On Election Day 2016 I was in the green room at Fox News in midtown Manhattan waiting to go on the air, as was Ambassador John Bolton.
I asked John if he had already voted, to which he replied, “Yes, for Trump. He’s an idiot, but anybody is better than Hillary Clinton.”
That’s why I had my doubts when Bolton lobbied so aggressively for and became President Trump’s national security adviser less than two years later.
I figured it would be a rocky ride for them both and predicted it wouldn’t end well.
First, they had very different approaches to foreign policy. Trump’s first priority was to rebuild the economy, then use it as leverage to renegotiate trade deals. He would use the bully pulpit to get our security allies to increase their contributions to our mutual defense.
What he would not do was get us bogged down in more forever wars. Trump was an outspoken critic of Bush’s Iraq war, Bolton one of its architects. I once asked Bolton whether his child had considered military service. He looked at me dismissively and said, “No, of course not.” So, it was all right for other people’s children to fight in his forever wars, just not his own.
Bolton and Trump clashed from the beginning – not just over policy, but in style and temperament. Bolton pushed for preemptive military action against Iran, Syria, Venezuela and North Korea. When the president took a different course, Bolton took to the phone. He became the “anonymous source” for reporters, dishing out tales of White House chaos and presidential incompetence.
Bolton was so convinced of his superior intelligence that he was condescending to everyone, including the president. He was increasingly isolated within the West Wing; cabinet officers ignored him and went behind his back directly to the president. He even avoided contact with his own National Security Council staff.
What John Bolton has done is shred executive privilege for future presidents. There will no longer be such a thing as an off-the-record conversation between a president and his advisers.
I heard from several of my former NSC colleagues who remained at the White House after I left that Bolton spent most of his time – when he wasn’t in the Oval Office – sitting in his office behind closed doors. His staff wasn’t sure what he did for those hours on end. Now we know – he was, in all likelihood, turning his copious notes into a manuscript, presumably in anticipation of getting a lucrative book deal, and rushing it into print quickly when the inevitable happened and he was fired.
Bolton’s book has “rocked Washington.” The headlines put out by his PR team are incendiary. But on more careful reading, most of Bolton’s complaints are about what President Trump said in the Oval Office, what he mused about doing when he was letting off steam or fantasizing about settling scores with fake news or the deep state. That’s classic Trump.
President Trump uses those meetings as brainstorming sessions. He is not a passive recipient of information; he immediately takes charge of a briefing and takes it in the direction he wants. He tosses out ideas, the more out-of-the-box the better, and expects others to do the same. These meetings are free-for-alls, with everybody weighing in.
If you argue with President Trump, he may grumble and argue back, but that is what his advisers are for: to lay out the flaws in his arguments and warn him if what he’s proposing is illegal or out of bounds. That is why presidents have “executive privilege,” which is the right to keep discussions with top aides confidential.
What John Bolton has done is shred executive privilege for future presidents. There will no longer be such a thing as an off-the-record conversation between a president and his advisers. Everything, every speculation, every offhand remark will be fair game for the next kiss-and-tell book.
One thing I have learned in working for President Trump is to watch what he does, not necessarily what he says. Professional politicians have smoothed off their rough edges; they measure their words, in public and in private. Donald Trump is no professional politician; he revels in his political incorrectness. He says a lot of things, he tweets a lot of things, he changes his mind, he cajoles one minute and criticizes the next, he rants.
According to Bolton, President Trump wanted to cut off aid to Ukraine unless they investigated Biden’s ties to corruption. But did President Trump do it? No. He threatened to pull out of NATO unless our partners ponied up for their fair share. But did he do it? No.
Some of the most serious accusations Bolton makes are that President Trump tried to enlist Chinese support to help him get reelected. Yet, Bolton himself wasn’t in those meetings, and those who were have since come forward to say Bolton is lying. Furthermore, Bolton’s claims don’t make sense. Trump is the first American president ever to stand up to the Chinese. Why would President Xi Jinping want him to be reelected? Surely his interests lie in a President Joe Biden, who just a few months ago scoffed at the suggestion China posed a threat to our interests.
One cannot help but wonder why John Bolton, who came to believe President Trump was “unfit for office,” refused to come forward during impeachment. He offered some flim-flam excuses, but perhaps his motivation was financial. Testifying publicly before Congress before his book was on sale would have undercut its shock value – and his profits.
No doubt John Bolton will get rich selling his White House story and will become the newest darling of the Trump-hating world. But at what price to the nation? More division, more rancor, more hatred.
Washington has always attracted the venal and the vain, the ambitious and the arrogant, but even they must blanch at what John Bolton has done.