President Trump made small talk with the Irish prime minister as they sat in the Oval Office in mid-March, accompanied by a handful of senior American and Irish officials.
Trump, who wore a green tie and filled his jacket pocket with a clump of shamrock to honor the Irish leader's annual St. Patrick's Day visit, turned with a half-smile to his hawkish national security adviser John Bolton, according to two sources who were in the room.
- "John," Trump asked, "Is Ireland one of those countries you want to invade?"
Behind the scenes: The joke captured how Trump often privately interacts with Bolton, even occasionally in front of foreign heads of state. "John has never seen a war he doesn't like," Trump said in a recent Oval Office meeting, according to a source with direct knowledge.
- Trump often privately ribs Bolton about his public persona, according to sources who've been in Situation Room meetings with them. (Trump teases most of his top advisers and officials in different ways. For example, during discussions of trade with China, Trump has needled Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin in front of other senior officials: "Steve, you're so weak. You're so weak. You didn't used to be this way in business. You're so weak now.")
- In a SitRoom meeting last year, Trump's national security team was going around the table discussing a topic that was nuanced and had no relation to major military action. A source in the room said that as the conversation got to Bolton, Trump joked: "Ok, John, let me guess, you want to nuke them all?" People in the room "died laughing," the source said.
Between the lines: That's not to say that Trump's view of Bolton is rose-colored. People close to Bolton have recently worried about his job security. Yet while Bolton can rub Trump the wrong way — a well-documented dynamic — and while internal and external Bolton critics often complain to Trump that Bolton will drag him into an unwanted war, Trump still defends his national security adviser in private conversations with critics.
- "He gets quite touchy when you bring it up," said a person who has criticized Bolton to the president. "He doesn't want anyone to believe he's anybody's pawn."
Trump's Bolton Doctrine: Trump has a strongly held theory of Bolton's value, according to senior administration officials and advisers to the president, including people who have privately recommended to Trump that he fire Bolton. Seven sources who have discussed Bolton with Trump told me the president says having Bolton on his team improves his bargaining position and gives him a psychological advantage over foes like Iran and North Korea.
- "Trump thinks that Bolton is a key part of his negotiating strategy," said the same person who described Trump as "touchy" about Bolton. "He thinks that Bolton's bellicosity and eagerness to kill people is a bargaining chip when he's sitting down with foreign leaders. Bolton can be the bad cop and Trump can be the good cop. Trump believes this to his core."
- A former senior administration official who remains close to Trump said Bolton's presence on the team "makes other people know that there is going to be that type of voice in the room."
Trump occasionally flips the good cop, bad cop script with his national security adviser. In the expanded bilateral meeting with the Dutch prime minister on Thursday in the Cabinet Room, Trump was criticizing European nations, including the Dutch, for not spending enough to meet their NATO obligations, according to a source familiar with the meeting. At one point, after Trump gave this criticism, he turned to Bolton, who was sitting to his right and said, "but, John, you love NATO right?"
- Bolton gave a very brief defense of NATO. Then Trump started drilling down again on his dissatisfactions, the source said.
Go deeper: Read my full story on Trump's relationship with Bolton, including previously unreported scenes from the Situation Room.