White House counselor Kellyanne Conway on Wednesday confirmed President Donald Trump is considering “five-plus” candidates to replace former national security adviser John Bolton, and did not rule out the possibility that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo could take over the role’s responsibilities.
“It wouldn’t be unprecedented,” Conway told Fox News, referring to Henry Kissinger’s occupation of both offices for two years under former Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford.
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“Under that scenario, I would call that five-plus, as the number of candidates,” she continued. “But clearly, [the] secretary of State has the president’s ear and his trust, and has been making great strides in implementing the president’s agenda around the globe. And he will continue to be a very important, strong voice here as America’s top diplomat.”
Conway suggested that even if Pompeo does not assume leadership of the National Security Council from his perch atop the State Department, he will play an outsized role advising the president on the selection of the administration’s fourth national security adviser.
“I believe that Secretary of State Pompeo is doing an excellent job over at State and that he will, of course, have input into who the next NSC head is, as well,” she said. “But there are many people of diverse backgrounds, all solid candidates, I know first-hand the president is considering for that position.”
Pompeo is unlikely to campaign openly for both posts, knowing the president is resistant to such brazen appeals. He may also be hesitant to wear two hats within the administration because the additional duties would likely entail even more face-time with Trump — meaning increased opportunities to clash with his boss.
“The rush to give Secretary of State Pompeo another big job … is fraught with bureaucratic and political complications,” said John Gans, author of “White House Warriors,” a book about the National Security Council. “Even more, it replicates and even exacerbates one of the most problematic dynamics with Bolton’s tenure: when all advice and ideas run through one person, which this scheme would formalize, if that person falls out favor, the president is on his own.”
Gans also said Kissinger’s tenure leading both the State Department and the NSC, which “created power imbalances in the cabinet and management challenges at State and Defense,” serves as a potent warning against a potential national security adviser Pompeo.
Ford stripped Kissinger of the second title in 1975 because he and his White House “thought giving so much authority over something so important made the president seem less presidential,” Gans said.
“It is safe to assume that granting so much prestige to Pompeo is likely to be just as bothersome if not more so for Trump, given his insecurities and track record with high-profile aides,” he cautioned.
Analysts and former officials say the more likely outcome is that Trump will choose an NSC chief who already works well with Pompeo. Another possibility is that Pompeo will be given the national security adviser title, but the role’s day-to-day operations would be managed by a super-empowered deputy so that the secretary of State can spend most of his time at Foggy Bottom.
Trump announced Bolton’s surprise ouster on Tuesday via Twitter, though the two men provided conflicting accounts of the circumstances that precipitated his exit. Trump claimed he asked for Bolton’s resignation during a meeting in the Oval Office on Monday night. Bolton asserted he offered to step down, but the president told him, “Let’s talk about it tomorrow.”
Numerous media reports indicated prior to Bolton’s departure that had been largely sidelined in recent White House talks aimed at winding down American involvement in Afghanistan, butting heads with Pompeo amid deliberations.
Bolton also reportedly objected to a planned round of negotiations at Camp David with leaders of the Afghan Taliban, a summit Trump announced over the weekend he had canceled following an attack by the Islamist militia in Kabul that killed an American soldier.
Trump on Tuesday tweeted that he “will be naming a new National Security Advisor next week,” and told reporters in the Oval Office on Wednesday that there are “a lot of great people who want” Bolton’s job.
“There are five people that I consider very highly qualified, good people I’ve gotten to know over the last three years,” he said.
Asked whether Trump could reach a decision as soon as Friday, Conway said: “The timing and the decision are all the president’s, and we’ll be ready for that. I think he can’t go wrong with the number of these different options that he has.”
POLITICO on Wednesday reported that the dozen-plus names the White House has floated include Stephen Biegun, the current U.S. envoy for North Korean issues; Paula Dobriansky, a former undersecretary of state for democracy and global affairs in former president George W. Bush’s administration; Fred Fleitz, a former CIA analyst who served as Bolton’s chief of staff; and Brian Hook, the U.S. envoy for Iran issues.
Nahal Toosi contributed to this report.