John Bolton’s Epic Score-Settling

In his memoir, John Bolton writes that the President adopted “obstruction of justice as a way of life.”

Trump’s former national-security adviser writes a scathing account of the President’s “stunning ignorance,” incompetence, and corruption.

John Bolton was not looking to make friends in the Trump White House when he served as the national-security adviser, nor did he do so. Bolton’s disdain for his colleagues in the Administration announces itself early and often in his new memoir, “The Room Where It Happened,” which is due out Tuesday, pending the outcome of a legal battle with Trump’s Justice Department. Bolton mocks, disparages, or clashes with Steven Mnuchin, Nikki Haley, Rex Tillerson, James Mattis, Mike Pompeo, and others, all within the book’s first hundred pages. By the end of the nearly five-hundred-page book, Bolton also criticizes Mick Mulvaney, Jared Kushner, the entire White House economic team, many of his foreign counterparts, and, although he shares their misgivings about Trump, the House Democrats who impeached the President.

This is Washington score-settling on an epic scale. Mnuchin, the Treasury Secretary, “had no idea what he was talking about.” Haley, who served as the Ambassador to the United Nations, is a self-promoting pol who sucked up to Trump’s family. Mattis, the former Defense Secretary, is a bureaucratic obstructionist who deluded himself into thinking that an “axis of adults” could manage the unmanageable President. Pompeo, the Secretary of State, who would emerge as the great internal enemy during Bolton’s seventeen-month tenure, is an untruthful hypocrite who flatters Trump to his face while dumping on him privately. “He is so full of shit,” Pompeo writes of the President in a note to Bolton while they are in a conference room in Singapore, listening to Trump exchange frothy compliments and unrealistic denuclearization plans with the North Korean dictator, Kim Jong Un. After that summit, Pompeo told a Principals Committee meeting in the White House that Trump’s nuclear diplomacy with North Korea had “zero probability of success.” Later, after a G-20 meeting, Pompeo told Bolton that Trump was always causing problems: “You can’t leave him alone for a minute.”

One of the few other senior advisers to Trump with whom Bolton did not openly clash was John Kelly, perhaps because they both shared an outsized disdain for the President. Kelly, the retired Marine general who served as the second of Trump’s four-and-counting White House chiefs of staff, sat Bolton down to brief him a couple of days before Bolton’s first day on the job, in the spring of 2018. Trump swears and speaks to his staff in “rough language,” Kelly cautioned Bolton. Trump routinely attacks the two previous Republican Presidents, George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush, and despises those who served in their Administrations, as Bolton did. Trump changes his mind “constantly,” Kelly said. Bolton was nothing if not forewarned. Two years and two months after that conversation, Bolton has come forward to say in public what Kelly told him privately that day—and much more. The ultimate score-settling in the book is not with Pompeo or Mnuchin. It is with Donald Trump, a man so corrupt and profoundly unsuited for the Presidency that his own national-security adviser, a lifelong Republican with unimpeachable partisan credentials, came to believe he adopted “obstruction of justice as a way of life.”

Of course, many will—and already have—objected to the book on the grounds that Bolton is a greedy and opportunistic hypocrite, who took a reported two million dollars from Simon & Schuster for writing the memoir but did not testify before Congress about allegations contained within it during the House impeachment hearings and Senate trial of Trump. Bolton should have been a key witness, given that the proceedings concerned Trump’s scheme to pressure Ukraine to launch politically motivated investigations of the Biden family. Bolton’s staff testified that he called Trump’s scheme an inappropriate “drug deal,” and Bolton confirms in the book that he heard from the President himself about his quid-pro-quo withholding of U.S. military aid to Ukraine. With such explosive information, Bolton’s failure to speak out remains largely unexplained, or at least not convincingly explained, in the memoir. The book does, however, amply confirm Bolton’s reputation as a fierce infighter with an inflated view of himself and a willingness to blame others for just about everything. He is clearly a flawed narrator and colleague—let’s stipulate that. As for the book itself, the reviewer at the Times has already weighed in on its merits as a piece of writing. Twitter, meanwhile, seems to be taking care of Bolton’s merits as a human being. The many failings of Bolton are the one thing that Adam Schiff and Trump agree on. Schiff, who led the impeachment inquiry that Bolton refused to help, called him an author but “no patriot.” Trump, in a series of post-midnight tweets early on Thursday, called him “a disgruntled boring fool,” a “wacko,” “incompetent” “dope” who “never had a clue, was ostracized & happily dumped.”

Just as notably, the President did not offer a convincing rebuttal, or much of a denial at all, about Bolton’s allegations, which go well beyond what previous insider tell-alls have already put on the voluminous public record about Trump. Bolton’s book, in fact, is a scathing and revelatory account of Trump’s “stunning ignorance,” incompetence, and corruption, and it should be taken seriously for what it is: the harshest on-the-record indictment yet of Trump by a former subordinate. A copious notetaker in meetings, Bolton is known as a flamethrower, not a liar. The Administration is taking extraordinary legal measures to suppress his account, with the Justice Department claiming in court this week that it illegally discloses classified information. This legal argument would be impossible to make if the Administration were claiming that Bolton’s allegations are simply untrue. There is no such thing as a classified lie. The bottom line is that while Bolton offers a portrait of Trump that is politically and personally self-serving, it is also indispensable, jaw-dropping, and more specific about high-level wrongdoing than the many embittered memoirs and background gripes to journalists that preceded it.

There are many other former senior officials who could have written a version of this book but did not. John Kelly appears to have loathed Trump as much as Bolton does, yet he has not shared what he knows with the public. When Jim Mattis, Trump’s much admired first Defense Secretary, published his own recent memoir, he wrote of a “duty to silence” to the President and refused to elaborate about why he quit. Even when he did speak out recently, it was only to criticize Trump’s use of violent force, earlier this month, to remove peaceful protesters from Lafayette Square for a photo op. On the subject of what he saw inside the White House, Mattis has remained silent. Rex Tillerson, Trump’s ignominiously dumped first Secretary of State, told an interviewer that Trump often asked him to do illegal things, orders which he refused, but Tillerson has never said what those were. I’d love to hear from Paul Ryan, the former Republican Speaker of the House, who left a promising career in politics rather than continue in office through the Trump Presidency. I’d love to hear from Reince Priebus and Kirstjen Nielsen and Jeff Sessions and all the other enablers, but they have not spoken up, at least with their names attached. Bolton, flawed as he is, is the Trump truth-teller we are stuck with—for now. And what a truth he offers us.

As the national-security adviser, Bolton’s lens for viewing Trump was the President’s interactions with the rest of the world. His most startling and newsworthy allegation is that Trump not only fawned over authoritarian leaders but repeatedly sought to do inappropriate or legally dubious favors for autocrats in exchange for them boosting Trump’s reëlection chances. The Ukraine scheme that led to the President’s impeachment, Bolton argues, was hardly an outlier; other possibly impeachable offenses included Trump’s conduct in dealings with the authoritarian leaders of China and Turkey. Bolton says that he shared his concerns about the President’s actions with the Attorney General, William Barr, and that Barr was also “very worried about the appearances Trump was creating.” (Barr has put out a statement that is meant to dispute this.)

Other parts of Bolton’s withering download on Trump are neither criminal nor impeachable, just profoundly depressing. Has there ever been a stupider, more ignorant President? Trump thought Finland was part of Russia. He did not know that Britain is a nuclear power. He told Kelly an invasion of Venezuela would be “cool.” Trump was obsessed with following up on the empty promises of the Singapore nuclear summit by making sure that Kim received a copy of a CD with the Elton John song “Rocket Man” on it that Trump had autographed for him. Bolton portrays Trump as a President single-mindedly consumed with himself and his prospects for reëlection, rather than any policy goals. But if there is one policy takeaway from the book, it is that nato is in dire trouble if Trump wins a second term. The President’s hostility to the alliance would reappear over and over in private, no matter how many times his advisers thought that they had convinced him of its vital importance. Trump saw Europeans as adversaries, not America’s closest allies, and often, according to Bolton, told advisers different versions of the idea that “the EU is worse than China, only smaller.”

Bolton is scathing, but also frustratingly vague at times, when it comes to the central premise of the book: that Trump repeatedly sought to secretly do improper favors for authoritarian leaders in order to help himself politically. Trump’s most astonishing conduct, according to Bolton, was with the Chinese leader Xi Jinping. While telling his supporters that he was being tough on China, Trump privately asked Xi to help him win reëlection. In one sensational meeting on the sidelines of the G-20, last year, in Osaka, Japan, Trump was “pleading” with Xi for campaign help and asked Xi to buy more soybeans and wheat from U.S. farm states to aid him, Bolton says. At the opening dinner of the same summit, Bolton says, the U.S. interpreter told him that Trump spoke approvingly of Xi’s decision to imprison more than a million Chinese Uighurs in modern-day concentration camps.

As for Turkey, Bolton claims that Trump offered to try to get the Justice Department to drop a criminal case against the Turkish financial institution Halkbank that might have implicated the Turkish leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Trump told Erdoğan that he could get the case dismissed as soon as he got rid of Obama-era prosecutors and replaced them with his own appointees. Bolton writes that he interpreted the move as Trump’s effort “to show he had as much arbitrary authority as Erdogan.” This anecdote is one of the book’s most telling moments. Trump blatantly sells out American democracy and the rule of law, yet he does not have the power he brags about and cannot deliver on his promise to get the case thrown out.

On the Ukraine matter that led to Trump’s impeachment, Bolton’s position is that his testimony would not have made a difference to the ultimate acquittal by the Republican-controlled Senate. His account of what he knew seems tailored to make that argument. Still, Bolton confirms his former aides’ sensational testimony about the “drug deal,” and reveals that he, Pompeo, and the Defense Secretary, Mark Esper, together tried, eight to ten times, to convince Trump to release the nearly four hundred million dollars in security assistance to Ukraine that Trump was holding hostage for personal political gain. This is the testimony the Senate Republicans refused to compel last winter—allegations that the American public should have heard Bolton make under oath, and subject to cross-examination, during the abuse-of-power trial of the President. A book tour, alas, just isn’t the same as a sworn hearing under the penalty of perjury.

So what now? A new round of hearings in Congress? A second impeachment? Don’t count on it. Less than five months before the Presidential election, Donald Trump isn’t going anywhere. And John Bolton is just another former White House employee with a No. 1 best-seller.

Susan B. Glasser