John Bolton Reportedly In Line For Number Two Spot At State Department

A controversial member of George W. Bush's foreign policy team is up for a post in Donald Trump's State Department.


In addition to the possibility of Exxon/Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson as Donald Trump’s selection for Secretary of State, reports over the weekend also indicate a potential high-level role for John Bolton, the controversial former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations under George W. Bush, to become the second highest ranking person at Foggy Bottom:

WASHINGTON ― President-elect Donald Trump will nominate John Bolton to be the nation’s No. 2 diplomat, handling day-to-day operations at the State Department, according to NBC’s Andrea Mitchell and confirmed to HuffPost by a source close to the transition.

Bolton, who had been on Trump’s short list for secretary of state at one point, is among the most hawkish members of the Republican foreign policy community, a bellicose enemy of Russia and Iran.

He is a former acting U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, but served less than two years, as Democrats banded together to block his long-term appointment. His time at the U.N. was marked by a rapid uptick in anti-American sentiment among the global diplomatic community. Bolton remains one of the most disliked foreign policy operators on the world stage.

Trump’s search for State Department leadership has been particularly dramatic. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani was in the running, and then he bowed out on Friday. The GOP’s 2012 presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, was also considered. But media outlets reported Saturday that Trump had settled on Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson for the top State Department job.

Even as the second in command at State, Bolton is an aggressive selection from Trump, shattering the president-elect’s pledge to work peacefully with other countries. Bolton, who has called for the bombing of Iran, held high-level roles in three different Republican administrations between 1998 and 2006. He is now a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank whose vice president has described Trump as “an idiot.”

He would be reporting to a commander-in-chief who appears to espouse a worldview diametrically opposed to his own. Bolton has repeatedly slammed President Barack Obama for his willingness to engage in limited cooperation with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Syria and Iran.

“While Mr. Obama sleepwalks, Mr. Putin is ardently pursuing Russia’s Middle East objectives,” Bolton wrote in a 2013 op-ed that argued against assuming the U.S. has common interests with Russia in Syria.

In 2014, speculating that Russia was responsible for the downing of a Malaysian plane over Ukraine, Bolton told Fox News, “I think we’ve got to begin to treat Russia like the adversary that Putin is currently demonstrating it to be.”

Two years later, Bolton expressed hope that Obama wouldn’t do anything in his final year in office to legitimize Russia’s military efforts in Syria, where U.S. defense officials say Russia is focused on bombing Syrian opposition fighters rather than Islamic State forces. “Until Mr. Obama departs the White House,” Bolton wrote in October 2015, “Washington must not do anything perceived as legitimizing Moscow’s new Latakia air base, or the presence of Russian aircraft and cruise missiles in the skies over the region. The suggestion that we exchange deconfliction codes with Russia is what the French call a fausse bonne idee, a superficially appealing bad idea.”

While Bolton’s history of comments critical of Trump during the campaign, and his seeming opposition to what Trump has outlined as his own foreign policy, make him an odd choice for such an important role at the State Department, there is far more about Bolton that raises serious concerns about whether or not he is an appropriate nominee for such a position of responsibility. As noted, Bolton previously served as Ambassador to the United Nations during George W. Bush’s second term, but his time in office was limited due to the fact that the Senate refused to confirm his nomination due to his long history of writings revealing exceedingly controversial views on foreign policy. Both before and after his nomination, Bolton proved himself to be a vociferous advocate of the interventionist foreign policy advocated by other Bush Administration members such as Vice-President Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz, views that proved to be controversial specifically with regard to Iraq and American policy toward detainees in the War On Terror. During his confirmation process, allegations also surfaced that Bolton had been verbally abusive toward employees in previous positions and that he had made statements that proved to be controversial to say the least when repeated in public. As a result of these extended series of revelations, support for Bolton’s nomination eroded and Democrats in the Senate were able to successfully filibuster the nomination. While his nomination was still pending, it was revealed that he may have made false statements to the Senate during the confirmation process and, after that, his nomination was considered dead until President Bush made a recess appointment that put Bolton in the position of Ambassador to the U.N. until the end of the then-current Congress at the end of 2006. When Congress reconvened, of course, the Senate was now controlled by Democrats and opposition to Bolton’s nomination made confirmation impossible. As a result, he was forced to step aside and has since spent his time at the American Enterprise Institute and elsewhere, although he did briefly consider a run for the Presidency in 2016, but announced in May of 2015 that he would not do so.

Because of his past problems with the Senate, it’s likely that Bolton’s nomination would prove to be a difficult one, and even the mere mention of his name has made that clear. Several Democrats have already spoken out against Bolton, as has Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, who is promising to block the nomination if it is presented to the Senate:

Sen. Rand Paul is threatening to block President-elect Donald Trump’s likely pick of John Bolton as the No. 2 in the State Department.

The Kentucky Republican, who serves on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, could stop the hawkish former ambassador to the United Nations from getting out of committee if there is unanimous Democratic resistance. The committee is narrowly divided among 10 Republicans and nine Democrats, and Paul said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week” that he’s an “automatic no on Bolton.”

“John Bolton doesn’t get it. He still believes in regime change. He’s still a big cheerleader for the Iraq War,” Paul said. “John Bolton is so far out of it and has such a naive understanding of the world.”

Paul’s vows to vote against Bolton could create the most significant confirmation fight thus far. Bolton would need a bare majority of the Senate to get confirmed, but if he were to stall in committee or face more Republican resistance, his nomination might be in serious jeopardy next year.

The libertarian-leaning lawmaker said he is “going to reserve judgment” on Rex Tillerson, the CEO of Exxon Mobil, who POLITICO reported on Saturday is the favorite to be secretary of state. Paul said he’d ask the same questions about Tillerson’s worldview that he has been asking of all secretary of state nominees: Whether they have learned the mistakes from the Iraq War and share the foreign policy philosophy of Trump.

Whether Paul could be successful in blocking Bolton’s nomination depends entirely on what his fellow Republicans do. In all likelihood, this is a nomination that Senate Democrats are likely to be unanimously opposed to, so it would only take a handful of Republicans to block his nomination. In addition to Paul, that could include people like Senator Mike Lee, who has often joined Paul on foreign policy and civil liberties issues, if Democrats could find two more Republicans to peel away on the nomination, then President Trump could find it as difficult to get Bolton confirmed as President Bush did a decade ago. Even if they don’t succeed in ultimately blocking the nomination, though, Paul and other Senators who stand against Bolton could go a long way toward alerting the public to the kind of person Trump is putting in such a significant position of power and influence. Additionally, since Senators might not be able to remain united in opposition to a nominee like Tillerson, and would be unable to do anything to stop retired General Mike Flynn’s nomination to be National Security Adviser, it’s possible that Bolton could face the same result in the Senate that he did a decade ago.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. sam says:

    Sterling choice if we overlook the fact that the man is batshit crazy.

  2. SenyorDave says:

    @sam: Sterling choice if we overlook the fact that the man is batshit crazy.

    So he’s in the mainstream of modern Republican policy?

  3. Gustopher says:

    Given how pro-Russian the rest of the cabinet is shaping up to be, why would Trump do this? Is it just for shits and giggles?

    Whats e plan? Will we be simultaneously radically embracing Russia and radically antagonizing them? I don’t get it.

    This makes no logical sense whatsoever. Mr. Exxon, Russia’s special friend with the medal to prove it, is going to be Bolton’s boss? Is this all a big setup to Trump triumphantly shouting “there is no fighting in the war room!”?

  4. grumpy realist says:

    @Gustopher: Trump is going to learn the hard way that what happens in reality stays in reality. You don’t get to film it again if you don’t like what happens.

  5. michael reynolds says:


    I don’t think there’s a plan at all.

    First, 90% of people qualified to hold jobs in the administration are too smart or too decent to take them.

    Of the 10% remaining in the pool Trump gravitates to people who flatter him, either by seeming to be like him, (rich guys) or by groveling in a chin-outthrust, manly man sort of way (generals.)

    His other picks are poke-in-the-eye picks motivated by spite and triumphalism. (Various escaped mental patients like Carson, perhaps Bolton if he goes through with it.)

    So he eliminates 90% of remotely qualified folks, finds those among the C or D team who feed his ego through flattery, manly subservience or spite. This is purely about the Man-Baby’s emotional fragility and insecurity. He’s a weak man who needs to surround himself with toadies. He needs his loafers licked hourly.

    If Trump has any ‘plan’ it’s to line his pockets while strutting around like a bargain basement Mussolini. And just like Mussolini, he’s going to be looking to start a war for no reason other than a desperate need to be seen as a ‘real’ president.

  6. Guarneri says:

    @michael reynolds:

    Speaking of batshit crazy………

  7. C. Clavin says:

    @michael reynolds:

    He’s a weak man who needs to surround himself with toadies. He needs his loafers licked hourly.

    Apparently Guarneri would like to apply for the job of hourly loafer-licker.

  8. James Pearce says:

    Let’s put Mr. McFeely in the #2 spot instead. No one would know the difference.

  9. grumpy realist says:

    @Gustopher: Considering that Trump supposedly likes to create rival power centers under him and have them compete against each other, I wonder if a Bolton–Tillerson cage match is what he wants to see happening.

    If Tillerson had any balls, he’d throw Trump’s offer back in his face and say he’s not going to allow himself to be undercut by a rival power center under him.

    Trump doesn’t want to be POTUS; he wants to be a Byzantine Emperor.

  10. michael reynolds says:

    @grumpy realist:
    Fascist governments are notoriously incompetent and random. Paranoia at the top demands fragmentation.

    One of the unfortunate notions people have in their heads is that the Nazis were organizational geniuses. In reality their successes were a result of a well-trained military. . . which was eventually undercut by clowns like Goering who had pretty well destroyed the Luftwaffe before D-Day, and by weak, frightened political generals who lacked the courage to tell the truth. Cool uniforms =/= organizational prowess.

  11. sam says:

    @michael reynolds:

    “Man-Baby’s emotional fragility and insecurity.”

    I’ve been mulling over this hypothesis. It’s based on an article that Garrison Keillor published a while back in the Chicago Tribune. Basically what Keillor says in the piece is that what Trump has always wanted more than anything else in the world is acceptance by the elites in New York City. But those folks think he’s a gauche clown. He bent all his political efforts in the city to the attempt to gain their favor. He supported all the right causes, all the right people (read liberal Democrat causes and people). To no avail. The elites still think he’s a clown, and, to seal the disdain, the city rejected him overwhelmingly in the election (with exception of Staten Island). And now that he has the power, he is moving hard right in policy and appointments as revenge. How do you like them apples, New York?

  12. Tyrell says:

    The historic city of Damascus in ruins. The war in Syria all but lost.

  13. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    “Mr. Exxon, Russia’s special friend with the medal to prove it, is going to be Bolton’s boss?”

    As Ivanka might say, “this ought to be interesting.”

  14. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    @Tyrell: Whose side are we on? The side of ISIS, the rebels who have turned out not to be as moderate as we might have hoped, or Bashir Assad? Depending on what the goal was (and I don’t really think we even had one, nor did the Europeans), this one may have been lost from day one no matter who came out on top.

    One thing that I was hoping that Trump wasn’t lying about was his seeming commitment to not willy-nilly “planting the Tree of Liberty” in other people’s yards. The appointment of Flynn has shown he was lying about that, too. Sad. Pathetic.

  15. Tyrell says:

    Those are good thoughts. Syria is a quicksand trap if I ever saw one. Was there any way this could have turned out different ?

  16. Pete S says:

    @Tyrell: Had we not tried confronting two sides of a civil war at the same time, it could have ended years ago. Assad seems weaker than he was but is still in power, we could have had this without trying to identify and arm “moderate” rebels.

  17. Rafer Janders says:

    @michael reynolds:

    One of the unfortunate notions people have in their heads is that the Nazis were organizational geniuses.

    Yes, it was the Germans themselves who were organizational geniuses, prior to and independent of the Nazis. The Nazis just had the good luck to graft their evil onto an extremely well-functioning bureaucracy, military, and industrial base. Run a fascist government in Germany, you conquer most of Europe. Run a fascist government in Italy, you conquer…Albania and Ethiopia.

  18. Pch101 says:

    Assuming that the Democrats and Dem-caucusing independents all vote nay, only three Republicans will be needed to kill this and a lot of other decisions.

    I suspect that we’re going to see a fair amount of gamesmanship that involves Republicans hiding behind the Democrats to block the stuff that they don’t want in such a way that the GOP doesn’t have to take full ownership of it. (A few Republicans will agree to bite the bullet by voting nay, while the vast majority cast a yea vote with the full knowledge that their vote will be in the minority. Gotta fool the folks back home…)

  19. EddieInCA says:

    The disconnect among Trump Supporters is staggering.

    On the one hand, the Trump team is dissing the CIA with the line that “They got WMD’s wrong.” and at the same time, one of the principal architects of that policy, John Bolton, is being submitted for the #2 position at the State Dept.

    It’s amazing to see the mental gymnastics some otherwise smart people bend themselves into to support Trump’s constantly changing positions.

    I’d say he has no consistency, but that would be an insult to simple inconsistency. It’s more like incoherence.

    On. Everything.

  20. gVOR08 says:

    @michael reynolds:

    Cool uniforms =/= organizational prowess.

    Years ago somebody reviewed history and concluded that in war the better dressed side generally loses.

    Top of the head examples in our own experience: The Revolution, WWI and II, Vietnam. Setting aside 1812 and Korea as draws, the counterexample is the Civil War. I have no idea what Iraqi uniforms looked like.

  21. James Pearce says:


    Years ago somebody reviewed history and concluded that in war the better dressed side generally loses.

    I dunno. When I see the Nazi uniform, I don’t think “Ooooh, those look cool.”

    I think, “Ugh, they look like Nazis.”

  22. Barry says:

    @grumpy realist: “If Tillerson had any balls, he’d throw Trump’s offer back in his face and say he’s not going to allow himself to be undercut by a rival power center under him.”

    Tillerson worked his way to the top of one of the biggest megacorps on Earth; he’d just have Bolton’s b*lls for breakfast. Tillerson would undoubtedly bring in a group of his own people, and have Bolton surrounded. I know that Bolton is really macho and great at sh*t-talking at the UN, but I’ve never seen any sign of him being competent at any real job.

  23. Barry says:

    EddieInCA says:

    “The disconnect among Trump Supporters is staggering.”

    90% of them will look at multi billionaires and not see ‘elites’.

    90% of them will figure putting looters in charge of Washington will ‘drain the swamp’ of anything but money.

    90% of them will figure that cuts will not hurt them, just the n*ggers, sp*cs, l*sbians and liberals.

    90% of them will look at the horrible sh*tshow, and claim that things have gotten better under Trump.

  24. Grumpy Realist says:

    @Barry: well, I’ve decided the best I can do is get a handful of useful inventions together, arrange for a landing space, and be ready to jump. I don’t think we’re going to have attacks against other countries that much; we’re more likely to have internal civil squabbles.

    There is, of course, the fact that being a multi billionaire by selling toilet paper and floor wax doesn’t do you that much good if the bulk of your populace is too poor to purchase it.

  25. Franklin says:

    Just the thought of this guy in a position of power makes me consider a vow to never vote for a Republican again. Not that there aren’t reasonable Republicans, but that you give them a little power and they give some sort of credibility to people like Bolton.

  26. Barry says:

    @Grumpy Realist: “I don’t think we’re going to have attacks against other countries that much; we’re more likely to have internal civil squabbles.”

    People have told me that, but I keep considering these facts:

    1) The only position in the world more ego-boosting than the American Presidency is the war-time presidency (see Commander Flight Suit in ’03).

    2) With a long (i.e., botched), drawn-out war, the looting goes from a hundred billion to a trillion.

    3) War is an excellent (short-term, as in ‘win the election) method of dealing with political problems.

    4) The only thing more wh*re-like and self-abasing than the US press with a GOP President is the US press with a GOP President at war.

    5) War justifies all manner of domestic crackdowns.

  27. MarkedMan says:

    Grumpy Realist: “I don’t think we’re going to have attacks against other countries that much; we’re more likely to have internal civil squabbles.”

    I wish you were right but I just don’t see it. Trump is a conspiracy theorist who is surrounding himself with conspiracy theorists who are even more batsh*t crazy than he is. What do you think will happen the first time a building with Trumps name on it gets bombed? The nut jobs will be telling him to bomb somewhere, anywhere and Trump’s reaction will be to dial it to 11. He will have the nuclear codes for god’s sake.

  28. CSK says:


    If someone bombs one of Trump’s erections, you can be sure he will retaliate. No one damages one of Trump’s concrete and steel phalli. No one.

  29. rachel says:


    90% of them will look at multi billionaires and not see ‘elites’.

    That’s only a disconnect if you believe elites are all wealthy people. They aren’t. Elites are well educated and cultured. In fact, an elite who has no money is an affront to them because he (or she) has no right to be so snooty.

  30. CSK says:


    Only crude, stupid oafs are real Americans, you know.

  31. SC_Birdflyte says:

    @gVOR08: Not entirely wrong, as far as the Civil War is concerned. While the average Johnny Reb was dressed in homespun and the average Billy Yank was dressed in mass-produced blues, Grant himself was notoriously down-at-the-heels in appearance.

  32. J-Dub says:


    But those folks think he’s a gauche clown

    A gauche clown? But he owns all those nice golf courses and a vineyard (unless you read the fine print on their website: “which is not owned, managed or affiliated with Donald J. Trump, The Trump Organization or any of their affiliates.”)

    It’s kind of sad, the Gatsby-esque lengths he has gone to in an attempt to be accepted by New York Society. All for naught.

  33. dxq says:

    Lex Luthor wouldn’t pick a worse cabinet. It’s like they’re trying to comprehensively destroy the system.

  34. michael reynolds says:

    @J-Dub: @rachel:

    I’ve been trying to guess where this goes in the end. The Right now dominates politics. The Left dominates culture.

    The ‘culture’ rejects Trump like a toddler rejects Brussels sprouts. It’s a visceral rejection born of a sort of gag reflex. Trump isn’t just a right-wing politician, he’s literally nauseating to half the country.

    Among Trump voters there are broadly speaking two groups: racist idiots and idiots. The racist idiots you just have to write off. But the other idiots actually seem to believe that by electing the worst person they could possibly vote for, they would magically get some stuff that is absolutely not going to happen. The racist idiot is hopeless; but the mere idiot is reachable.

    Intelligence is processing speed. You can run more complex software, and you can add 2 + 2 faster than a dumber person. But slow does not mean immobile. Sooner or later (later) this second group will begin to realize they have been taken. Again. By the same people. Again. With yes, pretty much the same line of bullsh!t but this time delivered by Trumpy the Party Clown so they don’t realize it’s the same old bullsh!t.

    They won’t have a sudden “Hey, I’ve been robbed!” realization, it will come as a slow, numbing awareness that life has not changed for the better. They won’t suddenly flock to the Democrats, they’ll just sink into lethargy and bitterness, and next time around, they won’t vote.

    The question is how successfully ‘culture’ can reject ‘politics.’ How far we can keep the fascists in the White House from degrading our larger society.

  35. sam says:

    @michael reynolds:

    But the other idiots actually seem to believe that by electing the worst person they could possibly vote for, they would magically get some stuff that is absolutely not going to happen.

    For this see, Sarah Kliff, Why Obamacare enrollees voted for Trump.

    The better angels of my nature seem unwilling to raise their voices for these people.

  36. bk says:

    Bolton is qualified for a “Got Milk?” commercial, and that is about it.

  37. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    @dxq: Of course not; Lex Luthor would know that the real money is in successfully running a criminal empire out of the government, not destroying it.

  38. J-Dub says:


    For this see, Sarah Kliff, Why Obamacare enrollees voted for Trump.

    Why the hell do they need Obamacare when they have the Affordable Care Act? /s

  39. J-Dub says:

    @sam: Wow, that is a one hell of an article. People who could literally die if they vote for Trump and did anyway.

    Trump may have to veto the repeal of Obamacare just to keep his dumbass voters alive for the next election.

  40. CSK says:

    Bolton’s appointment hasn’t been finalized yet, has it? I’ve seen nothing so far today.