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The fundamental policy disagreements that pushed John Bolton away from Trump

John Bolton, the third person to serve as national security advisor under President Trump, is out. Bolton was one of Washington’s outspoken hawks for decades, and he was instrumental in the U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal. But Bolton and the president frequently clashed -- even about the details of Bolton’s departure. Nick Schifrin reports and joins Judy Woodruff and Yamiche Alcindor.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Exit John Bolton.

    The White House national security adviser is out of that job tonight. President Trump made the surprise announcement earlier today that he asked Bolton to leave, in the latest turn of a long Washington career.

    Foreign affairs correspondent Nick Schifrin begins our coverage.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    For decades, Ambassador John Bolton has been one of Washington's leading hawks.

  • John Bolton:

    The overthrow of Saddam Hussein, that military action, was a resounding success.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    From defending the war in Iraq, to threatening Iran, Bolton has long advocated the U.S. military as the best way to deter adversaries and change countries' behavior.

  • John Bolton:

    The Iranian regime must be made aware, that if it continues down the path of international isolation, there will be tangible and painful consequences.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And, today, a career of controversy continued, when he was fired by tweet. President Trump wrote: "I informed John Bolton last night that his services are no longer needed at the White House. I disagreed strongly with many of his suggestions."

    Just 12 minutes later, Bolton shot back: "I offered to resign last night, and President Trump said, 'Let's talk about it tomorrow.'"

    That talk apparently never happened. Today, the president's allies sounded calm, and described the dispute as normal Washington turnover.

  • Sen Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.:

    I appreciate what John has done for country for a long time, and I think the president will get to pick a national security adviser he has more confidence in.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    At first, Bolton did enjoy the president's confidence on major foreign policy issues.

  • President Donald Trump:

    I am announcing today that the United States will withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Last year President Trump withdrew from the deal that froze Iran's nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief, which for years had been one of Bolton's top targets.

  • John Bolton:

    The Iran deal was in fact the worst diplomatic debacle in American history.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    They also agreed on leaving the Reagan-era Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces, or INF, treaty, with Russia.

  • John Bolton:

    I think President Trump should say to Vladimir Putin, you either bring Russia back into compliance with the INF Treaty, or we're going to get out of that one too.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But administration officials tell "PBS NewsHour," over time, Bolton's positions emerged as too aggressive to a president who campaigned on ending wars.

  • President Donald Trump:

    We will stop racing to topple foreign — and you understand this — foreign regimes that we know nothing about, that we shouldn't be involved with.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    President Trump has broken decades of precedence by negotiating with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Bolton has long called that kind of negotiation appeasement.

  • John Bolton:

    More diplomacy with North Korea, or sanctions, whether against North Korea or an effort to apply sanctions against China, is just giving North Korea more time to increase its nuclear arsenal.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    On Venezuela, the administration has launched a pressure campaign to remove President Nicolas Maduro. But administration officials tell "PBS NewsHour" President Trump felt backed into a corner after Bolton repeatedly hinted about military intervention.

  • John Bolton:

    I will say again, as the president has said from the outset, and that Nicolas Maduro and those supporting him, particularly those who are not Venezuelan, should know is, all options are on the table.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Just last week, the president and Bolton disagreed over how to end the U.S.' longest war. The U.S. has been leading peace talks with the Taliban, and the president wanted to try and seal the deal by inviting the Taliban to Camp David. Bolton opposed that.

    And even over Iran, the two diverged. When Iran shot down a U.S. drone in June, Bolton pushed for a military response. President Trump called it off at the last minute.

    Today Press Secretary Hogan Gidley said the differences were irreconcilable.

  • Hogan Gidley:

    John Bolton's priorities and policies just don't line up with the president's.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Bolton was President Trump's third full-time national security adviser. Retired General Mike Flynn lasted only five weeks. Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster served for just 13 months. Bolton lasted 17 months.

    By the end, Bolton clashed even with those who agreed with him ideologically, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

  • Mike Pompeo:

    Many times, Ambassador Bolton and I disagreed. That's to be sure.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    A senior official describes Mike Pompeo as a Trump whisperer. He has won this internal fight, but even he said today the administration policy wouldn't change, Judy, because this administration is dominated even more than normal by one man, the president.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And we are learning that, for sure, right now.

    Along with Nick, we are also joined by our White House correspondent, Yamiche Alcindor.

    So, Yamiche, we know it's been reported John Bolton did have differences with the president over time, but what ultimately led to this decision, by your reporting?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Sources close to the president tell me this ultimately came down to the president not seeing Ambassador John Bolton as someone who was putting on a united front.

    The president, I'm told, likes people that disagree with him. He likes to have spirited discussions about national security or immigration or trade, and he's OK with people disagreeing with him, but sources close to the president essentially told me that, once the president makes a decision, then everybody needs to fall in line.

    And essentially John Bolton wasn't seen as falling in line. Most recently, that came about because there were reports that John Bolton and Vice President Mike Pence disagreed with President Trump on his decision to try to hold a meeting with the Taliban leaders at Camp David.

    John Bolton thought it wasn't a place that Taliban leaders should come, and that became public, and the White House and people around the president were concerned that there were leaks and leaks coming out of the White House and that possibly John Bolton was the source of that.

    So what you saw was a long time coming, with the president becoming more and more frustrated with John Bolton, but this really coming to a head today.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Nick, how much do we know about how much in the end John Bolton affected policy and affected the process?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Well, I think there can be no doubt that he affected Iran policy.

    Previous officials tried to keep the president inside the Iran nuclear deal. Bolton helped push the president out of the Iran nuclear deal. The two agreed on things like the INF Treaty, arms control.

    And they also agreed on the aggressive rhetoric, even the use of Twitter that the president used. But, ultimately, the president didn't follow through on Bolton's policies. The president chose not to strike Iran. The president chose not to use the military in a more visible way as part of Venezuela policy.

    And the president wants to negotiate, not only with North Korea, which Ambassador Bolton opposed, but also with Iran. And there could still be this month a meeting between President Trump and Iranian President Rouhani.

    And that relates to some criticism that I heard all day today, is that Bolton tries to persuade the president, rather than present options that all of the agencies have, as the National Security Council is designed to do.

    Other people say, no, there was some proper procedures followed, especially on topics like China. But, at the end of the day, this disagreement wasn't only policy, but personality.

    A former senior official told us today that Bolton would travel alone to try and kind of stay out of the sight of the president, because the president simply didn't like Bolton on a personal level very much.

    And that means, while Bolton did have a huge impact initially, especially with Iran, the president, at the end of the day, didn't follow through on Bolton's policies.

  • Judy Woodruff:


    And, Yamiche, as both you and Nick have been reporting, this is the third national security adviser to leave this administration. What is the White House saying today about the criticism out there that this is a White House again in chaos, in turmoil when it comes to national security?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    White House aides are really, really pushing back on the idea that the White House is in chaos, even as Democrats and Republicans become concerned with the idea that we have seen record turnover in the Trump administration.

    Now, White House sources I was talking to all day told me that John Bolton was continuing to press the president even after he made a decision on things like North Korea, on things like Venezuela. And, as a result, this was something that they saw coming.

    But the fact is that, at 10:55 a.m. this morning, White House staff put out a press release, a press schedule that said that Ambassador John Bolton was going to be briefing reporters at 1:30 p.m.

    And then an hour later, at about 11:55 p.m., 11:55 a.m., the president tweeted that John Bolton was in fact no longer going to be with the administration. So what you had is, within an hour, a complete different message coming from the White House.

    And that, in some cases, people will say, is the chaos of this White House. It's also noted that the president acted on social media, when, in fact, with other people, including Nikki Haley, the former ambassador to United Nations, he had a formal sit-down Oval Office departure for her and said great things about her.

    So what you saw was a love loss there with the president and John Bolton. So while the White House is pressing and stressing that this wasn't chaos, that everyone saw this coming, there are people who say this is the White House once again having a revolving door that's spinning and spinning more wildly and more quickly.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Not to mention, you have the president saying he fired — he asked John Bolton to leave. John Bolton says he offered to resign. So you have got two completely different stories.

    So this is one that is not yet resolved.

    Yamiche Alcindor, Nick Schifrin, thank you both.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Thank you.

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