John Bolton’s ouster from the Trump administration creates an immediate void on President Donald Trump’s national security team as the president weighs critical decisions about the war on Afghanistan.
It’s a vacuum that a number of Senate Republicans are eager to fill.
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Senators who have been trying to shape Trump’s thinking on foreign policy — especially the peace talks in Afghanistan — are now jockeying for more influence over the president’s thinking. With an interventionist hawk like Bolton out of the picture, Trump, who campaigned on winding down the United States’ engagement overseas, may be more inclined to limit foreign engagements.
Bolton had been a fierce opponent of striking a deal with the Taliban and told the president he could draw down troops without a deal. His exit is likely to boost Capitol Hill’s more dovish members whose advice tends to align with the president’s own instincts.
Maneuvering on the Hill to influence the president on the questions of Afghanistan escalated immediately on Tuesday in the wake of Bolton’s exit.
“The president’s long expressed a desire to bring America’s longest war to an end,” said Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who celebrated Bolton’s withdrawal. “He needs to have somebody in the positions advising him that actually agree with his policy.”
“The president deserves a national security adviser he has confidence in,” agreed Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). But the agreement stops there: Graham is urging Trump to do precisely the opposite of what Paul wants.
“The intel is very clear what will happen if you pull the plug on Afghanistan,” Graham said. “I’m hopeful that [Trump] will not do in Afghanistan what we did in Iraq.”
Both Graham and Paul speak with Trump frequently and are almost always at odds over national security, with Graham advocating a muscular military approach and Paul unceasingly advocating diplomacy. They are among a number of senators on whom Trump leans for advice on matters of war and peace, including Republican Sens. Tom Cotton and Ted Cruz. Several other senators use the media to make their case on foreign policy, appearing on Fox News and speaking with Capitol Hill reporters hoping their message will reach the White House.
“We do have a lot of people who talk to the president on a regular basis who have very informed views when it comes to matters of national security and foreign policy,” said Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.). “So I suspect whatever kind of void is there, he’ll have a lot of voices in his ear.”
Bolton’s departure also exposed the messy debate within the Republican Party itself. The GOP remains painfully divided over national security, with Trump’s three years in office leaving unresolved whether the party itself can reach consensus on how and when the U.S. should deploy its armed forces.
That means that while Trump will be getting plenty of input in the wake of Bolton’s sacking, it will often be contradictory. The first issue on which the two factions are likely to clash is whether the president should continue with a plan to draw down troops in Afghanistan even though the president has called off peace talks with the Taliban.
Bolton is “a brilliant man. And his alternate point of view I hoped would be welcomed in decision-making circles,” said Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), who panned planned negotiations with the Taliban. On Afghanistan “we need to rethink our entire approach. And the president said that the negotiations are dead. If that’s the case, well, how we go forward is now an entirely new discussion.”
Bolton’s exit “means that Pompeo is the guy that’s going to lead the approach. And I have confidence in him. I’m one that has gotten fatigued with the whole process there,” said Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.), who has a libertarian streak on foreign policy and is open to negotiating with the Taliban. “Now that I know what occurred [with Bolton], I think we’ll be OK.”
Like so much of the president’s decision-making, however, Bolton’s ouster occurred after little apparent coordination with his allies on Capitol Hill. Braun learned about the news from a reporter after spending his morning in meetings: “What’s that? Bolton is out. That happened this morning?”
And Senate Armed Services Chairman Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) learned of the news after a staffer heard about Bolton on the radio.
“We’re going to miss a lot of real value by not having John Bolton there,” Inhofe lamented. “Unfortunately, personalities override a lot of things.”
But to some on the Hill, the takeaway from Tuesday was familiar: Trump’s advisers and his allies in Congress can say what they want on Afghanistan. But like his gut decision to announce Bolton’s departure an hour before he was scheduled to attend a joint press briefing with Pompeo, Trump will always consider himself his top advisor.
“The president’s going to do what the president wants to do on Afghanistan. That doesn’t mean I’m suggesting that he’s not listening for input,” said Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.). Then he offered his own.
Trump’s “asking questions: ‘we’ve been there for a long time, why are we there? My answer is that we’re there to prevent, to the extent that we can, the country from becoming a breeding ground for terrorists that will attack the United States,” he said.
When and if Trump makes a decision on whether to follow through on a planned partial withdrawal from Afghanistan, Republicans hope it doesn’t go down like Trump’s pullout in Syria, which shocked them and led to them piling their frustrations onto Vice President Mike Pence at a private party meeting last year.
So with a power void in the White House and huge decisions about Afghanistan now up in the air, Republicans are making their case ahead of time. One lawmaker who speaks frequently with the White House warned that a pullout from Afghanistan could be a political disaster for Trump’s reelection if the void there leads to a resurgence of terrorist attacks originating from the country.
“I do worry about a total pullout,” added Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa). “If the Taliban is still killing Americans and al-Qaida is still promising to work with the Taliban, we’ve got a long way to go.”
Countered Cruz: “It’s time for us to begin to bring our troops home.”
“We have been there a very long time. We have lost a lot of good men and women,” Cruz said, advocating the abandonment of efforts to “produce a democratic utopia in Afghanistan. Our mission should instead be focused narrowly on protecting the vital national security interests of the United States.”