On April 10, 2018, Thomas P. Bossert, the President’s Homeland Security Advisor, abruptly resigned from his post. It came as a surprise to homeland security observers and to Bossert himself. Speaking at the Cipher Brief’s 2018 Threat Conference in Sea Island, Georgia, Bossert gave no hint that his departure was mere hours away. What the Bossert exit represents is a rapid move by Bolton to put his own imprimatur upon the National Security Council.
As a fellow member of the George W. Bush administration, I worked homeland security issues with Bossert although we did not work closely together. He was a denizen of the West Wing in those days, while I worked domestic intelligence matters on Nebraska Avenue at the Department of Homeland Security. Lawyerly and thoughtful, Tom was respected for his work ethic and notably his ability to master the chaos that was the Hurricane Katrina crisis of 2005.
Unlike many other veterans of Bush 43, Tom was able to shed those “scarlet numbers” and join the Trump administration. By all accounts, he and President Trump got on well. Bossert’s relations with H.R. McMaster, Trump’s second National Security Advisor, were a bit more complicated. Beset by a Byzantine chain of command conundrum, McMaster and Bossert feuded over NSC seniority and who reported to whom. Besides their “who’s on first arguments,” the two sparred over other matters of national security policy as well as often engaging in shouting matches that reverberated through the black and white marbled halls of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building.
A number of NSC staffers also complained that Bossert was a bit of a foot dragger when it came to execution on policies relating to counterterrorism and especially cybersecurity. The Trump administration’s failure to, as yet, delineate a cogent national cybersecurity strategy has been a criticism that has been laid at Bossert’s feet. In defense to Tom, counterterrorism and cybersecurity are both extremely complex issues, involving many stakeholders in government, the private sector, and with our allies abroad. Getting these issues right and crafting a workable strategy should take time and be subject to a great deal of thought and discussion.
Of course, the more important story here is the alacrity with which National Security Advisor John Bolton moved to replace Bossert. Bolton, assuredly not a shrinking violet in the hard-elbowed politics of bureaucratic Washington, has in one scythe-like move begun the process which will result in the “Boltonization” of the National Security Council. Firings did occur after McMaster took over as NSA, the most high-profile example being Ezra Cohen Watnick, but not at the scale currently occurring during Bolton’s first week as NSA. Bolton represents the geopolitical hard, hard line of the Republican party. Indeed, many would contend that he is not of the GOP at all, holding a worldview that is so combative and reactionary that he remains an outlier among more traditional Republican foreign policy thinkers.
Expect Bolton to bring in his own people who share his worldview in the coming weeks. Most of the new recruits will come with street creds that will label them as hardline foreign policy reactionaries who will dismiss globalism and unity of action among the Western allies in favor of American “go it aloneism.”
Since the Trump administration came into office, the NSC has been roiled with the hirings and firings of two National Security Advisors, the departures of now three Deputy National Security Advisors and several senior departmental directors as well as a slew of rank and file staffers. Morale among council employees is said not to be robust.
Another changeover at the NSC could not come at a more inconvenient time. If Bolton is going to look for a new and tougher staff at NSC, one that reflects his own vision of U.S. national security, the real test for them will be decidedly immediate with the U.S. now facing an instant decision on whether to undertake military action to punish Syria’s Assad regime for yet again dropping chemical weapons on its own citizens, more challenges from Russian President Vladimir Putin, and the looming summit between President Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un.
With varsity level competition facing him, let’s see if John Bolton’s attempt to re-make his NSC team in his own image will be successful or will result in just a bunch of ideologue scrubs taking the field in possibly the biggest game of their untested careers.
While it is understandable that Bolton will seek to populate his NSC with like-minded thinkers, it is also important to ensure that national security policy-making enjoys the rigorous give-and-take that will be needed to examine all facets of a projected course of action. Indeed, within the Intelligence Community where I served, contrarians are highly valued for the leavening they provide to any intelligence policy decision. Without examining and valuing the opinions of “the loyal opposition” in foreign policy decision-making, we run the risk of following policies untested. When the stakes are as high as North Korean missiles or strikes against Syrian (and Russian) targets, National Security Advisor Bolton would be well-served by a few dissenting voices in the EOB.
Jack Thomas Tomarchio is former Principal Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security for Intelligence and a Senior Fellow at the George Washington University Center for Cyber and Homeland Security and the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.