Why National Security Advisor Is the Hardest Post for Trump to Fill

The Thankless Task of Advising a President Who Eschews Advice

Trump and Bolton in the Oval Office, August 2019 Doug Mills / The New York Times / Redux

In less than three years, U.S. President Donald Trump has had three wildly different national security advisers: a campaign aide with a checkered past, a respected general, and an ideologue with strong views apparently consonant with his own. All ultimately failed. John Bolton’s firing is just the latest and most dramatic episode in Trump’s national security travails. Though the outgoing adviser drove tough policies on Iran and other issues, his peremptory, no-compromise style proved, over time, unacceptable to the president, who “disagreed strongly with many of his suggestions.” His firing underscores the difficulty in filling this particular role, whether with an honest broker or a straightforward adviser, for a president who disdains process and tends to follow his “gut.”

The job of national security adviser is a presidential creation, neither established in legislation nor requiring Senate confirmation. Ideally, the adviser connects the president to other senior officials, assures that he hears all relevant viewpoints, and sees that his policy decisions are translated into action. In practice, the ability of advisers to function effectively depends less on the process they establish than on the proclivities and preferences of the president they serve.

Few presidents had thought less about the management of national security policy the day they entered the White House than Donald J. Trump. He had run for president without really expecting to win and focused little on the details of governing even after he did. In the White House, Trump has eschewed formal process and expertise and instead relied on his often changing impulses.

Each of Trump’s three national security advisers has tried, with mixed success, to tailor to the president’s instincts a process that brings government expertise to bear on decision-making. Bolton was perhaps substantively and temperamentally the most suited to help Trump pursue his “America first” foreign policy. But even he found himself on the outs with this decidedly mercurial president. And Bolton’s core style—rushing to decisions, excluding advisers with dissenting

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