Bolton, Kudlow on the rise, but risks abound

President Donald Trump has seen a parade of favored aides come and go his first year in office, some more quickly tha...

Posted: Apr 20, 2018 9:30 AM
Updated: Apr 20, 2018 9:30 AM

President Donald Trump has seen a parade of favored aides come and go his first year in office, some more quickly than others. But rarely have two advisers been as publicly praised or as internally aggrandized as national security adviser John Bolton and top economist Larry Kudlow, who entered the West Wing this month from perches at cable television networks.

The President has not explicitly told Bolton and Kudlow they report directly to him, bypassing chief of staff John Kelly. But multiple sources with knowledge of the hierarchy said it is clear that, in effect, Trump's two newest aides are also his direct reports.

Trump views his new staffers as mini-executives, with wide unilateral prerogative for their own areas of focus, according to two senior administration officials. He has given them wide leeway to hire who they like and dismiss those they don't, the official said. The willingness to allow his new team wide latitude to make staffing decisions reflects Trump's style as chief executive of the Trump Organization, where different divisions were headed and run by trusted confidants, including his children, who all reported to him.

Trump demanded utmost loyalty from the people who held those positions. He's made similar indications about Kudlow and Bolton. Speaking at an event outside Miami on Monday, Trump looked for Kudlow in the crowd to augment his argument the US is enjoying "one of the greatest booms ever."

"What do you think, Larry?" Trump called out, prompting a quick "yeah" from the economist.

"Good," Trump said. "I thought you were going to say that. Can you imagine if he didn't? Can you imagine if he said, 'No, I disagree with that?' "

He was even more explicit in his warning to Bolton.

"I'm a little jealous," Trump said as the crowd offered a standing ovation for Bolton's role in planning strikes on Syria. "Are you giving him all the credit? Oh, you know that means the end of his job, you know."

Cautionary tales

Already, their stature within Trump's inner-circle has been evident. But Kudlow's brush with UN Ambassador Nikki Haley demonstrated it can be hazardous getting too comfortable at the top.

Briefing reporters here ahead of a summit with the Japanese prime minister, Kudlow said "there might have been some momentary confusion" when Haley announced new sanctions on Russia over the weekend. Haley offered a tart rejoinder: "With all due respect, I don't get confused."

Externally, the episode was viewed as evidence of Haley's perceived independence in a chaotic administration. But inside the White House, it was also regarded as a sign of Kudlow's ascendence -- and, according to some aides, his overconfidence.

Trump wasn't bothered by Kudlow's off-hand comment, according to a person familiar with his thinking, despite the fact it stoked the appearance of internal tensions. Kudlow later called Haley to apologize. But some officials privately grumbled that it was Kudlow who was confused and not Haley -- who is a Cabinet member, required Senate confirmation, and by all measures outranks the director of the National Economic Council.

Even sources who favor Kudlow fear he may risk becoming overexposed -- a fate that befell ex-aides like short-time communications director Anthony Scaramucci. Kudlow has taken Trump's directive to defend him on television too literally, some sources worry, and risks over-saturating the airwaves and outshining his boss -- the quickest way to get fired in the Trump White House.

Different styles

Kudlow began his tenure by appearing almost daily on morning television from the White House North Lawn, holding court afterward with unruly throngs of reporters. Bolton, meanwhile, hasn't uttered a single word in public since taking up his post, even amid boiling national security issues such as strikes in Syria and preparations for meeting with Kim Jong Un. But his influence inside the White House has been deeply felt. He has cleared house on the national security team, often abruptly, in favor of his own team.

Bolton had only been in his role in an official capacity for a few days when he informed homeland security adviser Tom Bossert that he was giving him the boot. A stunned Bossert asked to speak to Kelly immediately. But Bolton, this source said, made clear that this was not Kelly's decision to make. Bossert was seen taking goodbye photos with staffers outside the West Wing by that Friday afternoon.

Kelly let Bossert's departure pass without much fanfare, but he has been frustrated by other officials Bolton has pushed out. He fervently advocated for Ricky Waddell, the deputy national security adviser who was handpicked by Bolton's predecessor, H.R. McMaster, to remain on the national security team. But he was also pushed out by Bolton, who said he wanted his own person in that position.

Bolton, one source remarked, is reasserting the authority of the national security adviser over the chief of staff.

While Bolton has taken an ax to top-level National Security Council staffers, insisting he be able to install his own team, Kudlow has been slower to replace members of the National Economic Council. Before moving into the job, Kudlow told associates that he'd likely retain most of the existing staff.

At least for now, both men remain firmly in Trump's good graces.

"I'm very happy to have Larry Kudlow with us. He's a special man. He's been a friend," Trump said ahead of a working lunch with his Japanese counterpart on Wednesday. "I've been on his show many, many times over the years. And we've had a lot of fun together. We haven't always agreed, but I noticed lately Larry is agreeing more and more with me, which makes me quite happy."

When the laughter subsided, Trump moved on to his other new favorite -- Bolton.

"John, it's great to have you and Larry with us. A real honor," he said.

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