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Vol. 42 No. 14 · 16 July 2020
Short Cuts

John Bolton’s Unwitting Usefulness

Mattathias Schwartz

2292 words

One​ of the enduring mysteries of the relationship between Donald Trump and John Bolton, his third national security adviser, is how the two men ever came to terms in the first place. Bolton, an unreconstructed Cold Warrior, once canvassed for the arch-conservative Barry Goldwater and interned in the Nixon White House. He made his career talking up threats from Iran, North Korea and Venezuela to fill the void left by the Soviet Union. He has consistently urged US policymakers to take the hardest possible line, up to and including military action, even as such interventions have become less and less popular in the aftermath of 9/11. As ambassador to the UN under George W. Bush, he pushed the false claims that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction and that Cuba was developing biological weapons. In his view, America’s enemies are generally not to be negotiated with. Why trust them?

Trump, though, believes in the magic of negotiation. He sees military and foreign policy through a financial lens. How much are we paying for these alliances, missile batteries, archipelagoes of bases and training exercises? American taxpayers ought to be getting ‘cost plus 50 per cent’, like a general contractor on a real estate project. Of course, the US will never get the best price unless the party on the other side of the table is faced with the prospect that America might stand up and walk away. He is, in other words, an isolationist. In his 2016 campaign he falsely claimed he had opposed the invasion of Iraq, while Hillary Clinton said she regretted having voted for it in the Senate. Bolton, who helped sell the invasion, still stands by it. Where Bolton’s most deep-seated desire is to lay waste to America’s enemies, Trump is absorbed by the prospect of abandoning old friends, or at least extorting them with the threat of abandonment. ‘Ditch the girl before she ditches you’ is Bolton’s gloss on Trump’s philosophy.

In the first pages of his memoir, The Room Where It Happened (Simon and Schuster, £25), Bolton takes pains to lay out how busy he was before joining the Trump administration and how eagerly Trump’s team pursued him. The first jobs he was offered in the administration were not big or important enough: he turned down offers, he says, to be deputy secretary of state, assistant to the president and special envoy to Libya. Bolton started appearing on Fox News to offer hawkish and sympathetic readings of Trump’s foreign policy; Trump gave him Oval Office visiting privileges. By early 2018, Trump was floating the idea of Bolton replacing Rex Tillerson – the former ExxonMobil CEO who inconveniently opposed his opposition to the nuclear deal with Iran – as secretary of state. Worries about whether Bolton’s nomination would make it through the Senate led him to settle on the position of national security adviser, a post that doesn’t require Senate confirmation.

During a normal presidency, the national security adviser serves as the main liaison between the State Department’s diplomats, the military and the White House, weighing their assessments and serving them up as options to the president. This process happens through the National Security Council, a body of hundreds of bureaucrats based a few steps away from the White House. At the beginning of his service, Bolton writes, he sized Trump up as an inexperienced and impulsive administrator who had been poorly served by his ministers. Bolton says he believed that Trump’s paranoid and dogmatic tendencies were not innate, and clung to hopes that the president might reform. ‘I entered, I think, aware of the problems but optimistic that they could be overcome,’ he said in an interview with Stephen Colbert. ‘The book is the story, perhaps, of how I was wrong about that … I couldn’t believe it was that bad … I thought it was possible to work with somebody. I thought surely they would want to learn about the complexity of arms control negotiations and that sort of thing.’

Of course, it was that bad. After two years watching from the sidelines as he periodically met with Trump and kibitzed with his associates, it’s hard to see how Bolton couldn’t have known what he was getting into. Of course he wanted to put his personal stamp on US policy, and of course he offers up the self-justifications common among members of Trump’s cabinet, who have claimed at various times that they were working behind the scenes to save the country, or the party, or the presidency, from the president himself. During the first two years of Trump’s presidency a theory did the rounds that he might be restrained by an ‘axis of adults’: Tillerson, as secretary of state; James Mattis, as secretary of defence; and John Kelly, Trump’s chief of staff. Bolton wants to place himself outside this particular axis. He blames his colleagues for the administration’s chaotic lack of process, and for engaging in ‘transparently self-serving’ behaviour that only aggravated the rift between Trump and the ‘deep state’ of which he was supposedly now in command.

Bolton agrees with them, however, about the president’s ability, or lack of it. Trump rambles in meetings, overrules and forgets his previous decisions, overestimates his own abilities and can’t maintain focus. In Bolton’s account, the president doesn’t know whether Finland is a ‘satellite’ of Russia, or that Britain possesses nuclear weapons, a blindspot that he was impolitic enough to reveal in front of Theresa May. But complaining about Trump’s ignorance and lack of curiosity is easy: what Bolton and his colleagues fail to do is to measure his strengths. Among them are his mastery of publicity and his ability to exploit the grey space between rules and consequences. Above all, they are blind to the effect that Trump has on them, the force with which he either bends his associates to his will or casts them out entirely. This has been described to me by someone who has experienced it first-hand as a kind of deficiency, an inability to distinguish between disagreement and disloyalty. But I think there is more to it. How do you get someone like William Barr, Trump’s attorney general, to torch their own reputation and suborn themselves to your will? The real question of the relationship between the mad king and his clever, upright ministers is not about the abuse that the ministers suffer, or the justifications they give for sticking it out. It is about how the king manages to wring so much service out of them.

Bolton’s unwitting usefulness to Trump comes through in his retelling of the 2018 Nato summit in Brussels. On the morning of 12 July, Trump arrived late to a meeting that was supposed to be about the admission of Ukraine and Georgia into the alliance. He began to berate Angela Merkel for free-riding on the US. All the Nato allies had committed in principle to budgeting 2 per cent of their respective GDPs for defence; the US was spending 3.6 per cent, and most other Nato members, Germany included, were falling short. At a breakfast the previous day with Nato’s secretary general, Trump had called the status quo ‘very unfair to our country’. In Bolton’s paraphrased recounting, Trump told Nato that ‘the United States was being played’ and that if the 2 per cent target wasn’t reached by the end of the year the US ‘was just going to do its own thing’. Others recall Trump saying that the US might ‘go our own way’. Bolton denies that Trump made an ‘outright threat’ to leave Nato; other participants think he was on the verge of doing exactly that. Bolton remembers the occasion as Trump ‘bargaining in real time with the other leaders, trapped in a room without their prepared scripts’. Trump kissed Merkel on both cheeks, earning himself a ‘standing ovation’, and departed the summit with ‘a publicly united alliance behind him’.

Bolton’s account doesn’t square with the impression Trump made on some of the meeting’s shocked participants. News of Trump’s outburst leaked almost immediately. The New York Times called it a ‘tirade’ and said the gathering ‘generated non-stop images of division’. Trump’s own team was concerned enough to call an impromptu news conference, during which Trump tried to clarify that the US commitment to the alliance remained ‘very strong’. He praised his own performance as a negotiator and returned again and again to the financial commitments he had been able to squeeze out of America’s Nato allies. Bolton and Mike Pompeo, the new secretary of state, stood silently behind him. Perhaps they still thought they were holding Trump back. In the eyes of the world, they were endorsing Trump’s hardball improvisations as official policy. Bolton’s book speeds by the news conference, noting only that Trump ‘gave a positive spin to the day’s events’.

Bolton does manage to chalk up some wins for the interventionist camp. When Trump insists that the US will withdraw all troops from Syria, he gets the president to sign off on a small force remaining: ‘a couple of hundred’, he tells Trump, which – he tells the Pentagon – means four hundred. He persuades Trump to walk away from negotiations with North Korea rather than accept a ‘bad deal’. Thus he carries out his duties as an honest broker while protecting the national interest. But much of his book is taken up with details of how someone in his job juggles calls and meetings with foreign ministers and cabinet members, culminating in the occasional meeting with the president. During Obama’s presidency, most issues were settled inside this official loop. Trump’s ear, by contrast, seems to belong to an informal kitchen cabinet, whose members he consults daily by phone from the White House residence.

One of those with a direct line is Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer. Giuliani does more than act as a presidential courier and unofficial cabinet member: he has also taken paid work from outside clients at the same time, some of whom have actively lobbied federal agencies he has regular dealings with. For a national security adviser, it’s surprising how often Bolton finds himself outside ‘the room where it happened’. Bolton doesn’t go too far out of his way to expose malfeasance in Trump’s kitchen cabinet, but he does drop some interesting clues. He complained about Giuliani’s double-dealing to two White House lawyers, who, he says, agreed that the behaviour was ‘slimy’ but failed to take any action. Elsewhere, he has one of those lawyers agreeing to carry out a command from Trump to assist with the prosecution of reporters for leaks.

Bolton wants to show that Trump is unable to distinguish between his political self-interest and the national interest, and in so doing he lends support to the central allegation in the impeachment proceedings that were finally dismissed earlier this year: Trump did indeed offer Ukraine’s government a quid pro quo – continued US military aid in return for an investigation into the Biden family. Bolton declined to reveal this information during Trump’s impeachment, but claims he would have done so had he been subpoenaed by the Senate. Now, when it may be too late to matter, he goes further, offering other examples of Trump exchanging personal favours with foreign leaders: he promised Erdoğan, Bolton alleges, that he would put a stop to US prosecutors’ case against Halkbank, linked to Erdoğan’s family; he promised Xi Jinping that he would set aside national security concerns about Chinese technology firms while encouraging China to buy more farm products to please Trump’s political base. But Bolton’s indictment of Trump often seems half-hearted. He says he advised John Kelly not to resign until after the mid-term elections, because ‘there’s nothing positive about the likes of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders having more authority.’ Trump may be bad, but Democratic gains would be worse: Bolton seems determined to remain in the good graces of the Republican Party while condemning the sitting Republican president. He toes the party line in insisting that Robert Mueller’s report ‘vindicated’ Trump on the question of whether he colluded with Russia to influence the outcome of the 2016 election.

By September 2019, Bolton had joined the ranks of ministers whose utility had been exhausted. In Syria and Afghanistan he had managed to temper Trump’s isolationism, but he had little influence on the administration’s larger trajectory. In June this year Trump announced plans to withdraw 9500 troops from Germany, about a quarter of the force stationed there. Nato has made progress on the 2 per cent goal, but such gains must be balanced against the general message conveyed by Trump’s threats to American allies in Europe and Asia, that US support is no longer protected by the established consensus: it is now driven by the whims of domestic politics.

Bolton has experienced the latest wave of Trump’s public incompetence as a commentator. Late last month the Associated Press reported that Bolton had told colleagues he personally briefed Trump on intelligence that the Russian government was paying the Taliban cash bounties to kill American soldiers. Bolton has neither confirmed nor denied that he briefed Trump on the bounties. If he did, it would mean that Trump sat on the information for more than a year. On Twitter, Bolton called the story of the Russian bounty intelligence ‘a serious matter that demands immediate investigation’. As with impeachment, he seemed to be toying with the possibility of striking a decisive blow against Trump, if only a few other Republicans would go first. Don’t hold your breath.

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