Tuesday, September 10, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He either lied about firing John Bolton, or just got confused about what he'd done.

Today—or perhaps last night—Trump fired—or perhaps accepted the resignation of—his national security advisor, John Bolton. Trump and Bolton immediately began fighting in public over which version of the story was true.

What is clear is that the public learned of it when Trump tweeted, just before noon today, that he had fired Bolton yesterday evening. But it looks like the rest of the White House heard about it at the same time, because Bolton had been announced as part of a press briefing later in the day less than an hour before Trump's tweet. 

Bolton, one of the few people in politics with a reputation for a bad temper that rivals Trump's, immediately disputed Trump's claims on social media and by reaching out to media outlets. Bolton maintains he resigned last night, only to have Trump say he wanted to talk it over today.

In other words, Bolton was calling Trump a liar within 12 minutes of his firing.

While it's a he-said, he-said story at the moment, Bolton's claim is plausible. While Trump built his TV reality show host reputation on his willingness to decisively "fire" people, Bolton's hands-off and unclear dismissal fits a real-life pattern. Off-camera, Trump is skittish and uncomfortable with people he can't directly control, and frequently resorts to indirect ways to fire people, when he can bear to do it at all. 

For example, when he fired FBI director James Comey for refusing to soft-walk the Russia investigation, Trump had his personal bodyguard leave a note in Comey's empty office. He had his chief of staff, John Kelly, wait until his former secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, was on a trip to Africa (and on the toilet) before passing along the news of his firing. Kelly himself was spared from firing for months because Kelly was the one who normally fired people for Trump, and Trump couldn't bring himself to confront Kelly directly.

Perhaps the best example of Trump's fearfulness around firings came when he ordered White House counsel Don McGahn to fire special counsel Robert Mueller. Legally, Trump had the authority to do this, and was reportedly panicked about what Mueller would find: he told then-attorney general Jeff Sessions, "This is the end of my presidency. I'm fucked." But when McGahn refused to carry out the act for Trump, Trump backed off entirely rather than talk to Mueller directly.

Bolton was Trump's third national security advisor since taking office 33 months ago. 

Why should I care about this?

  • Presidents who can't muster up the courage to confront employees directly aren't strong enough for the job.
  • It's pretty bad when a president's ex-national security advisor waits all of 12 minutes to call the president a liar.