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Five things you should know about John Bolton’s book

John Bolton listens as President Trump speaks to the news media on July 10, 2019
National security advisor John Bolton listens as President Trump speaks to the news media on July 10, 2019.
(Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)

The Times obtained a copy of “The Room Where It Happened,” John Bolton’s memoir of his 17 months as President Trump’s national security advisor. The book is scheduled for release on Tuesday, although the Justice Department has asked a federal judge to intervene, claiming the memoir contains classified material.

Here are five takeaways from the book:

1. Start at the end.

The self-justification for the entire exercise comes after some 483 pages, when Bolton tries to explain why he refused to testify during Trump’s impeachment in the House — only to lay it all out in this book, for which he was given a $2-million advance.

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Grumbling about House Democrats’ “self-imposed scheduling limitations” and “partisan approach,” he accuses them of “committing impeachment malpractice” for refusing to risk extending the process for months to allow a judge to rule on whether he and others were compelled to respond to subpoenas.

Bolton also faults Democrats for focusing too narrowly on Trump’s pressure campaign toward Ukraine, offering up claims about other impeachable acts including Trump repeatedly using foreign policy to help his reelection campaign.

“I am hard-pressed to identify any significant Trump decision during my tenure,” Bolton writes, “that wasn’t driven by reelection calculations.”

2. Not so tough on China. Or Turkey.

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According to Bolton, Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping were discussing trade at the Group of 20 summit in Japan in June 2019 when Trump “stunningly, turned the conversation to the coming U.S. presidential election ... pleading with Xi to ensure he’d win.”

Trump urged Xi to increase Chinese purchases of soybeans and wheat, stressing “the importance of farmers ... in the electoral outcome.”

These details could undermine Trump’s frequent boasts about being tough on China, one fragile pillar of his reelection argument.

Bolton says the president also signaled his approval of China’s plan to imprison more than 1 million ethnic Chinese Uighurs in camps, and his indifference toward Taiwan’s independence, a cornerstone of U.S. policy toward China for decades.

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Bolton also writes that Trump told Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan that he would try to get the Justice Department to drop a criminal case against the Turkish financial institution Halkbank that might have implicated Erdoğan himself — in Bolton’s view, an attempt by the president “to show he had as much arbitrary authority as Erdogan.”

3. The details corroborate what’s already known.

Bolton’s ponderous portrayal shows Trump as an unfocused, incurious, moody and often vindictive narcissist with two preoccupations: news coverage of himself and his reelection.

His lack of loyalty comes across again and again.

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During a secret overnight flight to visit U.S. troops in Iraq on Christmas night in 2018, Trump sought input from Bolton and others on Air Force One about dumping Vice President Mike Pence from the 2020 ticket in favor of Nikki Haley, who had just stepped down as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

Intent on a legacy-making nuclear disarmament deal with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, Trump lashed out at Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo at one point, telling him, “I don’t give a shit [about the details], we need a victory on this.”

Bolton, who flew to Mongolia in June 2019 to avoid accompanying Trump for a photo op with Kim at the buffer zone between North and South Korea, leaves no doubt about his feelings.

“The whole thing made me ill,” he writes.

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4. Coronavirus claims.

Bolton writes that National Security Council staffers “did their duty” when first warned in January about the coronavirus. He denied reports that trimming the NSC’s global health and biodefense arms might explain the administration’s slow initial response to the pandemic.

The streamlining of NSC bureaucracy, Bolton writes, “was no more than a quiver of a butterfly’s wings in the tsunami of Trump’s chaos.”

Bolton blames the contagion, which has killed more 118,000 Americans and put more than 40 million out of work, on China and on a White House that only seemed to react once the stock market began to slip.

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“Trump’s reflex effort to talk his way out of anything,” Bolton writes, “only undercut his and the nation’s credibility, with his statements looking more like political damage control than responsible public health advice.”

5. Exhaustion.

In Bolton’s portrayal, Trump has exhausted the patience and goodwill of numerous high-ranking aides. None comes across as more forlorn and frustrated than former Chief of Staff John F. Kelly.

In one chapter, Bolton describes Kelly failing to dissuade Trump from stripping security clearances from former CIA Director John Brennan, who had become a Trump critic on cable news.

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“‘Has there ever been a presidency like this?’ Kelly asked me, and I assured him there had not,” Bolton writes.

Kelly, a retired four-star Marine general whose son was killed in action a decade ago in Afghanistan, had grown upset about what he believed to be the president’s cavalier attitude about American troops.

“‘Trump doesn’t care what happens to these guys,’ Kelly told Bolton, saying the president had said it would be “cool” to invade Venezuela.

After Trump blew up at Kelly in the Oval Office over so-called caravans of migrants approaching the southern border, Bolton said he and Kelly ducked into the Roosevelt Room for a private conversation.

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“What is the alternative if you resign?” Bolton asked Kelly, who responded with a question of his own.

“What if we have a real crisis like 9/11 with the way he makes decisions?” Kelly said.


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