Donald Trump said Tuesday he had ordered his national security advisor, John Bolton, to resign. But the ousted aide quickly insisted he quit first, then called the president's version of events untrue.
The drama unfolded after months of deteriorating relations between Trump and his hawkish senior aide.
Trump tweeted just before noon that he had asked Bolton for his resignation and thanked him for 'his services,' but Bolton quickly shoved back, texting a Fox News Channel host live on air that 'I resigned,' then later texting NBC News that the president had never asked him to quit.
'I offered to resign last night,' Bolton told NBC in the text message. 'He never asked for it, directly or indirectly. I slept on it, and resigned this morning.'
Bolton was photographed outside the West Wing on Tuesday morning just before 9:00, standing on the spot where a U.S. Marine is stationed whenever the president is at work – suggesting that Trump was still in the White House residence and didn't meet with him.
After Trump announced Bolton's departure, federal agents were seen at his Washington, D.C. home, removing government property including computer equipment and a shredder.
His abrupt departure and its ugly public aftermath was reportedly set off by the two disagreeing over Trump's plan to host Taliban representatives at Camp David for peace talks last weekend, days before the 18th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks.
Trump publicly announced the cancellation of the previously unreported peace talk plan on Saturday evening; Bolton's had strongly opposed dealing with the Taliban face-to-face.
The two had already fallen out over Iran, North Korea, Russia and Venezuela; Bolton previously refused to go on television to defend Trump's Afghanistan and Russia policies during last month's G7 summit in France.
They spoke Monday before Trump left for a political rally in North Carolina, accoding to a White House official. Bolton claimed Tuesday that the conversation did not focus on a Taliban-related falling-out.
But he sent the White House a two sentence resignation letter Tuesday morning, and Trump tweeted his departure at 11:58 a.m., an hour and a half before Bolton was due to stand beside Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin for a rare White House press briefing about a raft of new anti-terrorism sanctions.
The two Cabinet members smiled broadly when they were asked if they had been 'blindsided' by the sudden departure. 'I'm never surprised,' Pompeo grinned.
The president offered no public hint of who might get the job next.
Charles Kupperman, Bolton's deputy, became acting national security adviser on Tuesday. Bolton said in January that Kupperman 'has been an advisor to me for more than thirty years.' That, a White House aide said Tuesday, suggests Trump will quickly sweep him out as part of a National Security Council housecleaning.
Kupperman was already scheduled to be out of the White House in two weeks for an unspecified surgery.
Two White House officials said Ambassador to Germany Ric Grenell quickly emerged as a leading candidate to be Trump's fourth national security adviser in less than three years. One source said the president brought his name up to members of his senior staff shortly after tweeting about Bolton's dismissal.
Grenell was an early Trump backer and is the administration's highest ranking openly gay official. A source close to Grenell said Tuesday that he knows 'how to deliver in a tough post.' A State Department official speculated that the president might choose him because 'one of the most reliably hard-charging diplomats' in the U.S. foreign service.
A different White House official cautioned that since Grenell was Bolton's chief spokesman at the United Nations during the George W. Bush administration, he could be seen as 'fruit from the poisoned tree.'
Robert Blair, another potential Bolton successor, is a senior adviser to acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney. Blair was in charge of national security programs for the White House Budget Office when Mulvaney was its director.
The Wall Street Journal first reported that Blair was in the mix. He did not respond to a request for comment on Tuesday.
Bloomberg News reported that other possible replacements for Bolton 'discussed by Trump associates' include Robert O'Brien, the president's envoy for hostage affairs, and senior Pompeo adviser Brian Hook.
A White House aide said Jared Kushner, the president's son-in-law and senior adviser, has expressed a preference for Hook.
It's unclear what Bolton's next career move will be.
A Fox News Chanel producer on Tuesday called it 'unlikely' that the network will hire him as an on-air pundit.
A source at the Gatestone Institute, an Israel-friendly think tank where he was chairman before coming to the White House, said Tuesday that Bolton was still expected to deliver a previously scheduled luncheon speech to its members on September 18 in New York.
Trump started the mad scramble with a pair of late morning tweets on Tuesday.
'I informed John Bolton last night that his services are no longer needed at the White House,' the president said in a tweet two minutes before midday, and an hour and a half before Bolton was scheduled to participate in a briefing to reporters at the White House.
'I disagreed strongly with many of his suggestions, as did others in the Administration, and therefore I asked John for his resignation, which was given to me this morning,' Trump tweeted.
Pompeo told reporters during the afternoon briefing that 'there were many times where Ambassador Bolton and I disagreed, that's to be sure.'
He added that the administration's policies were the president's, not Bolton's. 'I don't think any leader around the world should make any assumption that, because some one of us departs, that President Trump's foreign policy would change in a material way,' he said.
In his own tweet sent a few minutes after Trump's, apparently from somewhere on the White House's own computer network, Bolton said the president blew him off when he tried to resign Monday night. He tweeted: 'I offered to resign last night and President Trump said, 'Let's talk about it tomorrow'.'
He sent a text message to Fox News Channel host Brian Kilmeade, reading: 'I resigned.' Kilmeade read it on the air.
The squabbling versions of Bolton's departure came after White House reporters were told that he, Pompeo and Mnuchin would brief them at 1: 30 p.m.
Bolton was seen as a war hawk who favored military intervention around the globe – a view that was at odds with Trump's insistence that America's troops should stop being 'the world's policemen.'
He clashed repeatedly with Pompeo over foreign policy and was recently sidelined during internal White House discussions about how to handle conflicts with the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Bolton opposed Trump's proposals for a troop drawdown in Afghanistan, and was a leading detractor inside the White House of the Camp David peace summit Trump planned and later canceled.
The president called it off after a Taliban suicide bombing attack in Kabul killed 12 people, including an American soldier.
Tensions between Bolton and Pompeo ramped up in recent weeks. The two men – the top foreign policy advisers to the president – rarely spoke outside of formal meetings, CNN has reported.
Bolton was also in periodic clashes with acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney.
Bolton, 70, entered the administration in April 2018 after Trump dispensed with his second national security adviser, three-star Army general H.R. McMaster.
He had been a prominent Fox News contributor with aggressive views on the Obama-era Iran nuclear deal and on pressuring NATO members to increase their defense spending.
Trump sometimes joked about Bolton's image as a warmonger, reportedly saying in one Oval Office meeting that 'John has never seen a war he doesn't like.'
But in recent months there had been whispers that Trump was losing patience with him.
When Trump went to South Korea at the end of June and crossed into the DMZ to meet Kim Jong-un, the first sitting president to meet a North Korean leader in the separation zone between the two countries, Bolton was in Mongolia.
This article has been adapted from its original source.
© Associated Newspapers Ltd.