You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

John Bolton: American Coward

In a conflict between charmless monsters, the former national security adviser belatedly draws down on President Trump.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Like “Alien vs. Predator,” minus the charisma

Long ago, in the distant mists of the Before Time, the House of Representatives impeached President Donald Trump for abuse of power and obstruction of justice. Both charges came in response to Trump’s role in the Ukraine scandal, where he and his underlings withheld military aid in a bumbling effort to extort the Ukrainian president into smearing Democratic front-runner Joe Biden. The Republican-led Senate eventually acquitted Trump on both counts, with only one GOP senator voting to convict his party’s leader.

The pandemic upended American life just five weeks after the Senate vote, and one of the most consequential moments of Trump’s presidency quickly faded from public memory. Now former Trump national security adviser John Bolton is dredging it back up. Bolton’s new book, titled The Room Where It Happened, paints yet another damning portrait of Trump as corrupt, foolish, and incompetent. In an incredible display of chutzpah, Bolton also sheds new light on Trump’s corrupt foreign policy maneuvers, even as he castigates House investigators for not pursuing his testimony more aggressively.

“These and innumerable other similar conversations with Trump formed a pattern of fundamentally unacceptable behavior that eroded the very legitimacy of the presidency,” Bolton wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed on Wednesday that serves as a preview of sorts for his upcoming book. “Had Democratic impeachment advocates not been so obsessed with their Ukraine blitzkrieg in 2019, had they taken the time to inquire more systematically about Trump’s behavior across his entire foreign policy, the impeachment outcome might well have been different.”

Spare me. Bolton’s reticence to testify is as indefensible now as it was then. Faced with the choice between Trump’s vindictiveness and the moral obligation to report presidential wrongdoing to Congress, witnesses like Alexander Vindman and Marie Yovanovitch chose the honorable path last year. Even Gordon Sondland, a donor-ambassador who played a key role in Trump’s plot, testified before the House in public. Bolton, on the other hand, devoted his efforts to writing a book and enriching himself. He cannot indict Trump without also indicting himself. He appears to have done both.

Bolton’s book will not be officially released until June 23. Multiple news outlets, however, have already obtained copies and begun excavating them for anything of value. According to them, Bolton paints roughly the same picture of a self-absorbed, clueless, and authoritarian president as past tell-all authors have done. Trump reportedly expressed surprise that Finland was not part of Russia and that the United Kingdom possesses a nuclear arsenal. According to The Washington Post, Bolton claims that Trump said it would be “cool” to invade Venezuela and maintained that the South American country was “part of the United States.”

Bolton’s book also reportedly sheds some light on how Trump’s penchant for amorality affects American foreign relations. In conversations with Chinese President Xi Jinping early in Trump’s tenure, Bolton says that Trump encouraged Beijing’s use of concentration camps to round up and detain its Muslim Uighur population. After the Saudi government murdered and dismembered Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, Trump issued an enthusiastic defense of Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman on the grounds that the ensuing controversy would distract from a brewing scandal over his daughter Ivanka’s Clinton-like use of a private email server. “This will divert from Ivanka,” Trump reportedly claimed. “If I read the statement in person, that will take over the Ivanka thing.”

What sets Bolton’s book apart from reported accounts and other White House memoirs is his firsthand description of potentially impeachable offenses. He reportedly confirms that Trump withheld military aid from Ukraine in an extortion scheme to sabotage Joe Biden’s presidential bid, though he is vague on exactly what he witnessed. He also describes how Trump explicitly asked Xi to buy American agricultural products to help his reelection efforts. “He stressed the importance of farmers, and increased Chinese purchases of soybeans and wheat in the electoral outcome,” Bolton wrote. “I would print Trump’s exact words but the government’s prepublication review process has decided otherwise.”

Trump also reportedly sought to intervene in regulatory and prosecutorial moves against Chinese companies for his personal political benefit. “Trump, by contrast, saw this not as a policy issue to be resolved but as an opportunity to make personal gestures to Xi,” Bolton wrote in his Journal op-ed. “In 2018, for example, he reversed penalties that [Commerce Secretary Wilbur] Ross and the Commerce Department had imposed on [Chinese telecom company] ZTE. In 2019, he offered to reverse criminal prosecution against Huawei if it would help in the trade deal—which, of course, was primarily about getting Trump re-elected in 2020.” Trump’s misdeeds weren’t limited to China or Ukraine. In conversations with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Bolton says that Trump said he would intervene in the case against Halkbank by federal prosecutors in Manhattan, whom he derided as “Obama people.”

Suppress any gratitude you might feel toward Bolton for bringing these misdeeds to light. Any of this would have been nice to know last fall when it could have actually affected the impeachment proceedings—a choice that Bolton consciously refused to make. “Bolton’s staff were asked to testify before the House to Trump’s abuses, and did. They had a lot to lose and showed real courage,” California Representative Adam Schiff, who led the House’s impeachment probe, said on Wednesday night. “When Bolton was asked, he refused, and said he’d sue if subpoenaed. Instead, he saved it for a book. Bolton may be an author, but he’s no patriot.”

Would his testimony have changed the outcome of Trump’s impeachment trial? The Republican senators’ behavior suggests that it might not have. And if the legal battle over a subpoena had delayed the process for more than five weeks, Trump’s Senate trial likely would’ve been suspended in mid-March because of the pandemic. Keeping one hundred senators and the chief justice in the same room for 12 hours each day would have been untenable. None of that absolves Bolton for his self-serving inaction at the time, however. As I noted in January, he chose the path of Trumpian grifting over doing the right thing or even simply staying quiet.

For those who enjoy schadenfreude, Bolton’s current legal situation should be a gold mine. The Justice Department filed a civil lawsuit against him on Tuesday night for breach of contract and disclosing classified information in the book. In its filing, the Justice Department claims that the National Security Council “has determined that information in the manuscript is classified at the Confidential, Secret, and Top Secret levels,” and that its publication “reasonably could be expected to cause serious damage, or exceptionally grave damage, to the national security of the United States.” One of the remedies it seeks is the seizure of any profits from Bolton’s book, thereby preventing him from cashing in on his grift.

Bolton, like many government officials, is bound by a confidentiality agreement he signed when he took his former position as national security adviser. Trump is zealous about using nondisclosure agreements to ensure silence among his subordinates. At the same time, the agreement signed by Bolton is fairly typical for federal employees who work with classified or sensitive information. The agreements do not forbid Bolton or other employees from writing about their experiences in general. However, they do generally require books and manuscripts to be submitted to the government for “pre-publication review” to ensure that nothing secret is disclosed.

While Bolton submitted his manuscript for review last fall, he withdrew from the process this spring and moved ahead with publication. There are ongoing questions about whether the pre-publication review process was tainted by interventions from Trump loyalists, who may have sought to suppress his book. The Justice Department also filed a temporary restraining order against Bolton and his publisher on Wednesday, asking a federal judge to block the book’s release to the public. Prior restraint motions face an extraordinarily high threshold in the courts, especially since the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Pentagon Papers case in 1971. The maneuver is also largely performative, as newspapers have already obtained their own copies and have begun reporting out their contents.

Whatever the outcome of his legal travails may be, Bolton’s place in American history is already secured. Logistical and chronological issues mean that Congress will be unable to investigate his memoir’s claims in detail before November’s presidential election. Once it is plundered for juicy details by reporters, there will be no need for the public to read it. The primary audience for Bolton’s book will most likely be future historians looking to understand the Trump era, and they will be hard-pressed not to dismiss him as a mere footnote who failed his country when it mattered most.