Committee meeting convened at one thirty and again consisted largely of the various agencies reporting on their developing planning and activity, all consistent with a strong response. I soon realized Mattis was our biggest problem. He hadn’t produced any targeting options for the NSC or for White House Counsel Don McGahn, who needed to write an opinion on the legality of whatever Trump ultimately decided. From long, unhappy experience, I knew what was going on here. Mattis knew where he wanted Trump to come out militarily, and he also knew that the way to maximize the likelihood of his view’s prevailing was to deny information to others who had a legitimate right to weigh in. It was simple truth that not presenting options until the last minute, making sure that those options were rigged in the “right” direction, and then table-pounding, delaying, and obfuscating as long as possible were the tactics by which a savvy bureaucrat like Mattis could get his way. The Principals Committee meeting ended inconclusively, although Mattis gave some ground to McGahn in the end after a little temper-flaring around the Sit Room table. I was determined that this obstructionism would not happen, but Mattis had clearly dug in. I didn’t think he was over the line yet, but he was right on it, as I said to both Pence and Kelly after the meeting.
Starting at about three p.m., I spent about two hours in the Oval, in a “meeting” rolling from one issue to another. Trump was worried about the possibility of Russian casualties in Syria, given Russia’s extensive military presence there, which had climbed dramatically during the Obama years. This was a legitimate concern, and one we addressed by having the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joe Dunford, call his Russian counterpart, Valery Gerasimov, to assure him that whatever action we decided to take, it would not be targeted at Russian personnel or assets.16 The Dunford-Gerasimov channel had been and remained a critical asset for both countries over time, in many instances far more suitable than conventional diplomatic communications to ensure Washington and Moscow both clearly understood their respective interests and intentions. Another Trump-Macron call went through at three forty-five, with Macron pushing for prompt action and threatening to act unilaterally if we delayed too long, an assertion he had earlier stated publicly.17 This was preposterous and potentially dangerous; it was showboating, and Trump ultimately reined the French back in. Macron was right, however, in seeking prompt action, which weighed against Trump’s mistaken inclination to move slowly. The quicker the retaliation, the clearer the message to Assad and others. We had still not seen options from the Pentagon, and the two leaders did not discuss specific targets. It seemed, nonetheless, that Macron wanted the medium option among the target packages, whatever that turned out to be. Low is too low, he said, and high is too aggressive. I had no idea what he meant, wondering whether he did either, or whether he was just posturing.
While briefing Trump for a later call with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, I stressed that we had the right formula: (1) a proposed three-way attack option with France and Britain, not just a unilateral US strike as in 2017; (2) a comprehensive approach, using political and economic as well as military means, combined with effective messaging to explain what we were doing and why; and (3) a sustained—not just a one-shot—effort. Trump seemed satisfied. He also urged me, “Do as much TV as you want,” saying, “Go after Obama as much as you want,” which he called “a good thing to do.” I actually didn’t want to do media that week, and there were enough other people clawing to get on television that no shortage of Administration voices would be heard.
The Erdogan call turned out to be an experience. Listening to him (his remarks were always interpreted), he sounded like Mussolini speaking from his Rome balcony, except that Erdogan was talking in that tone and volume over the phone. It was as if he were lecturing us while standing on the Resolute desk. Erdogan seemed to avoid any commitment to join US strike plans but said he would be speaking to Putin imminently.18 Trump urged Erdogan to stress that we were seeking to avoid Russian casualties. The next day, Thursday, Ibrahim Kalin, my Turkish counterpart (and also Erdogan’s press spokesman, an interesting combination), called to report on the Erdogan-Putin call. Putin had emphasized he did not want to see a broader confrontation with the United States over Syria, and that everyone should act with common sense.19
At eight a.m. Thursday, Dunford called to debrief his conversation with Gerasimov late the night before. After the obligatory Russian defense of the Assad regime, Gerasimov got down to business, taking Dunford seriously when he stressed our intention was not to target Russians. Dunford characterized Gerasimov as “very professional, very measured.” Dunford and I agreed it was a positive result, which I conveyed to Trump later in the morning, along with the Erdogan-Putin phone call.
I met with Trump and Pence at one thirty in the small dining room down a short hall from the Oval. Trump spent a lot of time in this dining room, with a wide-screen television on the wall opposite his chair, usually turned to Fox News. It was here that his collection of official papers, newspapers, and other documents usually resided, rather than on the Resolute desk in the Oval. Trump wanted to withdraw most US troops from Syria and persuade Arab states to deploy more of their own forces there, as well as pay for the remaining US presence. He did not see this substitution of Arab for US forces as a strategic redirection, but as a way of deflecting US domestic political criticism for his increasingly blunt public comments about withdrawing from Syria. I said I would look into it. With a full NSC meeting (the proper term only when the President chairs the meeting) coming that afternoon, I also told Trump we were essentially being sandbagged by Mattis on the range of target options. Trump seemed troubled, but he offered no real direction.
The NSC meeting convened at three o’clock in the Sit Room, lasted about seventy-five minutes, and ended inconclusively. The Pentagon’s proposed response to Syria’s chemical-weapons attack was far weaker than it should have been, largely because Mattis had stacked the options presented to Trump in ways that left little real choice. Instead of three choices (light, medium, and heavy), Mattis and Dunford (who didn’t seem to be doing anything Mattis didn’t want, but who also didn’t seem very happy about the whole thing) presented five options. I had only seen these options a few hours before the NSC meeting, which made a truly considered analysis by NSC staff impossible. Most unhelpfully, the five options didn’t scale up or down in any particular order. Instead, two were characterized as “low risk,” and three were deemed “high risk.” Only one option was categorized as ready to go (one of the low-risk ones), with one partially ready (the other low-risk one). Moreover, even within the alternatives, the potential targets were combined in incomprehensible ways; picking and choosing among the various elements of the five options would have left things even more confused. We were not looking at options along an understandable scale but a collection of apples, oranges, bananas, grapes, and pears, “incommensurables,” as nuclear targeteers said.
Given the imperative to strike soon to emphasize our seriousness, which Trump now accepted, this left little or no choice, especially since Britain and France, for their own reasons, had impressed on us their desire to strike sooner rather than later. Had Trump insisted on one of the “riskier options,” several more days would have passed, and we were already close to one full week since Syria’s attack. If we were following the 2017 timeline, the retaliation should have been happening today. Moreover, because Mattis was recommending to strike only chemical-weapons-related targets, even options Trump and others had asked about had not been included. Moreover, Mattis said without qualification that causing Russian casualties would mean we would be at war with Russia, notwithstanding our efforts to avoid such casualties and the Dunford-Gerasimov conversation. In the April 2017 attack with cruise missiles, the United States had struck targets at one end of a Syrian military airfield where no Russians were, even though we knew Russians were located near another runway at the same airfield.20 No one seemed to care particularly about potential Iranian casualties, although both Russians and Iranians were increasingly located throughout Syrian territory held by Assad’s forces. This increased foreign presence was an ever-larger part of the strategic problem in the Middle East, and acting like it wasn’t simply allowed Assad to use them as human shields. Mattis was looking for excuses not to do much of anything, but he was wrong tactically and strategically.
Ultimately, although Trump had said all week he wanted a significant response, he did not decide to make one. And his ultimate choice among the options missed the central strategic point, which Mattis had to know. The very reason we were in the Sit Room was that the 2017 US strike had failed to establish conditions of deterrence in Assad’s mind sufficiently powerful that he never used chemical weapons again. We knew he had used chemical weapons not just at Douma a few days before but in several other cases since April 2017, and there were other possible cases where we were less sure.21 The April 7, 2018, attack was simply the worst of the lot. The analysis in 2018 should have been: how big does it have to be to succeed in establishing deterrence this time, given that we failed the last time? Inevitably, in my view, that should have included attacks beyond facilities housing Syria’s chemical-weapons program. We should have destroyed other Syrian military assets, including headquarters, planes, and helicopters (i.e., targets related to the decision to use chemical weapons and the delivery systems to drop the bombs containing the weapons themselves), and also threatened the regime itself, such as by attacking Assad’s palaces. These were all points I made, unsuccessfully. That we measurably failed to scale up the level of our response virtually guaranteed that Assad, Russia, and Iran would all breathe a sigh of relief.
Mattis pushed relentlessly for his innocuous options. While Pence tried to help me out, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin strongly backed Mattis, although he manifestly had no idea what he was talking about. Nikki Haley explained that her husband was in the National Guard, so we should try to avoid military casualties. When McGahn again sought more information on the targets, Mattis flatly refused to provide it, even though McGahn was still asking for it only for his legal analysis, not to act as a targeteer, which was outside his purview (as were Mnuchin’s and Haley’s comments). It was stunning. McGahn told me later he didn’t challenge Mattis directly because he didn’t want to disrupt the meeting further; he was later able to get what he needed for his legal opinion. The best we could say, as Dunford phrased it, was that Trump had decided to strike “the heart of the [Syrian chemical-weapons] enterprise.” We would be firing over twice as many missiles as in 2017, and at more physical targets.22 Whether that would result in anything more than a few additional buildings’ being destroyed, however, was a very different question.
Even if the President had decided on the optimal strike, the decision-making process was completely unacceptable. We’d experienced a classic bureaucratic ploy by a classic bureaucrat, structuring the options and information to make only his options look acceptable in order to get his way. Of course, Trump didn’t help by not being clear about what he wanted, jumping randomly from one question to another, and generally frustrating efforts to have a coherent discussion about the consequences of making one choice rather than another. The media portrayed the meeting, the details of which were promptly leaked, as Mattis prevailing because of his “moderation.” In fact, the spirit of Stonewall Jackson lived in Mattis and his acolytes. (“There stands Jackson like a stone wall,” as the Confederates said at the First Battle of Bull Run.) Achieving a better outcome, however, would require more bureaucratic infighting and a further NSC meeting, thereby losing more critical time. That was a nonstarter, and Mattis knew it. Indeed, Syria had already moved equipment and materials away from several targets we hoped to destroy.23 I was satisfied I had acted as an honest broker, but Mattis had been playing with marked cards. He knew how Trump responded in such situations far better than I did. As McGahn often whispered to me during our overlapping White House tenures, reflecting the contrast with our earlier experiences in government, “This is not the Bush Administration.”
As the meeting ended, I sensed that Trump just wanted to decide on something and get back to the Oval, where he felt more comfortable and in control. I had been outmaneuvered by an expert bureaucratic operator. I was determined it would not happen again. Far more important, the country and the President had not been well served. I was determined that wouldn’t happen again either. Over the next several months, I tried many ways to pry open the Pentagon’s military planning for similar contingencies, to get more information in advance to help make the politico-military decision-making process more comprehensive and agile, sometimes successfully, sometimes not.
After we left the Sit Room, we indicated to the press that we hadn’t made any final decisions and that the NSC would meet again on Friday at five p.m., thus leading everyone to think that any military action would come several days later. But we were clear among ourselves that we were aiming for a Trump speech to the nation at five p.m. on Friday (the middle of the night Syria time) in which he would announce the trilateral attack. I went immediately into a brief video conference call with Sedwill and Étienne, using another room in the Sit Room complex. I explained what our decisions were, so we would all be prepared for the coming calls between Trump, Macron, and May. I then ran up to the Oval, where Trump spoke first with May at about four forty-five; she was happy with the outcome of the NSC meeting, which the UK and French militaries had already discussed, another sign we had been completely gamed by Mattis.
While waiting in the Oval for the Macron call, Trump railed away about Tillerson and how much he disliked him, recalling a dinner with Tillerson and Haley. Haley, said Trump, had some disagreement with Tillerson, who responded, “Don’t ever talk to me that way again.” Before Haley could say anything, Tillerson said, “You’re nothing but a cunt, and don’t ever forget it.” In most Administrations, that would have gotten Tillerson fired, so I wondered if he ever actually said it. And if he hadn’t, why did Trump tell me he had? After that, the Macron call was unremarkable. Meanwhile, our preparations accelerated. When I was finally leaving late in the evening, Kushner came into my office to say Trump thought I had done “a great job.” I didn’t think so, but it meant I would probably make it through the end of my fourth day on the job.
On Friday, I made calls to various Arab states to check their interest in putting together the Arab expeditionary force Trump sought to substitute for US troops in Syria and Iraq. He had imagined that, in addition to manpower, the Arabs would pay the US “cost plus twenty-five percent,” and then he went up to “cost plus fifty percent” for our remaining forces. I could only imagine the reactions. It was clear to me, however, that without something from the Arab nations, Trump would almost certainly withdraw the few remaining US forces in Syria, and sooner rather than later. I spoke with Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani; Sheikh Tahnoon bin Zayed al-Nahyan, my counterpart in the United Arab Emirates; and Abbas Kamel, the head of Egypt’s national intelligence service. I made it clear the idea came directly from the President, and they all promised to take it very seriously. Later, explaining the background, I turned all this over to Pompeo when he became Secretary of State, saying we were going nowhere fast. He readily agreed, and there it ended.
At nine fifteen a.m., Kelly asked me to his office, saying Trump had just called, among other things wanting to revisit the strike package he had agreed to the day before. We got Mattis and Dunford on the phone and then connected to Trump, who was still in the Residence. “I don’t love the targets,” he said, “it could be criticized as nothing,” thus making essentially the point I had raised in Thursday’s NSC meeting. He was now also “a little concerned” about “chemical plumes” after the attack, although Mattis had emphasized the day before that the Defense Department didn’t think there would be any. Trump said he was thinking of tweeting that he had planned to attack but had called it off because there were no good targets anymore, although he would keep his “finger on the trigger.” I nearly imploded, and I could only imagine what Mattis and Dunford were doing. Kelly seemed nonchalant, having doubtless been through this drill countless times. “We’re knocking out nothing,” Trump repeated.
I said that we should have agreed on a heavier strike, but we were now past the point of changing our mind and doing nothing but tweeting; the others agreed. Trump was irritated at Germany and prepared to get out of NATO, and also determined to stop Nord Stream II (a natural-gas Baltic pipeline project directly connecting Russia to Germany). Nord Stream II was not directly relevant here, but once reminded of it, he asked Mnuchin to make sure he was working on it. “Don’t waste this [Syria] crisis on Merkel,” he said, referring to the pipeline project. Trump then launched into possible Russian actions in retaliation for a Syria strike, such as sinking a US Navy vessel, which Mattis assured him was very unlikely, despite the presence of several Russian warships in the Eastern Mediterranean. After more rambling, Trump seemed to settle on going ahead, and Kelly said quickly, “We’ll take that as a go order for 2100,” meaning the time now projected for Trump’s Friday night speech announcing the attack. Trump said, “Yes.” Trump’s call to Kelly, and Kelly’s intervention, reflected “how much of [my] job Kelly [was] doing,” as McMaster had put it to me the week before. Nonetheless, I was glad this time that Kelly’s experience in the Trump White House stopped the spreading chaos of this telephone discussion and allowed a fully considered (if inadequate, in my view) decision to go forward.
Fortunately, the day brought no more hiccups, and we began calling key House and Senate lawmakers. Macron called again to say that, after speaking with Putin, all seemed well in Moscow. Putin had given the standard line that Assad’s forces had not conducted a chemical-weapons attack, but it was clear that we and Macron all knew Putin was lying. Putin had also commented how unfortunate it would be in public-relations terms if Assad’s attacks had been falsely reported, from which I understood Macron to surmise that Russia was running influence campaigns in Britain and France about Syria, and possibly also in America. After the call, I stayed with Trump in the Oval for another half hour. Trump asked how things were going, observing, “This is what you’ve been practicing for.” As he had done a few days before, he raised the possibility of a pardon for Scooter Libby, which I strongly supported. I had known Libby since the Bush 41 Administration and felt his treatment in the Valerie Plame affair demonstrated all the reasons why the “independent counsel” concept was so badly flawed and so unjust. Trump signed the pardon a few hours later. In the afternoon, Stephen Miller brought in the President’s speechwriting team to talk about his evening address to the nation. The draft looked good, and at about 5:00 p.m., back in the Oval, Trump went over the speech word by word until he was satisfied. Pompeo called at about 3:40, and I congratulated him on his successful confirmation hearings on Thursday. He had asked Gina Haspel to tell Trump that he was prepared to take even stronger action against Syria, which was good to know in case things came unstuck again in the next few hours. Actual operations for the attack were well under way by the early evening. Because this was a “time-on-target” attack, some weapons were launched well before others so that they all arrived as close as possible to simultaneously on their targets.
At eight thirty, several of us walked to the Diplomatic Reception Room, where the speech would be broadcast. We did not walk through the colonnade, to avoid tipping anyone off that something was about to happen, but across the dark South Lawn, thereby getting a breathtaking close-up view of the White House illuminated at night. Trump was upstairs in the living quarters and took the elevator to the ground floor at about eight forty-five. We went quickly through the speech one more time. Trump delivered it well, shook hands with the aides around him, and returned to the living quarters. I went back to my office to pack up and head home, finding to my amazement that the West Wing was full of tourists at nine thirty at night!
The strike went nearly perfectly, with Syrian air defenses firing over forty surface-to-air missiles, none of which hit our incoming cruise missiles.24 We believed Assad was surprised by the extent of the destruction, and there were no chemical plumes. On Saturday, Trump tweeted happily about the attack and spoke with May and Macron,25 who were equally pleased with the retaliation and the Western unity it had demonstrated. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres criticized the strike for not having Security Council authorization, and therefore its inconsistency with “international law,” which some of us thought was ridiculous. I spent most of the day in the West Wing just in case follow-up activity might be needed.
Did we succeed in deterring Assad? Ultimately, we did not. After my resignation, the world learned that Assad had again used chemical weapons against civilian populations in May 2019,26 and there had likely also been other uses. In short, whereas in 2017 the US strike produced perhaps twelve months of deterrence, the somewhat larger 2018 strike produced roughly only thirteen months. And on broader Syria policy, and the handling of Iran’s growing regional hegemony, this Syria debate only underscored the confusion that would dog US policy during my tenure and beyond. To borrow Professor Edward Corwin’s famous phrase, Syria policy remained “an invitation to struggle.”
CHAPTER 3 AMERICA BREAKS FREE
On the Monday after the Syria attack, I flew with Trump to Florida, taking my first ride on Marine One from the South Lawn to Joint Base Andrews, and then Air Force One to Miami. Our destination was nearby Hialeah for a rally boosting Trump’s efforts to create a positive business climate. The over-five-hundred-strong audience consisted largely of Cuban- and Venezuelan-Americans, and when Trump introduced me, in the context of the Syria strike, I got a standing ovation. Trump, obviously surprised, asked, “Are you giving him all the credit? You know that means the end of his job.” What fun. Senator Marco Rubio, however, had foreshadowed the ovation earlier when he raised my appointment as National Security Advisor: “It’s a bad day for Maduro and Castro, and a great day for the cause of freedom.” I had long worked on these issues, and the crowd knew it even if Trump didn’t. Air Force One flew afterward to Palm Beach, and we then motorcaded to Mar-a-Lago. I continued preparing for Trump’s summit with Japanese Prime Minister Abe, with a heavy focus on North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program, the main purpose of Abe’s trip.
Even the simple task of preparing Trump for Abe’s visit turned out to be arduous, and a sign of things to come. We arranged two briefings, one largely on North Korea and security issues, and one on trade and economic issues, corresponding to the schedule of meetings between Abe and Trump. Although the first Abe-Trump meeting was on political matters, our briefing room was filled with trade-policy types who, having heard there was a briefing, wandered in. Trump was late, so I said we would have a brief discussion on trade and then get to North Korea. It was a mistake. Trump, set off by a comment that we had no better ally than Japan, jarringly complained about Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. Things went downhill from there. Before long, Abe arrived, and the session ended. I pulled Kelly aside to discuss the fruitless “briefing,” and he said, “You’re going to be very frustrated in this job.” I answered, “No, I’m not, if there are minimal rules of order. This is not a Trump problem; this is a White House staff problem.” “I don’t need a lecture from you,” Kelly shot back, and I replied, “I’m not lecturing you, I’m telling you the facts, and you know it’s true.” Kelly paused and said, “It was a mistake to let them [the trade people] in,” and we agreed to fix the problem next time. But in truth, Kelly was right and I was wrong. It was a Trump problem, and it never got fixed.
Abe and Trump first had a one-on-one meeting, and then they and their delegations convened in Mar-a-Lago’s White and Gold Ballroom, which was indeed very white and very gold, at three p.m. Abe greeted me by saying, “Welcome back,” because we had known each other for over fifteen years. As is typical at such meetings, the press mob then stampeded in, cameras rolling. Abe explained that, during the one-on-one, he and Trump had “forged a mutual understanding” that all options were on the table regarding North Korea, where we needed “maximum pressure” and the threat of overwhelming military power.1 Certainly, that was my view, although at that very moment Pompeo was busy negotiating where Trump’s summit with Kim Jong Un would occur. The Abe visit was perfectly timed to stiffen Trump’s resolve not to give away the store. After the media shuffled reluctantly out, Abe and Trump had a lengthy discussion on North Korea and then turned to trade issues.
While this meeting continued, the press was exploding on something else. In the hectic hours before the Syria strike, Trump had initially agreed to impose more sanctions on Russia. Moscow’s presence in Syria was crucial to propping up Assad’s regime, and perhaps facilitating (or at least allowing) chemical-weapons attacks and other atrocities. Afterward, however, Trump changed his mind. “We made our point,” Trump told me early Saturday morning, and we could “hit them much harder if need be later.” Moreover, the US had just imposed substantial sanctions on Russia on April 6, as required by the “Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act,”2 which Trump detested because Russia was its target. Trump believed that acknowledging Russia’s meddling in US politics, or in that of many other countries in Europe and elsewhere, would implicitly acknowledge that he had colluded with Russia in his 2016 campaign. This view is wrong as a matter of both logic and politics; Trump could have had a stronger hand dealing with Russia if he had attacked its efforts at electoral subversion, rather than ignored them, especially since the concrete actions, such as economic sanctions, taken by his Administration were actually quite robust. As for his assessment of Putin himself, he never offered an opinion, at least in front of me. I never asked what Trump’s view was, perhaps afraid of what I might hear. His personal take on the Russian leader remained a mystery.
I tried to persuade him to proceed with the new sanctions, but he wasn’t buying. I said Mnuchin and I would make sure Treasury didn’t make any announcement. Fortunately, since many senior officials were all too familiar with the roller-coaster ride of Administration decisions, there was a built-in pause before Trump’s initial approval of new sanctions would actually be carried out. A final go/no go decision was to be made on Saturday, so I told Ricky Waddell, McMaster’s Deputy and still on board, to get the word out to stop any forward motion. NSC staff informed Treasury first, then all the others, and Treasury agreed it would also alert everyone the sanctions were off.
On the Sunday-morning talk shows, however, Haley said Treasury would be announcing Russia sanctions on Monday. Immediately, there were red flags and alarm bells. Jon Lerner, Haley’s political advisor, told Waddell that the US Mission to the UN in New York knew the orders on the Russia sanctions, and said, “She [Haley] just slipped,” a breathtaking understatement. Magnetic attraction to television cameras, a common political ailment, had created the problem, but it was also a process foul: the sanctions were for Treasury to announce. The Ambassador to the UN had no role to play, except, in this case, mistakenly stealing the limelight. Trump called me at six thirty p.m. to ask how the Sunday shows had gone, and I told him about the Russia mistake and what we were doing to fix it. “Yeah, what’s up with that?” Trump asked. “This is too much.” I explained what Haley had done, and Trump said, “She’s not a student, you know. Call the Russians and tell them.” That I did, ringing Moscow’s US Ambassador, Anatoly Antonov, whom I knew from the Bush 43 Administration, shortly thereafter. I wasn’t about to tell him what had actually happened, so I just said Haley had made an honest mistake. Antonov was a lonely man, since people in Washington were now afraid to be seen talking to Russians, so I invited him to the White House to meet. This pleased Trump when I later debriefed him, because now we could start talking about the meeting he wanted with Putin. I also filled in Pompeo on Haley and the day’s Russia events, and I sensed over the phone he was shaking his head in dismay.
Notwithstanding that Moscow was calm, the US press on Monday was raging away on the Russia sanctions story. Trump gave Sanders press guidance that we had hit Russia hard with sanctions and were considering more, hoping that would stop the bleeding caused by Haley’s comments. I spoke to State’s Acting Secretary, John Sullivan, who agreed State bore some generic responsibility, since in the Tillerson-Haley days, there had been essentially no communication between State and our UN mission in New York. Haley was a free electron, which she had obviously gotten used to, communicating directly with Trump. I told Sullivan of the screaming matches between Al Haig and Jeane Kirkpatrick in the early days of the Reagan Administration, and Sullivan laughed, “At least they were talking.”
By Tuesday, the press was still baying away. Haley called me at nine forty-five, worried about being left out on a limb: “I’m not going to take it. I don’t want to have to answer for it.” She denied she or the US mission had been informed of the Saturday rollback. I said I would check further, even though her own staff had admitted on Sunday that she had made a misstep. I had Waddell check again with Treasury, which was getting tired of being blamed. They emphasized they had made clear to everyone on Friday, including the UN Ambassador’s representative, that, whatever Trump’s decision, no announcement would be made until Monday morning, just before US markets opened. I thought that was a telling point. Treasury also confirmed they had called around on Saturday, as the NSC staff had done, to follow up. And anyway, why should our UN Ambassador make the announcement? Waddell spoke again with Haley aide Jon Lerner, who said, “She shouldn’t have done it… it was a slip of the tongue.” Meanwhile, Trump groused about how the press was spinning what was, without doubt, a reversal of policy, because he worried it made him look weak on Russia.
The wildfire, however, was about to break out on another front, as Larry Kudlow briefed the press on the Trump-Abe discussions. Sanders wanted me to join Kudlow, but I chose not to, for the same reason I declined to go on the Sunday talk shows: I didn’t see any point in being a TV star in my first week on the job. In live coverage of Kudlow’s briefing, asked the inevitable question about the Russia sanctions, Kudlow said there had been some momentary confusion and then made the points Trump had dictated to Sanders on Air Force One. Haley immediately fired off a message to Fox’s Dana Perino: “With all due respect, I don’t get confused,” and, boom, the war was on again, at least for a while. Haley got a good book title out of the incident. But, with all due respect, Haley wasn’t confused. She was wrong.
After Trump and Abe golfed on Wednesday morning, there was a working lunch, largely on trade matters, which did not begin until three p.m. The two leaders held a joint press conference, and a dinner between the two delegations started at seven fifteen, a lot of food in a short period. I flew back to Washington on the First Lady’s plane, considering this summit a real success on substantive issues like North Korea.
My focus now, however, was Iran, and the opportunity presented by the next sanctions waiver decision, on May 12, to force the issue of withdrawal. Pompeo had called me in Florida on Tuesday evening, spun up about what to do on the Iran nuclear deal. I couldn’t tell if he was still wired after his difficult confirmation process, which was entirely understandable, or if he was being played by people at State who were getting increasingly agitated that we might finally withdraw. After a difficult, sometimes testy, back-and-forth about the inevitable criticism from the High-Minded a withdrawal decision would cause, Pompeo said he would have State think more thoroughly about what would follow from our exit, something they had adamantly resisted doing thus far. I worried that Pompeo’s evident nervousness about blowing away the Iran nuclear deal could lead to even more delay. Knowing that State’s bureaucracy would seize on indecisiveness to obstruct the demise of yet another hallowed international agreement, hesitation at the Administration’s political level could be fatal.
Trump stayed in Florida the rest of the week, but back in Washington, I focused on Iran. I had long believed that Iran’s nuclear threat, while not as advanced operationally as North Korea’s, was as dangerous, potentially more so because of the revolutionary theological obsessions motivating its leaders. Tehran’s nuclear program (as well as its chemical and biological weapons work) and its ballistic-missile capabilities made it both a regional and global threat. In the already tense Middle East, Iran’s progress in the nuclear field inspired others—Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia—to take steps ultimately consistent with having their own nuclear-weapons capabilities, evidence of the proliferation phenomenon at work. Iran also had the dubious distinction of being the world’s central banker of international terrorism, with an active record particularly in the Middle East of supporting terrorist groups with weapons and finance, and by deploying its own conventional military capabilities in foreign countries in aid of its strategic objectives. And after forty years, the fervor of Iran’s Islamic Revolution showed no signs of abating in its political and military leaders.
I met with the UK’s Mark Sedwill, then with my German counterpart, Jan Hecker, and spoke at length by phone with France’s Philippe Étienne. While I said repeatedly no final decision had been made, I also tried every way possible to explain there was no avenue for “fixing” the agreement, as the State Department had pleaded for well over a year. For all three of my counterparts, and their governments, this was hard news. That was why I kept repeating it, knowing, or at least hoping, that Trump would withdraw from the deal in a matter of weeks. The news would be a thunderclap, and I wanted to be certain I did everything possible so that our closest allies were not surprised. With imminent visits to the White House by Macron and Merkel, there were ample opportunities for full discussion of these issues, but they needed to know in advance that this time Trump meant to get out. Probably.
I expected, despite his wobble when I was at Mar-a-Lago, that Pompeo would instill some discipline at State, but he had run into a confirmation problem with Rand Paul. Paul eventually declared support for Pompeo, in exchange for Pompeo’s saying (1) that the 2003 Iraq war had been a mistake, and (2) at least according to a Paul tweet, that regime change was a bad idea and that we should withdraw from Afghanistan as soon as possible. I felt sorry for Pompeo, because I was sure those were not his real views. I was never faced with having to recant my views in order to get a vote, or even to get the NSC job from Trump, so I never had to make the decision Pompeo faced. State’s John Sullivan told me later that day about his courtesy call with Paul during his confirmation process. Paul had said he would vote for Sullivan for one reason only: “Your name is not John Bolton.” Kelly had also told me that, in the course of the Pompeo negotiations, Paul said I was “the worst fucking decision” Trump had made. Kelly replied, “He seems like a nice guy to me,” which set Paul off on another tirade. It all made me proud.
During these hectic first two weeks, I also participated in several trade-related meetings and calls. I was a free trader, but I agreed with Trump that many international agreements reflected not true “free trade” but managed trade and were far from advantageous to the US. I particularly agreed that China had gamed the system. It pursued mercantilist policies in the supposedly free-trade World Trade Organization (WTO), all the while stealing US intellectual property and engaging in forced technology transfers that robbed us of incalculable capital and commerce over decades. Trump understood that a strong domestic US economy was critical to the effective projection of US political and military power (not, as I began to understand, that he wanted to do much projecting), which precept applied to China and everyone else. And I had no truck whatever with WTO decision-making and adjudication processes that were intended to subsume national decision-making. I completely agreed on this point with US Trade Representative Bob Lighthizer, a former colleague from Covington & Burling, where we had been associates together in the mid-1970s.
Decision-making on trade issues under Trump, however, was painful. There could have been an orderly path, using the NSC’s interagency structure, cochaired with Kudlow’s National Economic Council, to develop trade-policy options, but there was only one person who thought that was a good idea: me. Instead, the issues were discussed in weekly meetings, chaired by Trump, in the Roosevelt Room or the Oval, that more closely resembled college food fights than careful decision-making, with no lower-level interagency effort to sort the issues and the options. After these sessions, had I believed in yoga, I probably could have used some. I attended my first trade meeting in late April, in preparation for a Mnuchin-Lighthizer trip to Beijing. Trump allowed as how “tariffs are a man’s best friend,” which was chilling, but at least he said to Mnuchin, “You’re going to China to kick their ass.” That I liked. Looking at me, Trump said China was strictly enforcing sanctions against North Korea because they feared a trade war with us, which was only partially correct: In my view, China was not strictly enforcing sanctions.3 Mnuchin and Kudlow predicted a global depression if a real trade war erupted, but Trump brushed them aside: “The Chinese don’t give a shit about us; they are cold-blooded killers [on trade].” I could see that trade issues would be a wild ride.
Macron arrived on April 24 for the Trump Administration’s first State visit, replete with a ceremony that must have impressed even the French. Sadly for the press, nothing went wrong. The French and US delegations lined up on the South Lawn, with the President and First Lady in the Diplomatic Reception Room, waiting for the Macrons to arrive, and the military bands playing away. I asked Dunford at one point the name of one of the songs, and he asked the Washington Military District’s commander, but neither of them knew. “Another disappointment,” said Dunford, and we both laughed. The military pageantry was impressive, especially when the Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps, dressed in Revolutionary War uniforms, marched in review, playing “Yankee Doodle.” It made up for a lot of bureaucratic agony.
Before the Macron-Trump one-on-one in the Oval, the press mob shambled in for the customary pictures and questions. Trump characterized the Iran deal as “insane,” “ridiculous,” and the like.4 I wondered if this time people would take it seriously. With the press cleared from the Oval, Trump and Macron spoke alone for much longer than expected, the bulk of which consisted, as Trump told me later, of his explaining to Macron that we were exiting the Iran deal.5 Macron tried to persuade Trump not to withdraw but failed. Instead, Macron worked to ensnare Trump in a larger negotiating framework of “four pillars” that was discussed in the expanded meeting in the Cabinet Room after the one-on-one (the four pillars being: handling Iran’s nuclear program now; handling it tomorrow; Iran’s ballistic-missile program; and regional peace and security).6 Macron was a clever politician, trying to spin a clear defeat into something that sounded at least somewhat positive from his perspective. Speaking almost entirely in English during the meeting, he said unambiguously about the agreement: “No one thinks it’s a sufficient deal,”7 arguing we should work for “a new comprehensive agreement” based on the four pillars. During the meeting, Trump asked for my opinion of the Iran deal. I said it wouldn’t stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons and that there was no way to “fix” the deal’s basic flaws. Knowing of Trump’s penchant to deal on anything, I mentioned Eisenhower’s famous observation “If you can’t solve a problem, enlarge it,” and said I thought that was what Macron seemed to be doing. It was something we could explore after withdrawing and reimposing US sanctions, which Mnuchin affirmed we were “completely ready” to do.
Said Trump the builder, “You can’t build on a bad foundation. Kerry made a bad deal. I’m not saying what I’m going to do, but if I end the deal, I’m open to making a new deal. I’d rather try to solve everything than leave it like it is.” We should, he said, “get a new deal rather than fixing a bad deal.”8 (Macron told Trump in a subsequent call that he was eager to rush to find a new deal, which didn’t produce any resonance from Trump.) The meeting then turned to trade and other issues, and broke around 12:25 to prepare for the joint press conference. At that event, neither leader said much that was new or different on Iran, although, at one point, Trump observed, “nobody knows what I’m going to do…, although, Mr. President, you have a pretty good idea.”9 Later, the black-tie state dinner was very nice, if you like eating until 10:30 at night. Even at that, Gretchen and I skipped the subsequent entertainment, as did John Kelly and his wife, Karen, whom we ran into as we all picked up briefcases and work clothes from our offices on the way home.
Preparations to leave the deal took a giant step forward when Mattis agreed on April 25, “If you decide to withdraw, I can live with it.” Hardly an enthusiastic endorsement, but it at least signaled that Mattis wouldn’t die in a ditch over it. Even so, Mattis extensively restated his opposition to withdrawal every chance he got, to which Trump said resolutely a few days later, “I can’t stay in.” That was the definitive statement that we were leaving. Later in the morning of April 25, Trump again emphasized to me that he wanted Mnuchin fully ready with “the heaviest possible sanctions” when we exited. I also met that morning with Étienne, and my clear impression was that Macron had not briefed the French side fully on the one-on-one with Trump. This was excellent news, since it meant Macron fully understood that Trump had told him we were about to withdraw.
The Trump-Merkel April 27 summit was a “working visit” rather than a “state visit,” so not as grand as Macron’s. Trump’s one-on-one with Merkel lasted only fifteen minutes before the larger Cabinet Room meeting, which he opened by complaining about Germany’s “feeding the beast” (meaning Russia) through the Nord Stream II pipeline, moving on to the European Union (EU), which he thought treated the US horribly. It was clear to me that Trump thought Germany was Russia’s captive. Trump also used a line I later heard countless times, that “the EU is worse than China except smaller,”10 adding that the EU was set up to take advantage of the US, which Merkel disputed (in English, as the whole meeting was). She also asked for three to four months’ delay in imposing global steel and aluminum tariffs Trump was considering, so the EU could negotiate with the US. Trump answered that he didn’t want to negotiate with the EU. Too bad he didn’t feel that way about North Korea, I thought to myself.11 Trump had already turned to Germany’s failure to meet its NATO commitment to increase defense expenditures to 2 percent of GDP, describing Merkel as one of the great tap dancers on NATO, which she was now doing on trade.12 Merkel kept pressing for an extension, even two months, on the tariffs, but Trump said it would be a waste of time, just like NATO. He asked when Germany would reach 2 percent, and Merkel answered 2030, innocently, which caused even Germans to smile and Trump to say that she had been saying the same thing for sixteen months. On tariffs, Merkel finally said he could do whatever he wanted because he was a free man.
Mention of Iran was desultory. Merkel asked us to stay in the deal, and Trump reacted with indifference. At the press event, Trump said of Iran, “They will not be doing nuclear weapons,” and that was pretty much it. Possibly more eventful was yet another putative Israeli attack on Iranian positions in Syria the day after,13 which Mattis and others at the Pentagon worried could prompt Iranian retaliation (probably through surrogate Shia militia groups in Iraq) on US forces. None happened, and in any event Trump seemed unconcerned. Briefing Netanyahu on his Iran thinking, Trump said that the whole deal was based on lies, Iran had played the United States for fools, and that Israel should feel free to flay the deal publicly, which of course Netanyahu was already busily doing.
As the days went by, I quietly confirmed with Mnuchin, Haley, Coats, Haspel and others that everything pointed to an early May withdrawal from the Iran deal, and that we all needed to think of the decision’s appropriate rollout and follow-up steps in our respective areas. Mnuchin insisted he needed six months to get the sanctions back in place, which I couldn’t understand. Why not make the reimposed sanctions effective immediately, with some short grace period, say three months, to allow businesses to adjust existing contracts and the like? This was a perennial problem with Treasury under Mnuchin. He seemed as concerned with mitigating the impact of sanctions as with imposing them to begin with. No wonder Iran, North Korea, and others were so good at evading sanctions: they had plenty of time to get ready under Mnuchin’s approach (which was, in essence, the same as Obama’s). Pompeo agreed with me that the sanctions should take immediate effect. We did score a small victory when Mnuchin reduced the “wind-down” period on most goods and services from 180 days to 90 days, except for oil and insurance, which he kept at 180 days. Of course, oil was the overwhelmingly most important economic issue at stake, so Mnuchin’s retreat was hardly significant. And we were not talking just about “winding down” existing contracts, but a grace period within which new contracts could be entered and performed with no prohibition at all. It was unnecessarily self-defeating.
Pompeo, Mattis, and I had our first weekly breakfast at the Pentagon on May 2 at six a.m., and Mattis continued to make his case against withdrawing. It was clear that Trump had made up his mind. Throughout the rest of the day and the week, and over the weekend, preparations intensified for the withdrawal announcement, particularly drafting the official presidential decision document, to make sure there were no loopholes that supporters could crawl back through. Stephen Miller and his speechwriters were also working away on Trump’s speech, which was progressing well. Trump had plenty to add, so the drafting went right until the text had to be prepared for the teleprompters. Although I had aimed for Trump’s announcement to be on May 7, Sanders told me that the First Lady had an event scheduled that day, so we moved the withdrawal to May 8. Thus are weighty matters of state disposed. And, in fact, even there Trump wavered, wondering about one date or another, literally until almost the last minute.
There was a final, perfunctory Trump-May phone call on Iran and other issues on Saturday, May 5,14 and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson arrived in Washington Sunday night for further discussions. That night as well, Mattis sent me a classified document at home again opposing the withdrawal, but still not requesting a high-level meeting to discuss it. I felt like saying that his position was well preserved and well papered for history, but I refrained. The Pentagon still wasn’t telling us what it would have to do operationally if the US withdrew, having moved from overt opposition into guerilla warfare. It didn’t slow us down.
I saw Johnson in my office at nine a.m. Monday, having first met him in London in 2017, discussing Iran and North Korea at length. We reviewed Trump’s recent meetings with Macron and Merkel, and Macron’s “four pillars” idea; Johnson said they had been thinking along the same lines. I said I would be happy to call the idea “Johnson’s four pillars,” and we all laughingly agreed. He, like Macron, stressed that Britain fully understood the existing deal’s weaknesses, which would have surprised many supporters who still worshipped at its altar.15 I explained why the announcement would be coming soon, although, knowing Trump, I did not say it would be the next day. We would not then simply lapse into inaction but would bring back into force all the nuclear-related US sanctions the deal had put on ice. As we parted, I reminded Johnson that I had said to him the previous summer that I wanted to help out on Brexit, and still did, although we had had little chance to talk about it. I spoke later with Sedwill about this conversation and was later on the phone with Étienne when he exclaimed that Trump had just tweeted:
No suspense left there. Étienne had been watching Trump’s tweets more carefully than I! There was little doubt what was coming, which I confirmed to Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer and a few others, not that anyone needed much explanation.
On D-day itself, Trump called China’s Xi Jinping at eight thirty a.m. on several issues, including North Korea. Trump said he would be making a statement on Iran shortly and asked, in an almost childlike way, if Xi wanted to know what he would say. Xi said it sounded like Trump wanted to tell him, a completely on-target insight. Trump, in a “why not?” moment, said that, feeling trust in confiding in Xi, he was terminating the nuclear deal, which was bad, and that we would see what happened. Xi said he would keep the news confidential, adding simply that the US knew China’s position, meaning Xi did not plan to make it a major bilateral issue. Macron called and asked what Trump planned to say on Iran, but Trump wanted to be sure Macron would be circumspect. He admonished Macron not to make it public, asking for Macron’s word. Macron replied affirmatively, believing that Iran should not leave the deal, nor would France as they worked to achieve a comprehensive new deal, as the two leaders had discussed previously. Trump didn’t think Iran would exit, because they were making too much money. Trump mused that at some point he should meet with Iranian President Rouhani, flattering Macron as the best of the Europeans, and that he should tell Rouhani Trump was right.
Trump delivered the speech at about two fifteen p.m., which went according to script, with Pence, Mnuchin, Ivanka, Sanders, and myself in attendance. Afterward, we all walked back to the Oval Office feeling things had gone off as planned and that the speech would be well received. A few minutes after two thirty, I conducted a close encounter with reporters in the White House briefing room, which was on the record but not on camera so that the media pictures would be, appropriately, of the President giving his speech. With that, we were done.
It had taken one month to shred the Iran nuclear deal, showing how easy it was to do once somebody took events in hand. I did my best to prepare our allies Britain, Germany, and France for what happened, because they had seemed completely unready for a possible US withdrawal. A lot remained to be done to bring Iran to its knees, or to overthrow the regime, Trump’s stated policy to the contrary notwithstanding, but we were off to a great start.
For several months after the withdrawal, work proceeded to follow up on Trump’s decision to reimpose economic sanctions, and to take other steps to increase pressure on Tehran consistent with his decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal. Basically, the initial plan was to bring back into effect all the previous sanctions suspended by Obama’s nuclear deal and then make adjustments to close loopholes, increase enforcement activity, and turn the campaign into “maximum pressure” on Iran.16 By July 26, it was time to hold a restricted Principals Committee meeting to see how we were doing, which we did at two p.m. in the Sit Room. The most interesting part of the meeting was Mattis’s efforts to downplay the overall importance of Iran in the international threat matrix facing the US. He said Russia, China, and North Korea were bigger threats, although his reasons were vague, and I was pleased to see Pompeo and Mnuchin both push back, given that Iran was one of the top four threats identified in the National Security Strategy Trump had approved before my arrival. But the ghost of Mattis’s protestations about taking Iran seriously would dog us right until the end of 2018, when he departed, and beyond. So momentous was this meeting that it leaked to the press and was reported the next day.17 In the meantime, Iran’s currency was dropping through the floor.
In mid-August 2018, and then again in January 2019, I traveled to Israel to meet with Netanyahu and other key Israeli officials on a range of issues, but especially Iran. This was existential for Israel, and Netanyahu had become the leading strategist on rolling back Iran’s nuclear-weapons and ballistic-missile programs. He also clearly understood that regime change was far and away the most likely way to permanently alter Iranian behavior. Even if that was not the Trump Administration’s declared policy, it certainly could happen as the effects of sanctions took hold. Moreover, given the views of the Middle East’s Arab oil-producing states, there was, and had been tacitly for years, agreement on the common threat Iran posed to them and Israel among themselves, albeit for different reasons. This Iran consensus was also contemporaneously making possible a new push to resolve the Israel-Palestine dispute, which strategically could very much benefit America. Whether we could make the most of these new alignments operationally, of course, was very different.
By early September, attacks on the US embassy in Baghdad and the US consulate in Basra, undoubtedly, in my view, by Shia militia groups acting at Iran’s behest, revealed new tensions within the Administration, as many in State and Defense resisted forceful responses.18 The unwillingness to retaliate, thereby raising the costs to the attackers and hopefully deterring them in the future, reflected the hangover of Obama-era policies. Even twenty months into the Trump presidency, new appointees and new policies were not yet in place. If it were still early 2017, the problem might have been understandable, but it was sheer malpractice that bureaucratic inertia persisted in such critical policy areas. The debate over responding to these sorts of attacks lasted right through my tenure, because of obstructionism and Trump’s impulsive desires to reduce America’s troop presence in the region, leading uniformly in a more passive direction. For all that Trump hated about the Obama Administration, it was no small irony that his own idiosyncratic views simply reinforced the bureaucracy’s existing tendencies, all to the detriment of US interests in the Middle East more broadly.
I was also troubled by Treasury’s unwillingness to bear down on Iran’s participation in the global financial messaging system known as SWIFT. There was considerable interest among congressional Republicans in stopping Iran’s continued connection to the system, but Mnuchin and Treasury objected. They had understandable concerns, but invariably they pushed for no change in existing policy, the characteristic attribute of bureaucratic inertia. The real answer was to squeeze Iran ever harder and work to find more ways to comprehensively monitor Iran, not to give it a pass simply to continue with monitoring mechanisms that could be replaced and perhaps even improved with a little effort.19 The NSC staff and I kept pushing on this, largely behind the scenes, and succeeded later in the year, but even more difficult obstacles to our Iran policy emerged in the coming year.
CHAPTER 4 THE SINGAPORE SLING
Even as we neared withdrawing from the wretched Iran nuclear deal, Trump’s focus on North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program resumed. The more I learned, the more discouraged and pessimistic I became about a Trump-Kim summit. I was deeply skeptical of efforts to negotiate the North out of its nuclear-weapons program,1 which Pyongyang had already sold many times to the US and others in exchange for economic benefits. Despite breaching its commitments repeatedly, North Korea always cajoled a gullible America back to the negotiating table to make more concessions, ceding time to a proliferator, which invariably benefits from delay. Here we were, at it again, having learned nothing. Worse, we were legitimizing Kim Jong Un, commandant of the North Korean prison camp, by giving him a free meeting with Trump. It called to mind Winston Churchill’s dark 1935 observation about Britain’s failed policies toward Germany:
When the situation was manageable, it was neglected, and now that it is thoroughly out of hand, we apply too late the remedies which then might have effected a cure. There is nothing new in the story. It is as old as the Sibylline books. It falls into that long, dismal catalogue of the fruitlessness of experience, and the confirmed unteachability of mankind. Want of foresight, unwillingness to act when action would be simple and effective, lack of clear thinking, confusion of counsel until emergency comes, until self-preservation strikes its jarring gong—these are the features which constitute the endless repetition of history.2
Having endured eight years of Obama mistakes, which I constantly feared would include dangerous concessions to North Korea, as his Iran policy had, not to mention the Bush 43 Administration’s failed Six-Party Talks and Clinton’s failed Agreed Framework, I was sick at heart over Trump’s zeal to meet with Kim Jong Un. Pompeo told me that Trump’s fascination with meeting Kim dated to the Administration’s outset; clearly the options were very limited.
On April 12, in the midst of the Syria whirlwind, I met with my South Korean counterpart, Chung Eui-yong, Director of their National Security Office. In March, in the Oval, Chung had extended Kim’s invitation to meet to Trump, who accepted on the spur of the moment. Ironically, Chung later all but admitted that it was he who had suggested to Kim that he make the invitation in the first place!3 This whole diplomatic fandango was South Korea’s creation, relating more to its “unification” agenda than serious strategy on Kim’s part or ours. The South’s understanding of our terms to denuclearize North Korea bore no relationship to fundamental US national interests, from my perspective. It was risky theatrics, in my view, not substance. I urged Chung to avoid discussing denuclearization at the upcoming April 27 North-South summit, to prevent Pyongyang from driving a wedge between South Korea, Japan, and the US, one of its favorite diplomatic strategies. I told Trump that we needed the closest possible coordination with Moon Jae-in to avoid North Korea’s engineering a split between Washington and Seoul. I wanted to preserve US–South Korean alignment, and avoid the headline “Trump rejects South Korea compromise,” but he seemed unconcerned.
Later in the morning, I met with my Japanese counterpart, Shotaro Yachi, who wanted me to hear their perspective as soon as possible. Tokyo’s view of the looming Trump-Kim meeting was 180 degrees from South Korea’s—in short, pretty much like my own. Yachi said they believed the North’s determination to get nuclear weapons was fixed, and that we were nearing the last chance for a peaceful solution. Japan wanted none of the “action for action” formula that characterized Bush 43’s failed Six-Party Talks.4 “Action for action” sounded reasonable, but it inevitably worked to benefit North Korea (or any proliferator) by front-loading economic benefits to the North but dragging out dismantling the nuclear program into the indefinite future. The marginal benefits to Pyongyang of even modest economic aid (or release from pain, like easing sanctions) was much greater than the marginal benefits to us of the step-by-step elimination of the nuclear program. Kim Jong Un knew this just as well as we did. At that point, Japan wanted dismantlement to begin immediately upon a Trump-Kim agreement and to take no longer than two years. I urged, however, based on the experience in Libya, that dismantlement should take only six to nine months. Yachi only smiled in response, but when Abe met Trump at Mar-a-Lago the following week (see chapter 3), Abe asked for dismantlement to take six to nine months!5 Yachi also stressed North Korea’s abduction of Japanese citizens over many years, a powerfully emotional issue in Japan’s public opinion and a key element in Abe’s successful political career. At Mar-a-Lago and later, Trump committed to pursuing this issue and followed through faithfully in every subsequent encounter with Kim Jong Un.
Pompeo, the Administration’s initial contact for North Korea as CIA Director, was already negotiating the summit’s venue and date, and the prospect of releasing three American hostages. Kim wanted the meeting in Pyongyang or Panmunjom, both of which Pompeo and I agreed were nonstarters. Pompeo saw Geneva and Singapore as the two most acceptable choices, but Kim didn’t like to fly. North Korea’s rickety airplanes couldn’t reach either city anyway, and he didn’t want to be too far from Pyongyang. My hope: maybe the whole thing would collapse!
At Mar-a-Lago, Abe spoke at length about North Korea’s nuclear program, stressing as had Yachi in our earlier meeting in Washington, that we needed a truly effective agreement, unlike the Iran nuclear deal which Trump had so frequently criticized, and which the Obama Administration itself had emphasized was not even signed.6 Of course, Pyongyang was just as capable of lying about a signed as an unsigned document, but it might just trip them up. Abe also urged Japan’s long-standing positions that, in discussing ballistic missiles, we include short- and medium-range missiles (which could hit significant parts of Japan’s home islands) as well as ICBMs (which the North needed to hit the continental United States). Similarly, Japan also wanted to eliminate the North’s biological and chemical weapons, which I agreed should be part of any agreement with Pyongyang.7 Trump asked Abe what he thought of Kim’s recent visit to see Xi Jinping in China, and Abe said it reflected the impact of America’s implicit threat to use military force, and the cutoff, under international sanctions, of much of the oil flow from China. Abe emphasized that the US strike against Syria a few days before had sent a strong signal to North Korea and Russia. Kim Jong Un’s father, Kim Jong Il, had been frightened when Bush 43 included the North in the “Axis of Evil,” and military pressure was the best leverage on Pyongyang. I thought Abe’s convincing presentation would sway Trump, but the impact turned out to be limited. The Japanese had the same sense that Trump needed continual reminders, which explained why Abe conferred so frequently with Trump on North Korea throughout the Administration.
On April 21, the North announced with great fanfare that it was forgoing further nuclear and ballistic-missile testing because it was already a nuclear power. The credulous media took this as a major step forward, and Trump called it “big progress.”8 I saw just another propaganda ploy. If the necessary testing were now concluded, Pyongyang could simply complete the work necessary for weapons and delivery-system production capability. Chung returned on April 24 before Moon’s inter-Korean summit with Kim at the DMZ. I was relieved Chung contemplated that the leaders’ “Panmunjom Declaration” would only be two pages, which meant whatever it said about denuclearization could not be very specific. I sensed that South Korea believed Kim Jong Un was desperate for a deal because of the pressure imposed by sanctions, and that economic development was the North’s top priority, now that it was a “nuclear-weapons state.” I did not find this reasoning comforting. Meanwhile, Pompeo was narrowing the options on timing and location for the Trump-Kim meeting, probably June 12 or 13, in either Geneva or Singapore.
The April 27 Moon-Kim festival at the DMZ had everything but doves with olive branches flying around but was actually almost substance-free. On Friday morning Washington time, I gave Trump a copy of a New York Times op-ed by Nick Eberstadt,9 one of America’s most astute Korea watchers, which rightly called the summit “P. T. Barnum–style, a-sucker-is-born-every-minute diplomacy.” I didn’t think Trump would read it, but I wanted to emphasize my view that South Korea’s agenda was not always ours, and that we needed to safeguard our own interests. Fortunately, the Panmunjom Declaration was remarkably anodyne, especially on the nuclear issues. Moon called Trump on Saturday to report on his talks. He was still ecstatic. Kim had committed to “complete denuclearization,” offering to close their Punggye-ri nuclear test site. This was just another sham “concession,” like blowing up the Yongbyon reactor’s cooling tower under Kim Jong Il. Moon pushed hard for the Trump-Kim meeting to be at Panmunjom, followed immediately by a trilateral with both Koreas and the US. This was largely a Moon effort to insert himself into the ensuing photo op (as we would see again in June 2019). Trump seemed swept up in the rapture, even suggesting advancing the Kim meeting to mid-May, which was logistically impossible. Fortunately, Moon conceded that Kim preferred Singapore, which helped nail down the venue. Trump said finally that Pompeo and I would work with Moon on the dates, which was reassuring.
Moon had asked Kim to denuclearize in one year, and he had agreed, agreeably close to a timeframe I had suggested.10 Ironically, in the months that followed, it was harder to get State to agree to a one-year schedule than to persuade Kim. The two leaders strategized about how to proceed, and Trump asked Moon to specify what we should request from North Korea, which was quite helpful. This was clever diplomacy, because whatever Moon wrote, he could hardly object if we asked for it, and if we were tougher than Moon, he had at least had his say. Moon complimented Trump’s leadership. In turn, Trump pressed him to tell South Korea’s media how much Trump was responsible for all this. He then spoke with Abe, to strategize further about the Trump-Kim Summit in light of Moon’s report on his meeting with Kim. Abe repeated all the key points he had made at Mar-a-Lago, in contrast with Moon’s over-optimistic perspective. Not trusting Kim, Japan wanted concrete, unambiguous commitments, on both the nuclear and the abductee issues. Abe stressed to Trump that he was tougher than Obama, showing clearly that Abe thought it necessary to remind Trump of that point.
I spoke later with Pompeo, then traveling in the Middle East, who listened to the Abe and Moon calls from there. The Moon call especially had been “a near-death experience,” I said, and Pompeo responded, “Having cardiac arrest in Saudi Arabia.” After a few more gyrations, we settled on Singapore for the summit meeting on June 12 and 13. On Monday morning, Trump called me about my appearances on two of the Sunday talk shows, where much of the discussion concerned North Korea. I had been “very good on television,” he said, but I needed to praise him more because “there’s never been anything like this before.” After all, Moon said he would recommend Trump for the Nobel Peace Prize. Trump said, however, that he didn’t like my reference to the “Libya model” for denuclearizing North Korea because of Muammar Qaddafi’s overthrow seven years later during the completely unrelated Middle East Arab Spring. I tried explaining that the “model” for nonproliferation analysts was completely removing Libya’s nuclear program, not Qaddafi’s subsequent unpredictable demise.
History showed that I didn’t get through. Trump failed to understand that the unforeseen Arab Spring, which swept dramatically through the region beginning in 2011, was the reason for Qaddafi’s subsequent downfall, not his 2003 renunciation of nuclear weapons. This was not Trump’s error alone. Many engaged in the classic logical fallacy of “post hoc, ergo propter hoc” (“after this, therefore because of this”), exemplified in this sentence from a 2019 New York Times story: “Libya’s dictator, Muammar el-Qaddafi, was killed in 2011 after relinquishing his country’s nascent nuclear program.”11 Nonetheless, Trump ended the conversation by saying, “Great job.” Ironically, Trump himself said at a later press conference that when he referred to “the Libya model” he meant the “total decimation” of Libya: “Now, that model would take place [with North Korea] if we don’t make a deal, most likely.”12 A few minutes after Trump made those remarks, the Vice President gave me a high five and said, “He’s got your back!” Trump himself said, “You’re clear, I fixed it!”
There were also significant developments on the hostage front, where we were getting increasing indications that North Korea would release three US prisoners if Pompeo personally flew to the North to receive them and return them to America. He and I didn’t like the idea of his going to Pyongyang, but freeing the hostages was sufficiently important that we decided to swallow it. (Trump cared nothing about who picked up the hostages, not seeing it as an issue.) Chung came to see me a third time on May 4, providing more details on the Panmunjom meeting. He stressed that he had pushed Kim hard to agree to “complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization,” which had long been our formulation going back to the Bush 43 Administration,13 and would be an important rhetorical step for North Korea. According to Moon, Kim had seemed amenable, in the pre-Singapore context, but Kim never made the commitment publicly. Moon urged Kim to reach “a big deal” with Trump, after which specifics could be discussed at working levels, stressing that whatever benefits the North might receive would come after accomplishing denuclearization. Kim, said Chung, said that he understood all this. Moon wanted to confer with Trump in Washington in mid to late May before the Trump-Kim summit, which we ultimately agreed to. Later that day, Japan’s Yachi also came to my office to discuss the Moon-Kim summit, showing just how closely Japan followed the entire process. Yachi wanted to counter the euphoria emanating from Seoul, not that I was overcome by it, stressing we should not fall for the North’s traditional “action for action” approach.
Pompeo left for Pyongyang on Tuesday, May 8, picked up the three American hostages, and returned with them to Washington, arriving at Andrews after two a.m. on Thursday morning. Trump greeted the returning men in an incredible, hastily arranged, middle-of-the-night, broadcast-live arrival ceremony. The three released Americans were understandably exuberant, raising their arms in celebration when they exited the plane into the bright spotlights. They loved speaking to the press and were the hit of the night, enjoying, thankfully, a return from North Korea far different from that of the fatally tortured and brutalized Otto Warmbier. The Marine One flight back to the White House, passing very near the illuminated Washington Monument, was almost surreal. Trump was on cloud nine, even at three thirty a.m., when we landed on the South Lawn, because this was a success even the hostile media could not diminish.
Maneuverings for the Trump-Kim meeting continued apace. In particular, we worried about what China was doing to influence the North Koreans, and closely followed what key Chinese players like Yang Jiechi, China’s former Ambassador to Washington during Bush 43, former Foreign Minister, and now State Councilor (a position superior to Foreign Minister in China’s system), were saying to their counterparts and in public. I had concerns that Beijing was setting the stage to blame the United States if the talks broke down, warning that North Korean “hardliners” were undercutting Kim Jong Un for releasing the American hostages without any “reciprocity” from the US. Under this scenario, there was no consensus within the system in the North, and that strong resistance from Pyongyang’s military meant that the talks were in jeopardy before they even began. The answer? More preemptive concessions by the United States. This was one of the oldest games in the Communist playbook: frightening gullible Westerners with tales of splits between “moderates” and “hardliners” so that we accepted otherwise unpalatable outcomes to bolster the “moderates.” Chung did worry about the North’s recent announcement that only journalists would attend the “closure” of the Punggye-ri test site, not nuclear experts, as they had previously committed to. Pyongyang might just as well invite the Bobbsey Twins. While this ploy was “destroying” something rather than “building” it, Grigory Potemkin’s ghost was nonetheless undoubtedly celebrating his continued relevance.
Chung and I were on the phone constantly over the following week preparing for Moon Jae-in’s visit to Washington and the Trump-Kim Singapore meeting. We spoke repeatedly about the Punggye-ri “closure,” which was pure fluff, starting with the lack of any US or international site inspections, particularly examining the tunnels and underground facilities before any preparations for or detonations closing the adits (the tunnel entrances). By precluding such inspections, North Korea was concealing key information. Nuclear forensics experts, as was common practice, could have extrapolated significant conclusions about the size and scope of the nuclear-weapons program, other locations in the North’s nuclear gulag that we wanted disclosed and inspected, and more.14 We knew from the IAEA’s experience in Iraq in 1991 and thereafter, which I had lived through personally during the Bush 41 Administration, that there were enormous amounts of information that could be very effectively concealed without adequate, persistent on-site inspections before, during, and after any denuclearization. Subsequent international monitoring, such as the International Atomic Energy Agency’s taking soil samples outside the adits, was no substitute for inspections inside Punggye-ri mountain, as the North fully understood. This propaganda charade was evidence not of Pyongyang’s good faith but of its unmistakable bad faith. Even CNN later characterized North Korea’s approach as “like trampling on a crime scene.”15 Chung thought the issue could be raised at an inter-Korean meeting at Panmunjom later in the week, but the North canceled the meeting at the last minute, another typical Pyongyang gambit. They then expressly threatened to cancel the Trump-Kim meeting, complaining about an annual US–South Korean military exercise called “Max Thunder.” This was another propaganda ploy, but it and later complaints about these military exercises, absolutely vital to our joint military preparedness, turned out to influence Trump beyond the North’s wildest expectations.
I told Trump about this North Korean eruption at about six thirty p.m., and he said our press line should be, “Whatever the situation is, is fine with me. If they would prefer to meet, I am ready. If they would prefer not to meet, that is okay with me too. I will fully understand.” I called again at about seven o’clock and listened at length to Trump criticize the South Korean–US military exercise: he had been against it for a year, couldn’t understand why it cost so much and was so provocative, didn’t like flying B-52s from Guam to participate, and on and on and on. I couldn’t believe that the reason for these exercises—to be fully ready for a North Korean attack—hadn’t been explained before. If it had, it clearly hadn’t registered. Competent militaries exercise frequently. Especially in an alliance, joint training is critical so that the allied countries don’t cause problems for themselves in a time of crisis. “Fight tonight” was the slogan of US Forces Korea, reflecting its mission to deter and defeat aggression. A decrease in readiness could mean “fight next month,” which didn’t cut it. As I came to realize, however, Trump just didn’t want to hear about it. The exercises offended Kim Jong Un and were unnecessarily expensive. Case closed.
In the meantime, we were working on logistics for Singapore; on one critical point, Pompeo suggested that he, Kelly, and I be with Trump whenever he was around Kim, to which Kelly and I readily agreed. I also worried how cohesive we could be given the daily explosions everyone became inured to in the Trump White House. One such bizarre episode in mid-May involved disparaging remarks by Kelly Sadler, a White House communications staffer, about John McCain. Her comments, dismissing McCain and how he might vote on Gina Haspel’s nomination as CIA Director because “he’s dying anyway,” leaked to the press, immediately creating a storm. Trump wanted to promote Sadler, while others wanted to fire her, or at least make her apologize publicly for her insensitivity. Sadler refused and got away with it because Trump, who despised McCain, allowed her to. Sadler turned her own insensitivity into a weapon by accusing others of leaking, a frequent offensive tactic in the Trump White House. In an Oval Office meeting, Trump rewarded her with a hug and kiss. Although this debacle was hardly my issue, I went to see Kelly at one point, figuring that surely rational people could get an apology out of this insubordinate staffer. After a brief discussion, with just the two of us in his office, Kelly said, “You can’t imagine how desperate I am to get out of here. This is a bad place to work, as you will find out.” He was the first to see Trump in the morning and the last to see him at night, and I could only conjecture how many mistakes he had prevented during his tenure. Kelly attacked the press, fully justifiably in my view, and said, “They’re coming for you, too,” which I didn’t doubt.
North Korea continued to threaten canceling the Trump-Kim meeting and attacked me by name. This was nothing new, dating to 2002 under Bush 43, when North Korea honored me by calling me “human scum.” They attacked my citing the Libya model of denuclearization (I wondered if they had a source inside the White House who knew Trump’s reaction), saying, “We shed light on the quality of Bolton already in the past, and we do not hide our feelings of repugnance toward him.”16 Of course, it was clear to everyone on our side of the negotiations that they were really denouncing the very concept of “complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization.” South Korea remained concerned about the North’s efforts to scale back the joint military exercises. Even the dovish Moon Administration understood full well the exercises were critical to their security and worried this was yet another Pyongyang effort to drive a wedge between Seoul and Washington. Chung said the North was clearly trying to split Trump away from me, relating that at the April 27 Moon-Kim meeting, several North Korean officials asked about my role in the Trump-Kim meeting. I felt honored once again. But more important, North Korea continued denouncing the joint military exercises, now attacking Moon: “The present South Korean authorities have been clearly proven to be an ignorant and incompetent group…”17 Such attacks were the North’s not-so-subtle way of intimidating Moon into doing the North’s work for it by pressuring us, a ploy we were determined wouldn’t succeed.
More seriously, Kim’s chief of staff did not arrive in Singapore as scheduled on May 17. Preparations for the North’s paranoid leader were formidable, even if dwarfed by what it took for a US President to make such a journey. Delay in laying the groundwork could ultimately postpone or even cancel the meeting itself. By Monday, May 21, no North Korean advance team had arrived, hence there were no meetings with our team in Singapore. Trump began to wonder what was up, telling me, “I want to get out [of Singapore] before they do,” which sounded promising. He recounted how with the women he had dated, he never liked to have them break up with him; he always wanted to be the one doing the breaking up. (“Very revealing,” said Kelly when I told him later.)18 One question was whether to cancel Singapore just as Moon Jae-in came to town or wait until he departed. I urged Trump to act now, because doing so after Moon left would seem like an explicit rebuff of Moon, which was unnecessary. Trump agreed, saying, “I may tweet tonight.” At Trump’s request, I spoke with Pence and Kelly, who both agreed he should tweet away. I reported this back to Trump, and Trump started dictating what his tweet might say. After several drafts (suitably retyped by Westerhout), it (or they) emerged as:
A follow-up tweet would say:
The Oval was then filling with staffers to prepare Trump for a dinner with state governors. As he left, Trump said he would probably tweet after dinner at “eight or nine o’clock.” I returned to my office to brief Pompeo, and he said, “I get it, let’s go with the strategy.” I walked to Pence’s office to tell him about the tweets; both of us were very confident Trump would cancel Singapore that evening. But when we awoke the next morning, no tweets had emerged. Trump explained to Kelly later that his cell phone had not been working the night before, but he told me he wanted to let Moon have his say before canceling. So, it was with a distinct lack of enthusiasm that I met Chung and his colleagues for breakfast in the Ward Room, to discuss the Moon-Trump meeting later in the day. The South still wanted Moon in Singapore for a trilateral after the Trump-Kim meeting.
Another important topic in our discussion was a declaration “ending the Korean War.” I originally thought the “end-of-war declaration” was the North’s idea, but I later started to suspect that it was Moon’s, emanating from and supporting his reunification agenda, another good reason not to buy it. Substantively, the “end of war” idea had no rationale except that it sounded good. With the possibility nothing much else would emerge in Singapore, we risked legitimizing Kim Jong Un not only by having him meet with a US President, but also by holding a gauzy “peace summit” undermining economic sanctions by suggesting the North was no longer dangerous, and not just at the nuclear level. I was determined to stop anything legally binding, and also to minimize the damage of whatever objectionable document Trump might agree to. I worried about Moon’s pitching Trump on these bad ideas, but, after all, I couldn’t stop it.
I walked to Blair House to meet Pompeo ahead of our ten a.m. meeting with Moon, Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha, and Chung. Moon was characteristically optimistic about Singapore, and after an hour, I returned to the White House (Pompeo headed to State) to tell Trump what we had discussed. I joined one of the intelligence briefings Trump had every week from Director of National Intelligence Coats, CIA Director Haspel, and briefers who accompanied them. I didn’t think these briefings were terribly useful, and neither did the intelligence community, since much of the time was spent listening to Trump, rather than Trump listening to the briefers. I made several tries to improve the transmission of intelligence to Trump but failed repeatedly. It was what it was. When I arrived from Blair House, Trump was telling the briefers he had written tweets about canceling Singapore the night before but concluded he could wait a little bit longer “because there was still some chance it might come off,” and he didn’t want to cancel “before the absolute last minute.” It made me feel worse to see just how close we had come.
Moon arrived, and the two leaders soon thereafter greeted the press hordes in the Oval. The extended questioning, mostly on China issues, substantially shortened Moon’s one-on-one with Trump. After the two leaders entered the Cabinet Room, Trump opened by saying there was about a 25 percent chance the Singapore meeting would happen, which I suspect he also told Moon privately. In response, Moon stressed his support for complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization, and his optimistic view there was “a zero percent chance” Singapore wouldn’t happen. Trump was worried about appearing “too anxious,” but Moon hastened to assure him it was really North Korea that was anxious, since nothing like this had ever happened before. Trump said he wanted a structured meeting in Singapore, which shocked me (and which didn’t happen in any event). He asked why no experts were being allowed to visit Punggye-ri, and we explained that many believed, myself included, that Kim had made a verbal commitment to close the test site without really understanding what he was saying.
As if things were not already messy, Nick Ayers, the VP’s Chief of Staff, phoned in the late evening to say North Korea’s Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui had issued a stinging attack on Pence, calling him a “political dummy” and basically threatening nuclear war because of Pence’s remarks in a recent interview with Fox’s Martha MacCallum.19 Pence came on the line to suggest I tell Trump, which I set out to do immediately. After quickly obtaining and reviewing Pyongyang’s full screed, I reached Trump at ten p.m. I explained the situation and suggested we demand an apology, at least implying Singapore would be canceled without one. Trump wanted to sleep on it, which I relayed back to Pence (and which Trump also did himself). I called Pompeo at 10:25 to brief him, suggesting he join us early the next morning. As Vice President, Pence maintained the strong views on national security that he’d had during his years in the House of Representatives, and I regarded him as a consistent ally. At the same time, he followed the prudent example of other Vice Presidents who were circumspect in their advocacy of policies without knowing first where Trump was headed. I respected the inherent difficulties of his job, believing he did much of his best work in private conversations with Trump.
I went in even earlier than usual the next day, surveying the extensive Asian press coverage of the North Korean blast but noting little US coverage, probably because of the hour the statement was released. I told Kelly what had happened and said we had an eight a.m. call with Trump in the Residence. Ayers entered to say both he and Pence thought Singapore should be canceled; Kelly agreed, as did Pompeo, who had come over. We were all around the speakerphone to call Trump, and I gave a full description of the North’s attack on Pence, and the international and US press coverage. Trump asked me to read the full text of Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui’s remarks, which I did. “Jesus,” said Trump, “that’s strong.” We all agreed that so vitriolic a statement could have come only with Kim Jong Un’s express approval; this was not just some rogue official sounding off. Our critics would likely accuse us of overreacting, because, after all, North Korea frequently spoke in vitriolic terms. That was true, but it was also true prior US Administrations had simply accepted North Korea’s rhetoric without imposing consequences. That had to stop, and this was the time to do it.
Trump didn’t hesitate to cancel the Singapore meeting. He dictated a letter, which we took through several iterations but which emerged as truly Trump’s. The final version, edited for small corrections, went public about nine forty-five a.m., followed by two presidential tweets. We also drafted a statement he could read at an already-scheduled bill-signing ceremony that morning, emphasizing that “maximum pressure” on North Korea would continue. I called Singaporean Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan to tell him what was happening, catching him in Dubai while changing planes. He took the news very graciously, as he had a few weeks earlier taken the initial news that Singapore had “won” the prize of hosting the Trump-Kim summit. The South Koreans weren’t so gracious. Chung called me in the late morning to say our cancellation was a big political embarrassment to Moon, coming right after his return from Washington, a trip that had raised big expectations in South Korea. I told Chung to read carefully what Choe Son Hui had said about America’s Vice President, but he was not mollified, nor was Moon, who issued a watered-down version of Chung’s remarks to me.20 Japan’s Yachi, by contrast, said they were greatly relieved Singapore had been canceled.21 While this drama was unfolding, the North presented a little theater of its own, “closing” Punggye-ri in exactly the Potemkin-village-in-reverse style we had expected.
That very evening, less than twelve hours after announcing Singapore’s cancellation, the roof fell in. Trump seized on a slightly less belligerent statement by a different North Korean foreign ministry official to order us to get the June 12 meeting back on schedule. This was a clear mistake in my view, an open admission Trump was desperate to have the meeting at any price, which produced media reports of “head-snapping diplomacy” that unnerved our friends worldwide. Of course, the media had no clue we had also almost canceled Singapore on Monday before Trump backed away. In resurrecting the meeting, Pompeo talked to Kim Yong Chol, his counterpart in the US–North Korea negotiations when he was CIA Director, and decided this Kim would come to New York for further preparations. Pompeo, Kelly, and I agreed we should insist on a public statement by Kim Jong Un himself, rather than relying on statements by foreign ministry officials, and that we should postpone Singapore for a month as insurance. We called Trump at about 8:50 a.m. to make these recommendations, but he wasn’t having any. Instead, he rhapsodized about what an “extremely warm letter” (meaning North Korea’s statement) we had received. He didn’t want to “risk the momentum” we now had. I was tempted to respond, “What momentum?” but I stifled it. On he went: “This is a big win here. If we make a deal, it will be one of the greatest deals in history. I want to make him [Kim] and North Korea very successful.” It was depressing. We had come so close to escaping the trap.
On Saturday, we learned to our collective surprise that Moon and Kim had met for two hours earlier that day at the DMZ.22 Foreign Minister Kang told Pompeo that Kim had requested the meeting, and Moon, predictably, had immediately agreed. Chung also debriefed me, saying he had not been at the DMZ but all had gone well, with the two leaders reaffirming agreement on complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization and other matters. Kim told Moon he expected to reach a “comprehensive deal” at Singapore, for which the North was making extensive preparations. Kim had been a bit surprised by Trump’s decision to “suspend” the meeting and was very relieved the US had changed its position. Moon stressed that the US wouldn’t accept “action for action,” although he then turned around and essentially implied there could be US political compensation if the North made substantial progress on our concept of denuclearization, thus demonstrating, in my view, why we needed to get Moon out of the business of negotiating the issue. At the same time, my concern grew that some State working-level types would revert predictably and quickly into the failed Six-Party Talks approach without even noticing the change from our present approach. Meanwhile, Trump was busy tweeting there was no division on his team:
The next day at the DMZ, North Korea, led by the ever-pleasant Choe Son Hui, refused in bilateral talks with the US even to use the word “denuclearization” on the agenda for the Trump-Kim meeting. This was unhappily familiar territory and why I worried it was only a matter of time before State began to buckle, not to mention Trump, who was so eager for “success” in Singapore. We were in near-constant contact with our South Korean counterparts, and the pace of our preparations rose dramatically. Abe and the Japanese were also pouring it on, hoping they could hold Trump in line with his previous commitments. Abe told Trump on Memorial Day that the way he handled the summit was completely different from the way other US presidents had handled them, and that Kim never expected he would dare to cancel the meeting. Trump, said Abe, was now in a position of strength, obviously hoping Trump wouldn’t make his predecessors’ errors. Abe pressed Trump to advocate not just our concept of denuclearization but, reflecting Japan’s long-standing positions, also dismantling Pyongyang’s biological and chemical-weapons programs, as well as all their ballistic missiles, whatever the ranges.
I discussed the state of play with Trump the day after Memorial Day, and, unpredictably, Trump said, “We can’t have a bunch of doves take over the delegation. Tell Pompeo. I’ll have to take this deal over. We’ve got to discuss denuclearization [in the Singapore communiqué], got to have it.” Then he said, “Get the leader of the delegation on the phone,” which we did quickly, speaking to a very surprised American Foreign Service officer in Seoul. After initial pleasantries, Trump said, “I’m the one to sell the deal… you shouldn’t negotiate denuclearization, and you should tell them that. You have to say ‘denuclearization,’ with no wiggle room.” Trump allowed as how he didn’t want a “big, formal agenda” and wanted “no great formality.” That was that. A few minutes later, Pompeo called, upset Trump had spoken directly with the delegation. I explained what had happened, including my concern about weak language in the draft communiqué. “I’m right with you on that,” said Pompeo, meaning we had to discuss “denuclearization,” but it was not clear he realized State’s negotiators were not “right with” us on holding the line in the negotiations. Pompeo then told me Trump wanted to bring Kim Yong Chol to meet in the Oval Office, which Trump thought was “genius.” We both thought it was a mistake, as did Kelly when I briefed him, although Pompeo seemed resigned to it. About then, I wondered if I should just recede from the North Korea issue and let Trump own it, instead of constantly fighting rearguard actions and wild Trump policy swings. On the other hand, we were dealing with nuclear weapons in the hands of a bizarre regime, as I saw it, so I was reluctant to turn my back on it or resign.
Trump personally still seemed undecided about whether he wanted Singapore to happen. As we discussed strategy before Pompeo left for New York to meet Kim Yong Chol, he went back and forth before concluding, “I would rather have it [Singapore] than not have it. But if we don’t get denuclearization, we can’t do anything else.” He said, “[If the meeting fails] I would impose massive tariffs [either he meant sanctions, or he was referring to China, not North Korea]. I have decided to delay them for now, but they are waiting.” Then came the bottom line: “I want to go. It will be great theater.” There was no discussion of Kim Yong Chol’s coming to the White House, and Pompeo and I agreed as we walked out of the Oval that we might yet escape. That, unfortunately, overlooked the lesser Kim, who, as Pompeo said to Kelly and me shortly after nine p.m. that evening, was “hell-bent on getting in front of Trump” to hand him a letter from Kim Jong Un. Kim Yong Chol was also obdurate on all the substantive issues. The only good news was that he had no use for Moon and no interest in a trilateral summit. This was between us, with no need for the South Koreans. We got Trump on the line, Pompeo reported on the dinner, and we came finally to Kim Yong Chol’s desire to hand him Kim Jong Un’s letter. “Very elegant,” Trump exclaimed, “let’s do it.” Kelly and I explained why we opposed it, but to no avail. Neither arguments about the potential political impact nor about Kim Yong Chol himself (a brutal killer, and the man very likely personally responsible for the effectively fatal torture of Otto Warmbier) made a dent. We tried later, with the Vice President’s agreement, at least to move the meeting out of the Oval Office, but that didn’t work either. I dug out a picture of Bill Clinton sitting in the Oval with two North Korean generals, to show Pyongyang had played this game before, and even that didn’t work.
State’s Diplomatic Security people drove the lesser Kim from New York for the one p.m. Oval meeting with Trump. We met to brief Trump, and Pence tried again to persuade him to hold it somewhere else, such as the Diplomatic Reception Room. Trump wasn’t listening. In fact, he began musing about taking Kim Yong Chol to the Lincoln Bedroom, which we also tried to talk him out of. I collected the US interpreter and walked over to the Residence’s South Entrance, where Kelly was already waiting to meet the North Koreans and escort them to the Oval. While we were there, a Secret Service agent told me the President wanted me back in the Oval. I was puzzled, but downright amazed when I walked into the Oval and ran into Pence, who said neither he nor I would be in the meeting with Kim. I could tell from both Pence and Ayers that they were somewhat in shock, and Ayers said Trump wanted “to keep the meeting small”; it would just be Trump, Pompeo, and the interpreter on the US side, and Kim and his interpreter on theirs. There would be the absolute minimum number of people present to hear what Trump said. By this time, Trump was in a near frenzy, piling up standard-issue White House gifts (such as cuff links) to give away. One box was slightly creased, and Trump told Madeleine Westerhout harshly, “You’ve ruined this one, get another one.” He then berated the White House official photographer, whom he wanted to stay only briefly while Kim Yong Chol was there. I had never seen Trump so wrought up. Pence said to me, “Why don’t you hang out in my office?” which was generous; neither of us thought that handing over Kim Jong Un’s letter would take more than a few minutes. I was still stunned at being excluded, but not more stunned than Pence, who was stoical throughout.
Kim Yong Chol arrived at one fifteen, and Kelly escorted him to the Oval along the colonnade. Kelly told us later that Kim seemed very nervous, and just as they entered the West Wing, he remembered he had left Kim Jong Un’s letter in the car. The North Korean interpreter was sent racing back to retrieve it. One can only imagine Kim Yong Chol thinking about how to explain to “the Great Successor” that he had forgotten his letter. In the VP’s office, we watched the television as the press on the South Lawn desperately tried to see what was happening inside. Time dragged, to say the least. We had one light moment when Don McGahn came to tell us that Trump’s gifts were almost certainly sanctions violations, which he would have to retroactively waive. As McGahn said frequently, this was not the Bush White House. The meeting finally ended at two forty-five. Trump and Pompeo emerged from the Oval with Kim Yong Chol and walked him to the driveway where his cars were waiting, and then Trump spoke to the press on his way back to the Oval.
Once we saw that Kim had left the Oval, Pence and I went in, and Kelly gave me the original and a rough translation of Kim Jong Un’s letter to Trump, saying, “This is the only copy.” The letter was pure puffery, written probably by some clerk in North Korea’s agitprop bureau, but Trump loved it. This was the beginning of the Trump-Kim bromance. The First Family was going to Camp David for the weekend, and they had all assembled to walk to Marine One, which had landed in the interim. Trump smiled and gave me a thumbs-up as he left the Oval again.
The rest of us repaired to Pence’s office, where Kelly and Pompeo debriefed us. Kim Yong Chol had said nothing new or different about the North’s position. Clearly, what they wanted were political assurances before agreeing to any denuclearization, and Trump had seemed inclined to give them just that. Strikingly, as in earlier discussions with the North, economic sanctions seemed to be secondary. This probably meant that North Korea feared US military power more than it feared economic pressure, and also quite likely indicated that sanctions weren’t as effective as we thought. Kelly said the North could have come away with any impression they wanted regarding what Trump might do. Trump had said he was willing to reduce the US–South Korean military exercises and had gone off on a riff about how expensive and provocative they were. This may have been the worst point, because North Korea had now just heard from America’s Commander in Chief that our military capabilities on the Peninsula were up for negotiation, despite our earlier denials. This was a concession that could upset even Moon Jae-in and his “Sunshine Policy” advocates, whose calculations rested on a strong US presence. To many people, it was the US presence that allowed the South Korean political left to engage in the fantasy of the “Sunshine Policy” to begin with. If we ever left Korea, they would be effectively on their own and would feel the consequences of their foolishness, which I believed they themselves feared. As bad as it sounded, I felt we could walk Trump back off the ledge, so perhaps no real damage had been done. How could this meeting have lasted for an hour and fifteen minutes? Consecutive translation was one answer, but in truth any meeting with Trump could last that long or longer. “I’m a talker,” I heard him say several times during my tenure. “I like to talk.”
What to do next? Kelly said he thought Trump was ready for the possibility nothing would happen in Singapore. I thought that was optimistic. We talked about establishing a timeline to show we didn’t have forever to play this out, all while North Korea was still developing and/or manufacturing nuclear components and ballistic missiles. We broke up around 3:45, and I returned to my office. To my surprise, at around 4:10, my phone rang and a voice said, “This is the Camp David switchboard,” the first time I had ever heard that greeting. The operator said the President wanted to speak to me. “The letter was very friendly, don’t you think?” he asked, and I agreed, although I also said it was “nonsubstantive.” “It’s a process,” said Trump. “I understand that now. We’ll just have a meeting to get to know each other, and then we’ll see what happens. It will take longer than I first thought.” I stressed my view that neither sanctions relief nor an “end of the Korea War” declaration should come until complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization was concluded, which was what the Administration’s policy always had been. He seemed to be amenable to this analysis and advice. I said that having the discussions play out over time was acceptable, with one major qualification. Time was almost always on the side of the proliferator, and simply running the clock had long been a central part of North Korea’s strategy. Our time was not indefinite, which he seemed to accept. “It was pretty good,” he concluded, and the call ended. In fact, Trump got precisely what he wanted from the press; the headlines were, effectively, “June 12 meeting in Singapore back on.”
Over the weekend, I briefed Chung about the Kim Yong Chol meeting, and he said Moon was just delighted by the outcome. Unknowingly echoing Trump, Chung also said that we were facing “a process,” not just one meeting in Singapore. That was exactly what I had feared their reaction would be. Meanwhile, at the bilateral US–North Korea talks in the DMZ, the North rejected our draft approach to Singapore. The State Department, faced with rejection, wanted to offer a compromise, in effect saying, “You don’t like that one? How about this one?” And if the North didn’t like “this one,” the State negotiators would probably offer them “another one,” all the while, in reality, negotiating with themselves to see if they could produce a smile from the North Koreans. I had seen it many times before. Fortunately, Pompeo agreed with my view that we should produce no new drafts but wait for Pyongyang to respond to ours. The North finally commented verbally on our draft and said they would provide written comments the next day. Amazing how that works. I also pushed to get the negotiations moved to Singapore, to get the North Koreans out of their DMZ comfort zone. After a struggle with the US delegation more than with the North, we did so. Even Chung agreed it was time this moveable feast arrived in Singapore.
I then decided to confront the growing press speculation I was being cut out of North Korea matters and would not go to Singapore. I told Kelly, “I’ve been around this track a few times before,” and I didn’t think my exclusion from the Kim Yong Chol meeting was accidental. Kelly said he was “surprised” I wasn’t in the room when he walked into the Oval with Kim in tow. I explained what Pence had said and why we had gone to the VP’s office without my asking Trump directly why we wouldn’t be included. Kelly said he hadn’t expected to be in the meeting either, but Trump had asked him to stay. I recounted the speculation I would not be going to Singapore, which, if true, meant I couldn’t do my job and would accordingly resign. Kelly said, “I wouldn’t have expected you to say anything else,” and said he would talk to Trump, which I accepted as a first step. Later that morning, Kelly reported that Trump had “meant nothing” by not having me in the Kim Yong Chol meeting and that I would be in all the Singapore meetings. That satisfied me for the moment.
Immediately after his lunch with Trump that day, June 4, Mattis came in to discuss the Trump-Kim summit, stressing he was worried about the squishiness of our position on the North’s nuclear program, and asked, given the press speculation, if I was going to Singapore. When I said “Yes,” Mattis said, “Good,” emphatically, explaining he was sure, in his assessment, that Japan and several other key states in the region all supported my position not to lift sanctions before complete denuclearization, which showed the extent of backing for our approach. I wondered at this conversation, because, for the first time, I sensed Mattis was uncertain and nervous. I didn’t understand why until Ayers told me a few days later that Trump had spent much of the lunch with Mattis, according to what he had heard, beating up on him—for, among other things, being a Democrat—in “ways no one had ever seen before.” Mattis had to know what that meant. This was something to watch.