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Having wrongly claimed that Iraq was in possession of weapons of mass destruction, former Pentagon official and national security advisor John Bolton knows a thing or two about big mistakes. Had he expressed any regret about advancing the lie that led America to invade Iraq, he might be considered a pretty good judge of when a White House is dangerously out of control—and that’s the case Bolton attempts to make in a tell-all book of his time as President Donald Trump’s national security advisor, In The Room Where It Happened.
Yet the incident Bolton singles out as “the most irrational thing I ever witnessed any President do,” according to The New York Times’ review of his book, has nothing to do with Trump asking foreign leaders for political help or cozying up to dictators. No, the worst thing Bolton witnessed Trump do is decide not to start a war with Iran.
“The moment he cites as the real ‘turning point’ for him in the administration had to do with an attack on Iran that, to Bolton’s abject disappointment, didn’t happen,” writes Jennifer Szalai in the Times’ review of the book. “In June 2019, Iran had shot down an unmanned American drone, and Bolton, who has always championed what he proudly calls ‘disproportionate response,’ pushed Trump to approve a series of military strikes in retaliation. You can sense Bolton’s excitement when he describes going home ‘at about 5:30’ for a change of clothes because he expected to be at the White House ‘all night.’ It’s therefore an awful shock when Trump decided to call off the strikes at the very last minute, after learning they would kill as many as 150 people.”
Bolton was plotting to start a war with Iran even before American troops hit the ground in Iraq. Trump may not deserve much praise for his foreign policy, but at least he resisted the urge to slaughter more innocent people in another Bolton-backed war.
Bolton’s book will be big news regardless of whether the White House succeeds in stopping its publication due to concerns about classified information—read Reason’s Scott Shackford’s in-depth take on all of that here. Among the dribs and drabs that have leaked so far, the biggest bombshell seems to be the allegation that Trump’s impeachable conduct with Ukraine was not a one-time mistake but part of a pattern. In addition to pressuring the Ukrainian government to investigate Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, Trump also directed U.S. policy towards Turkey and China with an eye toward winning reelection.
“Trump commingled the personal and the national not just on trade questions but across the whole field of national security,” Bolton writes in an excerpt of the book published by The Wall Street Journal. Much of Trump’s trade war with China, Bolton alleges, was conducted with the intent of helping the president win reelection and little more. “I am hard-pressed to identify any significant Trump decision during my White House tenure that wasn’t driven by re-election calculations,” Bolton writes.
In another anecdote, this one reported by The New York Times, Bolton relates that Trump had no idea the United Kingdom was a nuclear power and that he did not know Finland was not a part of Russia. Elsewhere in the Journal excerpt, Bolton accuses Trump of giving Chinese President Xi Jinping his blessing to build concentration camps in Xinjiang, a province where the Chinese government has brutally repressed the Uighurs, a Muslim minority population.
His WMD fibs aside, there’s no reason to doubt that Bolton is telling the truth about all this. After all the ridiculous and insane things Trump has said and done in public—in front of TV cameras, even—it is nearly impossible to be surprised by anything that he’s reportedly said or done in private. Remember when the president stood on the driveway in front of the White House and told reporters that China should open a “major investigation into the Bidens” while he was actively being impeached by Congress for allegedly asking Ukraine to open an investigation into the Bidens?Exactly.
Bolton’s book might add some specific details that no one previously knew, but it is unlikely to tell us much about Trump that isn’t already apparent after watching his first three years in office—or scrolling through his Twitter feed. The man is an open book.
But no one should believe for a second that Bolton wrote this book out of a sincere desire to speak truth to power. If Bolton believed Trump was an imminent danger to the country, he could have told Congress what he knew, without waiting for a subpoena, during the impeachment proceedings. Doing so may not have changed many minds, but it might have changed enough of them to remove from office a man Bolton seems to believe is dangerously incompetent.
U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer says the idea that Trump sought to leverage trade policy to get Xi to help with Trump’s reelection “absolutely untrue,” and the Trump campaign issued a statement saying the claim was “absurd.” Trump is, of course, using the same lines he uses about everyone who leaves the White House and then speaks frankly about the incompetence they witnessed there. It really makes you wonder who is hiring these people.
Trump is now suggesting the wall is preventing covid-19 from entering the US via Tijuana, claims (no evidence provided) that California would see a surge in cases without it.
— Sahil Kapur (@sahilkapur) June 18, 2020
Any libertarian—and, for that matter, anyone who possesses an ounce of concern for the wellbeing of other humans—should prefer to see Bolton criticizing the White House from afar instead of advising the president about what countries to bomb next.
But let’s not turn Bolton into some sort of straight-shooting hero. No matter what else Bolton might have to say in his new book, his legacy will always be advocating for horrifying, bloody, and counterproductive foreign policies.
Trump’s foreign policy might be an inchoate mess operating with the sole purpose of getting the president reelected, but that’s at least less evil than Bolton’s gleeful warmongering.