National Security Adviser John Bolton championed a plan to send U.S. troops to the southern border to keep migrants out, two senior administration officials told The Daily Beast.
After rejecting a proposal by the Department of Homeland Security to enlist the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) to set up migrant camps in Mexico, Bolton shared his thoughts directly with a like-minded Donald Trump, cutting out Homeland Security Chief Kirstjen Nielsen and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, the officials told The Daily Beast.
“Senior officials in the administration are concerned that the president is frustrated that we don’t have a viable solution at the border,” a third official said, in defense of Bolton.
Bolton shared few details about his talks with Trump with White House officials or cabinet secretaries, according to two officials.
The third official insisted Bolton did not come up with the military plan on his own, but was executing the commander in chief’s wishes, which the president expressed last week in a tweet threatening to “call up the U.S. Military and CLOSE OUR SOUTHERN BORDER!”
It was Bolton’s initial refusal to share details about his West Wing discussions with Kelly that caused the pair’s shouting match, previously reported by Bloomberg News and confirmed by two of the officials—though one of the officials said Kelly did the bulk of the shouting.
All three officials spoke on condition of anonymity to describe sensitive West Wing discussions.
Kelly was so furious after the heated discussions with Bolton and other officials that he left the White House for the rest of the day to cool off, two of the officials said.
“John Bolton is yelling fire in the crowded movie theater that is Trump’s mind,” one of the officials added.
In the lead-up to November’s midterm election, the Trump administration has floated measures on potential closure or further militarization of the southern border. Earlier this week, the San Francisco Chronicle and NBC News reported on a drafted executive action that would “make it exceedingly difficult” for asylum seekers traveling from Central America to enter at the U.S.-Mexico border.
DHS Secretary Nielsen, an ally of Kelly’s, last week proposed asking UNHCR to set up camps inside Mexico, and to enlist Mexico’s help in convincing migrants to go to those camps, but Bolton thought that plan was unworkable, two of the officials said.
He then went dark on his discussions with the president, which frustrated those well versed on border issues who wanted to ensure the administration didn’t repeat its botched rollout last year of Trump’s “travel ban.” Bolton has attended only a few of the dozens of senior-level meetings the National Security Council has held on the border issue this year, two of the officials said.
No one from the administration had approached the UNHCR with the DHS proposal, but the Mexican government had requested that they help “support access to the Mexican asylum system by individuals fleeing violence and persecution,” spokesperson Chris McGrath emailed Friday. “This includes working to increase and improve the shelter spaces available for individuals who are applying for asylum.”
A West Wing official told The Daily Beast that one reason Bolton didn’t want to share his plan widely was his ongoing campaign to clamp down on leaks to the press. This official noted the “rich irony” of that rationale resulting in leaks to The Daily Beast.
Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis was not part of the discussions, but has provided a plan to deploy several hundred troops in line with Bolton’s desires. Bolton has complained to Trump that Mattis has slow-rolled responding in the past, two current and one former senior administration official said.
That came after Mattis responded to a request for border reinforcements from DHS, according to a source briefed on the evolving border plan, who said the retired general had not approved everything the department had asked for. In particular, DHS had wanted more direct military support for Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) functions like detention operations.
Instead, the military plan would provide aid with planning, engineering, and logistics, including fixed-wing and helicopter transportation for CBP, which would result in a less militarized border than administration hawks desire.
Bolton’s secretive, go-it-alone approach to border policy is markedly different from that of his predecessor, retired Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster. One of the officials said that McMaster used to hold phone calls on Tuesdays and Fridays with most of the cabinet secretaries on the line, so that they could discuss matters and feel heard.
The NSC, the Pentagon, and Homeland Security did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Nor did McMaster’s spokesperson.
“He was a really good honest broker. The day Bolton started in the job, the phone calls stopped,” the official told The Daily Beast, adding that now it can take days for cabinet secretaries to get on Bolton’s calendar to hash out issues.
A senior administration official pushed back, saying Bolton met with Mattis early in his tenure and that Mattis requested that he hold fewer national security council meetings, adding that Bolton has regular in-person meetings with cabinet officials, and a weekly breakfast with Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.