John Bolton Biography

National security hawk John Bolton served as President George W. Bush's ambassador to the United Nations from August 2005 to December 2006, and became President Donald Trump's national security adviser on April 9, 2018.

Who Is John Bolton?

John Bolton (born November 20, 1948; full name John Robert Bolton; also known as John R. Bolton) is a self-described "libertarian conservative" who has served in every Republican presidential administration from Ronald Reagan to Donald Trump, including as U.N. ambassador under George W. Bush and as Trump's national security adviser. Outside of government, Bolton has worked for the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank; he's also shared his views on national security in publications such as the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, and via appearances on Fox News; in general, he values force above diplomacy when it comes to promoting U.S. national interests. Bolton wrote a memoir titled Surrender Is Not an Option (2007).

John Bolton Photo

John Bolton speaks at the National Oversight and Government Reform Committee on moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem on Capitol Hill on November 8, 2017 in Washington, DC.

Military Service

The Vietnam War was ongoing when Bolton graduated from Yale in 1970; he decided to enlist in the National Guard instead of going overseas to fight. He wrote in his memoir, "I had concluded that the Vietnam War was lost, and I made the cold calculation that I wasn't going to waste time on a futile struggle. Dying for your country was one thing, but dying to gain territory that antiwar forces in Congress would simply return to the enemy seemed ludicrous to me."

After joining the National Guard, he underwent training at Louisiana's Fort Polk from July to November 1970.

Geopolitical Positions

North Korea

A proponent of regime change in North Korea, in August 2017 Bolton suggested South Korea take over the country, something neither nation — nor neighboring China — wants.

In a September 2017 Fox News interview, Bolton said, "Anybody who thinks that more diplomacy with North Korea, more sanctions, whether against North Korea or an effort to apply sanctions against China, is just giving North Korea more time to increase its nuclear arsenal." He also argued for preemptive strikes against North Korea's nuclear weapons in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece from February 2018.


Bolton used a 2015 New York Times op-ed to call for the United States and Israel to preemptively bomb Iran's uranium enrichment facilities. President Barack Obama instead worked with other nations to forge a nonproliferation agreement with Iran: the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Yet despite International Atomic Energy Agency verification that Iran has been complying with the deal, in 2018 Bolton declared on Twitter: "There’s been far too much debate over whether #Iran is in violation of the #NuclearDeal. The point is that this was a bad deal to begin with and it’s a bad deal now and it should be torn up."

Regime change in Iran is another goal for Bolton. He has ties to the Iranian opposition group Mujahideen-e-Khalq (M.E.K. was on the U.S. list of foreign terrorist organizations from 1997 to 2012; the group also has very little support inside Iran). At a M.E.K. gathering in July 2017, Bolton said, "The declared policy of the United States of America should be the overthrow of the mullahs' regime in Tehran."


Bolton has called Russian interference in American elections an act of war that should not be tolerated, and condemned Russia's alleged poisoning of former spy Sergei Skripal. On Twitter on March 2, 2018, he wrote: "There needs to be a strategic response to Russia's new nuclear missiles to show our allies in Europe that we will not let #Russia push the U.S. or its allies around."

Taiwan and China

China considers Taiwan part of its territory, which the United States has acknowledged for decades with its "One China" policy. But Bolton supports Taiwanese self-determination; he's also proposed stationing U.S. troops on the island and increasing arms sales — moves that would likely antagonize China.

Trade is another problem area for Bolton vis-à-vis China; he's said that China unfairly subsidizes its exports and has accused the country of stealing intellectual property from the United States.


Bolton has suggested Jordan annex the West Bank, and Gaza become part of Egypt. He approved when President Trump decided to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem.


As it turned out that Saddam Hussein's regime had no weapons of mass destruction, many politicians and officials came to regret their support of the 2003 invasion. But Bolton has not changed his mind; he told the Washington Examiner in 2015, "I still think the decision to overthrow Saddam was correct. I think decisions made after that decision were wrong, although I think the worst decision made after that was the 2011 decision to withdraw U.S. and coalition forces."

Donald Trump's National Security Adviser

On April 9, 2018, Bolton started as Trump's new national security adviser, a role that does not require Senate confirmation. He'll oversee the National Security Council, coordinating intel from agencies like the Defense Department and Pentagon. Bolton is Trump's third national security adviser, following H.R. McMaster and Michael Flynn.

After Bolton's arrival, Trump pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal. And while preparations were underway for a June 2018 summit between Trump and North Korea's Kim Jong Un, Bolton made diplomacy more difficult by mentioning Libya's denuclearization in television interviews (under Muammar Gaddafi, Libya received sanctions relief for giving up its nuclear weapons program; afterward, an uprising resulted in Gaddafi being brutally killed by his people — Kim does not want to follow in his fellow dictator's footsteps). Bolton was reportedly a driving force behind the president cancelling the scheduled summit.

In May 2018, Bolton eliminated the position of cybersecurity coordinator on the National Security Council. The coordinator oversaw ways to counter digital weapons and cyber attacks, an ever-growing threat. In a memo, a Bolton aide said the position was unnecessary because other officials were tackling cybersecurity concerns.


Bolton has sported a thick mustache for decades. In 2016 the Washington Post reported that, according to Trump associates, Bolton had been considered as a potential secretary of state, but Trump's dislike of facial hair took him out of the running. 

Super PAC and PAC

Bolton had two political action committees: John Bolton PAC and John Bolton Super PAC (a PAC has fundraising limits, but can give money to candidates and campaigns; a super PAC can raise unlimited amounts to deliver their own messages in support of a cause or candidate, but cannot directly fund a campaign or political party). Over the years, the groups received millions of dollars — including $5 million between April 2014 and September 2016 from Robert L. Mercer — and supported conservative candidates.

A notice posted on March 31, 2018, said the PACs were suspending future political activities. However, they did not completely shut down, and both were left with money on the books: $600,000 for the PAC and $2.6 million for the super PAC.

Cambridge Analytica

Cambridge Analytica is a political data firm that said it could use information from Facebook to provide psychological insights into voters. In the spring of 2018, the New York Times reported that in August 2014 John Bolton Super PAC began buying data from the firm; Britain's Guardian newspaper revealed that the PAC coordinated with Cambridge Analytica to target voters of varying personality types with YouTube ads.

Over two years, the PAC paid Cambridge Analytica more than $1 million (in 2018, a spokesperson stated the PAC hadn't worked with the data firm since 2016).

When Was John Bolton Born?

John Bolton was born on November 20, 1948, in Baltimore, Maryland. His full name is John Robert Bolton; he's also known as John R. Bolton.

Wife and Daughter

Bolton's wife is named Gretchen; the couple have one daughter, Jennifer Sarah.

U.N. Ambassador Under George W. Bush

George W. Bush nominated Bolton to be ambassador to the U.N. on March 7, 2005. Despite the Senate being in Republican hands, Bolton did not make it through the confirmation process, so when the Senate was not in session in August, Bush made Bolton a recess appointment.

Bolton had previously discounted the U.N. — in a 1994 speech, he said, "There is no United Nations. There is an international community that occasionally can be led by the only real power left in the world, and that's the United States, when it suits our interests and when we can get others to go along." — and while on the job he clashed with Secretary General Kofi Annan. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice followed a more mainstream approach to foreign policy, so Bolton accomplished little during his tenure.

The Democratic party did well in the 2006 elections, which made it unlikely Bolton would win the Senate approval necessary for him to stay in the position. In December 2006, he resigned.

Confirmation Hearing

While Bolton's nomination was being considered by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, testimony came in (from people across the political spectrum) about his personal interactions and leadership choices. One allegation was that in 2002 he'd berated an analyst who wouldn't sign off on his claim that Cuba was actively developing biological weapons, then tried to get the analyst transferred (it was one of multiple accusations of bullying or attempting to punish colleagues). And a woman sent in a letter stating that after she'd questioned an aspect of a project Bolton was working on, he'd chased her through a Russian hotel and threw things at her.

Bolton admitted he'd tried to reassign intelligence analysts who disagreed with him, but testified it was because he'd lost confidence in them. In his memoir, he wrote that his opponents had "shifted the debate to whether I was a nice person, thereby inviting every person in government whom I had ever defeated in a policy battle, of whom there were many, to turn the issue into one of personal disparagement."

George W. Bush's Undersecretary of State

During George W. Bush's first term, Bolton served as undersecretary of state for arms control and international security. While in this position, he talked about Iraq with the BBC in 2002, saying, "There is no doubt in our mind that Saddam Hussein has an active chemical and biological warfare effort."

As undersecretary, Bolton also advocated for withdrawing from 1972's Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and keeping America out of the International Criminal Court. When it was discovered that North Korea was pursuing uranium enrichment (with help from Pakistan), Bolton supported the president's decision to leave the 1994 Agreed Framework with North Korea, which had frozen North Korea's plutonium enrichment program.

Other Government Roles

Bolton was general counsel for the U.S. Agency for International Development (1981-2), then assistant administrator for program and policy coordination at U.S. A.I.D. (1982-3). And he served as an assistant attorney general (1985–89) and assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs (1989-93).

In an April 2018 article, Newsweek reported that while at the Justice Department, Bolton denied a woman's request for unpaid leave to cope with health issues after giving birth; the request was eventually approved by the department, but Bolton reassigned the attorney upon her return.

Private Actions

Bolton has worked as a lawyer in private practice. During the 2000 Florida recount, he was in the state to support George W. Bush's legal team. He spent years at the conservative think tank the American Enterprise Institute and was a regular commentator on Fox News. Bolton also created the nonprofit foundation Project for the New American Century.

In 2016 Bolton spoke at a conference "Can Islam and the West Coexist?" put on by the American Freedom Alliance, which the Southern Poverty Law Center has labeled a hate group (a charge they deny). In his speech there, he "joked" that Barack Obama was a Muslim. Bolton also wrote a foreword for a book co-authored by anti-Muslim activist Pamela Geller.

Early Life and Education

Bolton's father was a firefighter and his mother a housewife. He grew up in Baltimore with his parents and younger sister.

Bolton received a scholarship to McDonough, a private school in Maryland. He went to Yale, graduating summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa in 1970. In 1971 he started at Yale Law School; one of his classmates — and friends — was future Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

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