In the wake of President Donald Trump’s decision to appoint John Bolton as his national security adviser and Mike Pompeo as secretary of state, a consistent criticism has emerged: Trump will no longer have any “adult” supervision in the national security decision-making process or any Cabinet-level “checks” on his own worst instincts.
This view is not only insulting, it is fundamentally anti-democratic. The Constitution places many checks on a president’s power, including Congress, an independent judiciary and a free press. It’s not the job of Cabinet officials to be a “check” on the president. Their job is to give the president options so he can make decisions — not restrict choices to constrain him.
One of the reasons Trump is reshuffling his national security team is because he has reportedly been deeply frustrated with the lack of options presented to him. In April, he reluctantly recertified the Iran nuclear deal but told his national security advisers that he didn’t want to recertify again — and instructed them to provide a range of options before the next deadline in October. They didn’t do it. That is unacceptable. According to the Weekly Standard, Trump was so angry that no one presented a decertification option that he put Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., on speakerphone during an Oval Office meeting to make the case — providing advice that Trump soon followed.
More recently, the New York Times reported that Trump has grown frustrated with the Pentagon’s failure to provide him with military options for North Korea. According to the Times, Pentagon officials are “worried that the White House is moving too hastily toward military action on the Korean Peninsula that could escalate catastrophically. Giving the president too many options, the officials said, could increase the odds that he will act.” Sorry, that’s not how it works in our democracy. We have civilian control of the military, and the president is commander in chief. If he wants military options, it is the Pentagon’s job to deliver them. That some in the Pentagon don’t understand that is a greater threat to our democracy than Trump’s temperament.
Bolton is determined to fix these problems. Cabinet officers are supposed to give the president options (including some they may disagree with), provide their best advice, and then salute and carry out his orders. Bolton is determined to make that happen. Axios reported that he plans to be an “honest broker” who will make sure that all sides are heard when national security decisions are discussed. But he will also be an “enforcer” who makes sure that Cabinet officials carry out the president’s orders. If the president directs the Pentagon to produce military options for North Korea, or demands more creative options on the Iran nuclear deal, slow walking will no longer be tolerated. That is a good thing.
This does not mean that Bolton wants to lead us into war. He doesn’t. Bolton is a traditional peace-through-strength conservative, with vast government experience as undersecretary of state for arms control and international security and ambassador to the United Nations. He understands firsthand the way bureaucracies work to narrow options and hinder policy decisions they do not like. He knows how to make sure that does not happen to this president.
Trump’s decision to replace Rex Tillerson with Pompeo will strengthen diplomacy in a similar way. Under Tillerson, the secretary of state did not listen to his subordinates, and the president did not listen to the secretary. That will change under Pompeo, who built a strong personal bond with Trump while at the CIA, delivering the president’s daily intelligence briefing. He will have the trust and the ear of the commander in chief, which means the State Department will have more influence. This should thrill our diplomats.
Trump faces tough decisions in the months ahead. On North Korea, after a quarter-century of presidents of both parties kicking the can down the road, we finally have run out of road. Trump will soon face a binary choice: allow North Korea to deploy the capability to reach U.S. cities with nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles, or stop it from deploying that capability. We all want the latter to happen peacefully. For that, the president needs a national security team that understands its mission is to constrain Kim Jong Un, not Donald Trump. In Bolton and Pompeo, Trump finally has that team.
Thiessen is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and the former chief speechwriter for President George W. Bush and writes a column for the Washington Post. Twitter: @marcthiessen.