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John Bolton’s Accidentally Unflattering Self-Portrait

“The Room Where It Happened” is a powerful indictment of Trump—and of its author.


It is a remarkable thing that in our sharply divided political environment, John Bolton has emerged as a rare unifying figure: Almost no one approves of him. Bolton’s saga and that of his book, The Room Where It Happened, has now churned through several news cycles. The notoriously hawkish Bolton served as Trump’s national security adviser for approximately 18 months, from April 2018 to September 2019. Appalled by what he witnessed, he shaped his recollections into something with many of the same qualities as a book. Since the Trump administration sued to try to stop its publication, alleging that it contained classified information, it has been billed as “the book that Trump does not want you to read.” Its portrayal of Trump is certainly unflattering, a damning portrait of a man totally out of his depth in the White House and unable to separate his personal interests from national ones. But the book may be equally damning in what it displays about Bolton’s worldview.

The Room Where It Happened
by John Bolton
Simon & Schuster, 592 pp., $32.50

The most sensational charges against Trump from the book have already been discussed and digested, in early reviews from The New York Times and The Washington Post. The text is peppered with the sort of ephemeral outrages that have been the sound and fury of the last four years: Trump belittles his staff, seems obsessed with the looks of the women and men, tweets his way through indiscipline. At one point Bolton is told that Trump said it would be “cool” to invade Venezuela. Trump writes a statement defending Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman after the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi—attributed to the prince by U.S. intelligence agencies—while privately arguing that his statement would distract from his daughter Ivanka’s email scandal. Trump goes off the rails in a briefing when told that the United States has no better ally than Japan and starts complaining about Pearl Harbor. Bolton finds a deep lack of preparedness, knowledge, and consistency in the White House. “I came to understand,” writes Bolton, “that he believed he could run the Executive Branch and establish national security policies on instinct, relying on personal relationships with foreign leaders, and with made-for-television showmanship always to top of mind.”

The most substantive revelations in the book add new information and context to the bill of particulars that led to Trump’s impeachment by the House of Representatives in late 2019 and early 2020. There, the charge was that Trump had twisted U.S. foreign policy into an instrument of personal gain, withholding foreign aid to Ukraine in exchange for the delivery of imaginary dirt on his then-potential rival, Joe Biden. Bolton, who was not invited to testify in the impeachment or subsequent Senate trial, confirms Trump’s corrupt intent and fills in a larger picture. The behavior in Ukraine was entirely typical of Trump, he avers, and it was normal for Trump to solicit foreign interference in U.S. elections. Chinese President Xi Jinping, for example, easily flattered Trump by telling him that he wished that the U.S. had fewer elections. Trump had already mentioned that “people were saying” the two-term constitutional limit should be repealed for him. Soon thereafter, he asked Xi to use economic policy to help him win the 2020 elections, with increased Chinese orders for American soybeans and wheat. “I am hard-pressed,” writes Bolton, “to identify any significant Trump decision during my tenure that wasn’t driven by re-election calculations.”

Since the book’s release, Bolton has warned of the potentially dire consequences of a second Trump term, in which he would be unlimited by electoral considerations. Driven by image and ego rather than a philosophy, Trump’s decisions are hard to predict. To conservatives, Bolton wants to argue that Trump is not really one of them. He will not vote for Trump (or for Biden), he told NPR, but argues that it is important “to be clear to Republicans and to Democrats that this is not the future of the Republican Party.”

The reaction from Trump and his loyalists has been excoriating. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has called him a “traitor.” Trump himself tweeted, “I gave John Bolton, who was incapable of being Senate confirmed because he was considered a wacko, and was not liked, a chance. I always like hearing differing points of view. He turned out to be grossly incompetent, and a liar.” Trump also retweeted an account that described Bolton as a “notoriously mendacious enemy of all living beings on the planet.”

Rewind the tape a bit, and it is not particularly surprising that things have ended up where they are. Bolton, who got his start in politics as a volunteer for the Barry Goldwater campaign of 1964, interned for corrupt Nixon Vice President Spiro Agnew, and has held positions in Republican administrations since Reagan, had some qualities that Trump could like. He was opinionated, appeared frequently on Fox News, and was deeply polarizing. At one point, Trump bonded with Bolton by observing that they both inspire intense reactions: Like Bolton, Trump says, “People either love me or hate me. John and I are exactly alike.”

They had other points of agreement. Though he made himself available, Bolton was not chosen among the first round of Trump’s advisers. But there were periodic meetings, and at one of them, Bolton gave Trump a copy of his article “Should We Take Global Governance Seriously?” which was published in the Chicago Journal of International Law in 2000. Bolton writes that he gave it to Trump “not because I thought he would read it, but to remind him of the importance of preserving US sovereignty,” although it is unclear how Trump would be reminded of this if he did not read the article.

It is easy to imagine what Bolton thought Trump might see in the article, which rather crudely contrasts the views of “Globalists” with those of “Americanists,” with Bolton decidedly among the latter. The resonance with Trump’s “America First” agenda is clear enough. Bolton excoriates the “Globalists,” who he says, “have seized more readily the opportunities provided by the end of the Cold War to advance their agenda, building on an iceberg-like mass produced by years of writing, conference-going, resolution-passing, and networking.” Bolton believes that “Globalists”—an ill-defined group of worldly bureaucrats in places like the United Nations, its subsidiary agencies, and nongovernmental organizations—represent a threat to American sovereignty. Bolton rejects the demands for global wealth redistribution or legal constraints on U.S. power. His contempt for multilateral institutions remains unbent. The article accuses globalists of smuggling in world government through the back door, which gives his thinking the feeling of an old John Birch Society pamphlet with precisely the minimum quantum of professionalism added to make it viable for a law journal.

Bolton’s contempt for international institutions and international agreements is a commitment of long standing. When his old boss George W. Bush—whom he greatly admires—nominated him to be his ambassador to the U.N., stories surfaced of Bolton saying, “The Secretariat building in New York has 38 stories. If it lost ten stories, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.” Such statements were, undoubtedly, part of the reason that many diplomats and everyone from the left of center held Bolton in low regard. His hawkish, go-it-alone tendencies were only heightened in the years after 9/11, with the Bush administration determined to prosecute the war in Iraq in spite of overwhelming objection from the rest of the world and multilateral institutions like the U.N. Whereas many individuals who supported that war at the time have come around to the conclusion that it was the greatest error in U.S. foreign policy since the Vietnam War, Bolton continues to think it was the right thing to do.

For Bolton, the world is full of enemies to be overcome and threats to be defeated, largely through military force and the threat of military force. Like Trump, Bolton disapproves of President Obama, believing that Obama’s inaction allowed America’s enemies to gain strength and influence. They both despise parts of the foreign policy bureaucracy, though for Trump it is the intelligence community and for Bolton it is the civil service and diplomatic corps. Both Bolton and Trump wanted out of Obama’s Iran deal and reversed steps toward the normalization of relations with Cuba. Bolton praised Trump for pulling out of the Paris climate agreement, a move he called “an important victory against global governance.” Similarly, while serving as national security adviser, Bolton was eager to get the U.S. out of treaties, such as the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty signed by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987, rather than update them. “Times change, as liberals like to say,” writes Bolton, suggesting a rather odd set of repeated encounters with liberals.

But there are differences between Bolton’s vision and Trump’s. For all that they shared, Trump’s obsessions are not Bolton’s. Trump believes that U.S. hegemony has been a bad deal for the U.S. He cares about the cost of bases and alliances. And while certainly no dove, he doesn’t like losing and seems to have little appetite for risking American lives in affairs that he frequently describes as “thousands of miles away.” In 2016, Trump tried to portray himself as having always been an opponent of the war in Iraq. The record is more complex, but one thing that The Room Where It Happened makes clear is that Trump thinks of himself as a critic of the war. “This was done by a stupid person named George Bush,” Trump tells Bolton. “Millions of people killed, trillions of dollars, and we just can’t do it. Another six months, that’s what they said before, and we’re still getting our asses kicked.” Trump is eager to make a deal to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, thinking that his opposition to “endless wars” helped get him elected. Trump has admitted that he never checked to see if Bolton had changed his view on Iraq before hiring him.

Bolton, who believes in regime change for bad actors elsewhere and presidencies for bad actors at home, never doubts American good faith and intentions. Trump does. In 2017, when pressed on Putin’s human rights record, Trump responded, “There are a lot of killers. You think our country’s so innocent?” Trump seems to relate easily to undemocratic rulers and even to envy them. And it is here that his and Bolton’s worldviews diverged irreparably.

An important moment of rupture for Bolton’s service in the White House was Trump’s response to attacks on coalition troops based in Iraq by Iranian-backed militias. Trump ended up deciding that the planned retaliatory attacks were too harsh. “Too many body bags,” he said, worried after someone told him it might cause 150 casualties. Trump decided that the U.S. response was not proportionate. “In my government experience,” writes Bolton, “this was the most irrational thing I ever witnessed any President do.” It may have been irrational, and perhaps Trump’s reasoning was in some way defective, but it produced an outcome far less costly than a deadly war in the Middle East.

Trump and Bolton also diverged on policy toward Venezuela. In early 2019, the U.S. supported the efforts of Juan Guaidó, the head of Venezuela’s opposition-led national assembly, to claim the presidency from Nicolás Maduro on the grounds that the election of Maduro had been unfair and undemocratic. Maduro’s repressive government, a self-styled socialist one, had produced an economic and refugee crisis, and Guaidó’s announcement generated a burst of enthusiasm. Bolton wanted to oust Maduro, having described Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua as a “troika of tyranny” in a speech the previous November. Trump told him to keep military options on the table and said of Venezuela, “[I]t’s really part of the United States.” Though Bolton believes it came close to creating the conditions for Maduro’s removal, the gamble to back Guaidó ultimately faltered, as did Trump’s commitment.

Trump worried about “good-looking generals” standing by Maduro and began to think that Guaidó “doesn’t have what it takes.” He eventually took to calling Guaidó the “Beto O’Rourke of Venezuela.” Bolton felt that Putin easily manipulated Trump on a call in late May by comparing Guaidó not to Beto but to Hillary Clinton, someone declaring herself president but without real support. Keen to blame others, Bolton has no appetite for confronting the consequences of his own rigid policy, including the suffering exacerbated by broad sanctions. However much Venezuela deserves a responsive and democratic government, neither Bolton nor Trump seems interested in exploring the reasons U.S. policy did not achieve it.

The much-publicized $2 million advance Bolton received for The Room Where It Happened indicates that someone may be anticipating a large audience for this book. But I have rarely read a book that made me feel worse. Bolton puts the reader in the miserable position of siding between himself and Trump, while providing abundant evidence that their mutual recriminations each have their core truth.

Bolton is right that Trump lacks the intellectual qualities to be a successful president and is seemingly incapable of understanding the dispositions, interests, or needs of others. Though it may occasionally have checked Bolton’s inclination to escalate conflict, Bolton is also right that it is unsustainable to have a president who admires autocratic leadership and is easily swayed by personal relationships. On this, at least, Bolton is convincing: Trump cannot, at a basic level, fulfill the responsibilities of the office.

But Bolton—however consistent he might be and however his views diverge from Trump’s—is similarly unfit to serve as national security adviser. If Bolton convinces some fraction of conservatives not to vote for Trump’s reelection, it may be that he will have a voice in conversations about where the Republican Party should go after Trump. But he may find that, even if he doesn’t think Trump is a conservative, Trump retains high approval among Republicans. Bolton shows no appetite for confronting the fact that while Trump’s hold on the party has many roots, one of them was the failure of Boltonian policies during the Bush administration. In the end, The Room Where It Happened is a powerful argument that Trump and Bolton have both been poor stewards of their respective offices. Neither has the capacity to confront the major collective challenges of the next decades, which can neither be bombed away nor solved without international cooperation. Times—I think the expression goes—change.