WASHINGTON — The next Republican nominee will likely face a former secretary of state and represent a party with pockets of intense, unresolved disagreements over the role of the United States in the world. And so, into that morass, comes former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton who seeks to be Republicans' Svengali on these issues, aiming to set the standard for Republican foreign policy.
At the same time, Bolton keeps floating a presidential bid of his own — a gambit that puts his issues in the spotlight, but at the cost of potentially making him seem unserious.
Bolton, who served at the U.N. in 2005 and 2006, represents a hawkish wing of the Republican Party that is now seemingly coming back into vogue among conservatives nearly eight years after George W. Bush left office. With the exception of Sen. Rand Paul, the likely Republican candidates have so far mostly hewn to a hawkish, if often vague line on foreign policy, attacking Obama for not being tough enough on ISIS and decrying the potential nuclear deal with Iran. Jeb Bush made headlines when he announced his foreign policy advisers recently, which includes key Bush administration figures such as Paul Wolfowitz.
Bush's campaign has set off some Republicans who advise on policy issues by demanding they consult no other campaigns, the New York Times reported last week.
Bolton, so far, is not a one-campaign man.
The former ambassador, a familiar sight with his glasses and signature mustache, could be seen making the rounds at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) last weekend, where he spoke onstage and gave frequent interviews on Radio Row. Bolton has repeatedly floated the idea of a presidential run for himself, but he's also been informally advising some of the potential candidates on foreign policy.
In an interview with BuzzFeed News on the margins of the conference, Bolton said his objective was to keep the party close to what he views as its naturally interventionist nature.
"What I think is critical is to make sure that all the Republican candidates, to the extent it's possible, understand as a matter of the gravest presidential responsibility that national security is their top job," Bolton said. "And if they understand that and address the issues, I'd consider that a mission accomplished."
"I know what my objective is, and that's to make sure the party focuses on national security," Bolton said.
Bolton insists that his presidential considerations are for real, and that if he runs, he would run to win. But in reality, people run for president for all sorts of reasons: to sell books, to raise money, to highlight issues. Bolton's presidential hints keep him in the news from time to time, amplifying his platform and maybe keeping him more relevant than a former U.N. ambassador who is best known for a job he held 10 years ago would be otherwise.
What's less public is Bolton's dispensation of foreign policy advice to people who could be the next president. He's advised Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal on foreign policy, BuzzFeed News reported last year, and was recently overheard talking with Sen. Ted Cruz at a D.C. restaurant. ("To me, Johnny's Half Shell is like the Fox News cafeteria, so I normally don't pay attention to who else is in there," Bolton said when asked about the incident.) Bolton declined to elaborate on who else he's advising, but indicated there were others: "I think it's up to them to announce who they're talking to, I consider the conversations private," he said. "I thought the conversation with Cruz was private, too." Other potential campaigns didn't respond to inquiries about whether Bolton is advising their candidates. Marco Rubio spokesman Alex Conant said, "We don't discuss outside advisers, aside to say that Marco routinely talks to a broad spectrum of people."
Richard Grenell, who was Bolton's spokesman at the U.N., said he thought Bolton was unlikely to commit to a candidate.
"I signed a new contract with Fox through January 2017," Grenell said in an email. "So I will be complimenting, helping and criticizing every candidate — not sure what [Bolton] is doing. I think the same."
Bolton has also sought to influence Congressional campaigns via his PAC, which raised around $7 million during the midterms and spent it on candidates like new Sens. Tom Cotton and Joni Ernst, both of whom are very hawkish. Bolton was at CPAC with several staffers including his PAC director Sarah Tinsley, whom he pointed to when asked whether he had started doing the things a person who is running for president might do, like hiring a campaign staff.
One likely candidate who hasn't reached out to Bolton for advice, Bolton said, is Paul. Paul's non-interventionist foreign policy views have set him apart from the rest of the Republican field, but he hasn't pulled the others towards him in this area. Instead, he's an outlier.
In Bolton's view, this was never in question.
"There is no non-interventionist wing of the party," Bolton said. "I think people are attracted to a libertarian domestic policy because that's where the party is. I consider myself a libertarian on domestic issues. The Republican party has always believed that a strong American posture internationally is critical to maintain a free way of life here at home. I think a lot of people who might be attracted to Rand Paul's domestic policy are appalled when they learn what his foreign policies are."
National security is going to be a "key issue" in 2016, Bolton said.
"The question is whether the Republican Party has the wit to take it up and use it to our advantage," he said.