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Bolton's Absence On Korea Trip Raises Questions About His Standing With Trump


When President Trump stepped on into North Korean territory on Sunday, his national security adviser, John Bolton, was not there. Bolton's absence raised some questions about his standing in the White House, even as the administration is deciding on its next steps for negotiations over North Korea's nuclear program. NPR's Ayesha Rascoe has the story.

AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: President Trump says his national security adviser, John Bolton, is much more comfortable with using military force than he is.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: John Bolton is absolutely a hawk. If it was (ph) was up to him, he'd take on the whole world at one time, OK? But that doesn't matter because I want both sides.

RASCOE: That's Trump last month on NBC's "Meet The Press" after he decided against striking back at Iran over a downed U.S. drone. Bolton and other advisers had supported the strike. Known for his hard-line foreign policy positions on the Middle East, North Korea and beyond, Bolton has been front and center on the crisis in Venezuela and the rising tensions with Tehran.

He was in Hanoi in February when Trump walked away from talks with North Korea's Kim Jong Un. At the time, Bolton made clear he thought Kim was trying to pull a fast one on the U.S. Here he is on Fox shortly after the summit.


JOHN BOLTON: The North Koreans obviously would like to give up as little of their nuclear, biological and chemical weapons and ballistic missile programs as they could in exchange for very broad sanctions relief, and that's basically what they asked for. President wasn't buying it.

RASCOE: The question for some is whether Bolton still has the same influence since he wasn't present at this latest meeting with Kim. After the meeting, The New York Times reported that the White House might accept something less than North Korea's full denuclearization. Bolton struck back on Twitter, saying the National Security Council had not discussed this plan. He called it a reprehensible attempt to box in the president.

Abraham Denmark is Asia Program director at the Wilson Center and a former Obama-administration Defense Department official.

ABRAHAM DENMARK: It's been pretty clear for a while that there are deep fissures across the Trump administration on a wide variety of issues. And with North Korea, it seems that Bolton is more hawkish than some of his colleagues in the Trump administration.

RASCOE: Instead of being at the DMZ, Bolton was in Mongolia for a previously scheduled meeting with the country's prime minister. A source familiar with the situation said Bolton was not sidelined from the Trump-Kim meeting and that the president's push for full denuclearization is still the administration's policy.

But getting to that point will likely be a process, says Patrick Cronin, a former Bush-administration official who's now with the Hudson Institute.

PATRICK CRONIN: Everything is an interim step here in North Korea. You don't end the cold war in North Korea overnight.

RASCOE: Cronin says a freeze would allow the administration to move toward the ultimate goal of North Korea completely giving up its nuclear program.

CRONIN: I don't think the maximalist (ph) position versus a freeze is a big a gap as it seems because the freeze is the next way station for heading toward eventual denuclearization.

RASCOE: After their meeting at the DMZ, Trump and Kim agreed to restart negotiations in the next few weeks. In the past, these working-level talks have failed to gain traction. It's unclear whether the U.S. would be willing to move beyond the position pushed by Bolton. Trump says he likes to hear from all sides, but he always stresses that the final decision is up to him. Ayesha Rascoe, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOALS SONG, "2 TREES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
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