Bolton book tells all about Trump — except what makes him tick
As an insider catalog of White House calamity and presidential dysfunction, John Bolton’s memoir of his 16 months as President Trump’s national security advisor may have no equal.
In Bolton’s telling, the bedlam of the Trump White House never stops. He recounts crisis after crisis on page after disturbing page of “The Room Where it Happened,” seemingly in stunned astonishment at what he is witnessing.
“Has there ever been a presidency like this,” an exhausted West Wing colleague asks Bolton during a brief respite from the chaos. “I assured him that there had not,” replies Bolton, a veteran of three previous Republican administrations.
There has never been such a score-settling memoir by a recently departed top White House official who eviscerates his president and former colleagues so ruthlessly. In Bolton’s view, they deserve it.
He describes Trump asking Chinese leader Xi Jinping to help him get reelected by buying more American soybeans and wheat. He calls the president’s meetings with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un “a foolish mistake,” more about photo ops than a nuclear deal. He says Trump canceled imminent airstrikes on Iran because “he did not want a lot of body bags on television,” which Bolton calls “the most irrational thing I ever witnessed any president do.”
Yet so much of Trump’s presidency already has spilled forth into public view at impeachment hearings, in flurries of tweets and in his own rambling public monologues that Bolton’s details don’t often shock; they deaden.
For someone who saw Trump closer than most, he makes little effort to explain or even speculate about the source of Trump’s behavior. He falls back on the standard Washington explanation for Trump’s actions: power for its own sake. It’s a motivation that Bolton, an ambitious, Yale-educated lawyer shunted into secondary posts in prior administrations, understands well.
“I am hard-pressed to identify any significant Trump decision during my tenure that wasn’t driven by re-election calculations,” he writes.
But that is true, more or less, for every president. The deeper questions are what drives Trump, how the Republican Party that Bolton spent his career serving could unite around him and what lasting damage his presidency will have on the country.
On those questions, Bolton is silent.
Getting through the dense parts of Bolton’s narrative produces a numbing effect that must closely resemble what it feels like to serve in Trump’s badly divided White House.
He is blistering toward Nikki Haley, Trump’s former United Nations ambassador, whom he portrays as a lightweight intent on positioning herself for a presidential run. He is equally cutting toward former Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis, the Marine general who resigned in late 2018 over Trump’s abrupt decision to pull troops out of Syria, and many others.
Here are five things you should know about John Bolton’s memoir of his time as President Trump’s national security advisor.
A religious note-taker, Bolton writes in lawyerly, lumbering prose, delivering a mostly chronological accounting of meetings, hallway chatter and Oval Office confabs. The account is only enlivened when Trump appears and says something off the wall. Bolton then offers his blistering judgment.
It’s revealing that Bolton opens the book with a quote from the Duke of Wellington at Waterloo: “Hard pounding, this, gentlemen. Let’s see who will pound the longest.”
The pounding he delivers bears little resemblance to predecessors’ books. It is nothing like Henry Kissinger’s magisterial three-volume memoir of his time as secretary of State and national security advisor during the Nixon and Ford administrations — a sweeping account of Kissinger astride the world.
Bolton strives for occasional sweep, taking policy-heavy side trips into the failed Trump effort to overthrow Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro, and Trump’s withdrawal from the Reagan-era missile treaty, a Bolton target for decades. But he quickly gets dragged back into the White House turmoil.
Bolton was apoplectic when Trump announced to his shocked advisors in the summer of 2019 that he wanted to invite leaders of the Taliban — whom the U.S. had been fighting for close to two decades in Afghanistan — to Camp David for peace talks.
“Only Trump could conceive of the President of the United States meeting with these thugs,” he writes. The idea was later abandoned after a suicide bombing in Kabul killed an American soldier.
Coming out with the book now, five months before the election and five months after Trump’s Senate impeachment trial, has made Bolton a target for the White House, which has called him a traitor and a liar, and for Democrats who say Bolton should have revealed all this when it mattered.
The Trump administration announced Tuesday it was seeking an injunction to block formal release of the book, arguing that Bolton didn’t complete a government review for possible classified information, and that its release could harm national security.
Bolton claims the White House dragged out the review to shield Trump from embarrassment in an election year, and that it’s impossible to halt the book’s publication now, with copies already distributed for sale.
A U.S. District Court judge on Saturday denied the injunction, writing, “While Bolton’s unilateral conduct raises grave national security concerns, the government has not established that an injunction is an appropriate remedy.”
In an epilogue, Bolton defends his failure to come forward during the impeachment, arguing that the House narrowed its inquiry solely to Trump’s moves to hold up military aid to Ukraine until it agreed to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son. Bolton says he viewed the maneuver as a partisan exercise, not a comprehensive investigation of Trump’s “ham-handed involvement in other matters.”
The Senate, he noted, declined to subpoena him during the impeachment proceedings.
“I was content to bide my time,” Bolton writes, about the timing of his book. “I believed throughout, as the line in ‘Hamilton’ goes, that ‘I am not throwing away my shot,’ especially not to please the howling press, the howling advocates of impeachment, or Trump’s howling defenders.”
Bolton has long shared Trump’s disdain for the State Department diplomats, intelligence analysts and journalists that make up the capital’s foreign policy establishment. He spent his career tweaking that establishment while making his way up its ranks. But it was his feisty performance as a pro-Trump commentator on Fox News that caught Trump’s eye, not his policy views.
Passed over early in the administration for a top job, Bolton finally caught on after Trump tired of H.R. McMaster. The Army general had been brought in as national security advisor after Trump’s first choice, Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn, flamed out within weeks of taking office.
Having finally scaled the pinnacle, Bolton writes that he planned to succeed where Trump’s early advisors failed. They saw themselves as an “axis of adults,” Bolton writes disdainfully, who would steer Trump away from his cloddish foreign policy instincts and campaign promises. Bolton would impose discipline on Trump’s chaotic decision-making but never forget that Trump was the boss.
He quickly found Trump wasn’t capable of distinguishing his own interests from those of the country, he says.
Bolton says he can’t explain Trump’s affection for Vladimir Putin and other authoritarian leaders whom Bolton detests. Trump delighted in needling Bolton for his hardline views in front of Kim Jong Un. And as Bolton’s time in the White House lengthened and their disagreements mounted, Trump increasingly excluded him from key decisions.
He seems mystified that Trump cares little about the ideological foreign policy battles that have driven the hawkish Bolton his entire career — hostility toward arms control, a preference for regime change in Iran and North Korea and confrontation with Russia and China.
“Trump’s favorite way to proceed was to get small armies of people together in the Oval or the Roosevelt Room, to argue out all these complex, controversial issues … one outcome one day and a contrary outcome a few days later,” he writes. “The whole thing made my head hurt.”
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