Last August, shortly after John Kelly replaced Reince Priebus as White House chief of staff and Steve Bannon was fired as the president’s chief strategist, John Bolton complained that he could no longer get a meeting with Donald Trump.
Just three months later, however, on the eve of Trump’s belligerent address to the United Nations, Bolton was once again in direct contact with the president. How did this turnabout take place? The reconnection was reportedly arranged by none other than Sheldon Adelson, the Trump campaign’s biggest donor.
Politico reported that the most threatening line in Trump’s UN speech—that he would cancel Washington’s participation in the Iran nuclear deal if Congress and U.S. allies did not bend to his efforts to effectively renegotiate it—came directly from Bolton and wasn’t in the original marks prepared by Trump’s staff.
The line was added to Trump’s speech after Bolton, despite Kelly’s recent edict [restricting Bolton’s access to Trump], reached the president by phone on Thursday afternoon from Las Vegas, where Bolton was visiting with Republican megadonor Sheldon Adelson. Bolton urged Trump to include a line in his remarks noting that he reserved the right to scrap the agreement entirely, according to two sources familiar with the conversation.
Some analysts have suggested that Bolton, an anti-Iran uber-hawk, has the visit to Washington of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to thank for his imminent elevation. But Adelson, a huge supporter of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, likely played a critical role in Bolton’s ascendancy.
History of Support
Adelson’s promotion of Bolton dates back at least to the days immediately after Trump’s November 2016 election. According to The New York Times, Adelson strongly supported Bolton for the position of deputy secretary of state as Trump was putting together his cabinet:
Mr. [Rex] Tillerson has expressed misgivings about having Mr. Bolton as his deputy, according to a person who has spoken with Mr. Trump in recent days. But Mr. Bolton remains under consideration for the job. And he enjoys a powerful ally in Sheldon Adelson, the casino magnate and Republican megadonor who favors the kind of hard-nosed posture that Mr. Bolton would bring.
Mr. Adelson’s backing has gone an especially long way with Mr. Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who is expected to take on an important but still undetermined role in the new administration.
Tillerson won that battle at the time in no small part because of the prospective difficulty of getting Bolton confirmed by the Senate (although it’s also likely that mainstream foreign-policy Republicans like Condoleezza Rice, Robert Gates, and James Baker—to whom Tillerson owed his surprise nomination as Secretary of State—believed Bolton would constitute a clear and present danger to national security). Despite a Republican majority in the Senate, Bolton failed to gain confirmation as George W. Bush’s UN ambassador in 2005 as a result of his extreme foreign-policy views.
Trump didn’t always like or identify with Adelson’s hawkish and pro-Likud views or even his money. Indeed, Trump told a December 2015 audience at the Likudist Republican Jewish Coalition, where Adelson serves on the board of directors and is, no doubt, its biggest funder:
You’re not gonna support me because I don’t want your money. You want to control your politicians; that’s fine. …I do want your support, but I don’t want your money.
Trump even mocked his primary opponent, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), for seeking Adelson’s financial support, tweeting:
Sheldon Adelson is looking to give big dollars to Rubio because he feels he can mold him into his perfect little puppet. I agree!
Trump has since not only accepted Adelson’s money—and given him a prize seat just behind Vice President Mike Pence at his inauguration—but aligned his positions on the Middle East with Adelson’s. His contempt for Rubio now seems highly ironic.
As we’ve documented on LobeLog, Trump dramatically changed his message on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in particular. At the outset of his campaign, for example, he pledged to be “sort of a neutral guy” between the two sides and even suggested that Israeli policies were themselves a major obstacle to reaching a settlement. ‘
As he closed in on the Republican nomination, eventually securing Adelson’s support for his general election campaign in spring 2016, all that had changed. Among other things, Trump had promised to move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, to depart from decades of U.S. policy opposed to Jewish settlements in the Occupied Territories, and to “dismantle the disastrous (nuclear) deal with Iran” as his “number one priority.”
Trump met Adelson in Las Vegas in early October 2017. One week later, Trump announced that he would no longer certify that Iran was complying with the Iran nuclear deal, even though the U.S. intelligence community and all of Washington’s European allies, as well as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), had found no evidence that Tehran was cheating.
One month later, Adelson used his own newspaper, The Las Vegas Review Journal, to express his frustration with Trump’s failure to quickly redeem his promise to move the embassy. Two months after that, Trump reversed a half century of U.S. policy by formally recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. According to Michael Wolff’s book Fire and Fury, .Steve Bannon credited Adelson for Trump’s decision.
Since the embassy announcement, the administration has aligned U.S. policy ever more closely with Israel’s right-wing government.
War with Iran?
The Iran nuclear deal is another issue near and dear to Trump’s biggest campaign backer and may have played a crucial role in Bolton’s appointment. Adelson’s ultra-hawkish views on Tehran are remarkably close to Bolton’s.
In 2013, Adelson called for Washington to detonate a nuclear bomb in an “Iranian desert.” If that did not persuade Iran to abandon its nuclear program, he said, the U.S. should drop an atomic bomb on Tehran, a city of more than 12 million people.
Two years later, Bolton, who has long favored a military solution to Iran’s purported nuclear aspirations, penned an oped titled “To Stop Iran, Bomb Iran,” in which he argued:
The inescapable conclusion is that Iran will not negotiate away its nuclear program. Nor will sanctions block its building a broad and deep weapons infrastructure. The inconvenient truth is that only military action like Israel’s 1981 attack on Saddam Hussein’s Osirak reactor in Iraq or its 2007 destruction of a Syrian reactor, designed and built by North Korea, can accomplish what is required. Time is terribly short, but a strike can still succeed.
Adelson got his wish to move the embassy to Jerusalem, but he still hasn’t succeeded in pushing the U.S. into a military confrontation with Iran. Trump and the GOP’s biggest donor may now have installed their man in what is perhaps the most powerful foreign-policy position in the U.S. government, besides the presidency itself. As a result, the likelihood of a new U.S. war of choice in the Middle East has risen dramatically.
Jim Lobe served for some 30 years as the Washington DC bureau chief for Inter Press Service and is best known for his coverage of U.S. foreign policy and the influence of the neoconservative movement.