Bolton assaults Trump from the right and takes fire from all directions

(Erin Schaff | The New York Times) John Bolton, then the White House national security adviser, looks on as President Donald Trump meets with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan and Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the G20 Summit in Osaka, Japan, on June 27, 2019. In an interview, Bolton says he accepted that he would pay a price for perhaps the most incriminating portrait of a president by such a high-level aide since the Watergate era.

He knew what he was getting into. He knew he would be showered with brickbats from the left for not speaking out sooner and denounced by the right for speaking out at all. He knew he would be thrashed by thunderous presidential tweets, and he knew he might even be dragged into court.

And yet John Bolton could not help himself. For decades, he has been the enfant terrible of the political right, speaking out in blunt and uncompromising terms even at the risk of offending some in his own party. That is what got him on Fox News. That is what got him speaking invitations. That is what made him a hero to conservatives who even urged him to run for president.

But after a lifetime in conservative politics, Bolton has now put himself in the crosshairs of just about everybody as he publishes a scorching tell-all memoir about his time as President Donald Trump’s national security adviser in which he portrays the commander in chief as a walking, talking constitutional and national security disaster who knows little and cares little about anything other than himself. After seeing how it worked from the inside, Bolton knows he will pay a price.

“Look, I thought many times in the course of preparing this book that given the series of two-minute hates I was going to get from Trump himself that the whole thing wasn’t going to be worth it,” he conceded in an interview Monday on the eve of the book’s publication. “But I just figured ultimately you’ve got to go through the hardships in order to get the facts out. I’m fully prepared for it. I’m not saying I’m going to enjoy it, but I understand the environment we’re in. I just think it’s important to tell the story.”

Not everyone accepts the get-the-facts-out explanation, seeing instead some mix of ambition, self-promotion, personal grievance and a reported $2 million book contract. Bolton is one subject on which Trump and Speaker Nancy Pelosi agree: He is in it for himself, not the country, cashing in rather than doing his duty and hardly to be celebrated as a public-spirited truth teller.

But whatever the motivations, Bolton has presented the nation with a caustic and hard-to-ignore inside look at the 45th president just as voters are about to decide whether to reward him with another four years in the White House.

In Bolton’s book, “The Room Where It Happened,” the president solicits foreign powers to help him win domestic elections, wants to intervene in criminal investigations to please dictators, threatens to blow up the nation’s long-standing alliances, endorses China’s creation of concentration camps, presses for adversaries to be prosecuted and says journalists “should be executed.”

While former advisers have for decades written memoirs exposing the foibles of presidents, even while they are still in office, perhaps none who served at a high level has offered such an incriminating portrait since the Watergate era. And what makes Bolton so different from other refugees from this White House or drifting-to-the-left Never Trump Republicans is that he is taking on the president from the right, making the case that when it comes to conservatism, Trump is a fraud.

“It’s perfectly apparent he’s not a conservative,” Bolton said. “I’m not saying he’s a hidden liberal. He’s a nothing in philosophical terms.”

As a result, Bolton’s portrayal challenges Trump’s conservative base-oriented strategy by disputing the president’s claims to be tough on China or strong on national security. And Bolton is trying to force Republicans to decide who they really are after allowing an outsider to take over their party.

“The day after the election, whether Trump wins or loses, we face a real debate, maybe an existential debate, about what the future of the Republican Party is,” he said. He added, “I just think it’s important for the Republican Party to separate itself from Trump and for the conservative philosophy to separate itself from Trump.”

Bolton, 71, has been a Republican stalwart far longer than Trump. The son of a firefighter and machinist, Bolton grew up in Baltimore and became a conservative from an early age, passing out leaflets as a 15-year-old for Barry Goldwater during the 1964 presidential campaign and later becoming part of what he called the “conservative underground” at Yale. A lawyer, he served in the administrations of Presidents Ronald Reagan, George Bush and George W. Bush, eventually rising to become ambassador to the United Nations.

With his trademark bushy mustache and say-anything style, he became known as one of Washington’s most outspoken hawks, derisively scorning international organizations that in his view are feckless and diminish U.S. sovereignty while advocating regime change in rogue states like Iran and North Korea. While he was not one of the architects of the Iraq War, as he is often described, he was a vocal supporter and remains so.

Trump, 74, by contrast, has switched political parties a half-dozen times and favored negotiations with the likes of North Korea and a friendship with Russia. Despite that, Bolton agreed in 2018 to become his third national security adviser, convincing himself, like others before him, that he could manage the volatile personality in the Oval Office.

“Despite what everybody said, I just fundamentally didn’t believe it was as bad as they were saying — and as it turned out,” he said Monday.

For Bolton, it was a transactional relationship, a calculation that the burden would be worth it if he could accomplish some of his long-held goals and prevent Trump from making what he considered mistakes.

On his watch, Trump withdrew the United States from the Iran nuclear accord and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, both agreements that Bolton detested. Bolton also considered it a victory that the president never made his own agreement with Iran or with North Korea, either of which he was convinced would be to the detriment of America. But Trump and Bolton clashed so many times that the adviser finally resigned in September, although the president said he was fired.

“He doesn’t operate on the basis of philosophy or grand strategy or policy,” Bolton said. “He operates on the basis of gut instinct and what he thinks is good for Donald Trump.” While the president is often accused of a short attention span, “when it comes to the politics of his reelection, he has an infinite attention span.”


Bolton’s apostasy has generated predictable blowback from Trump and his remaining advisers. The president called him a “wacko.” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who in the book was quoted denigrating the president, denounced Bolton as “a traitor.” Sarah Sanders, a former White House press secretary, called Bolton “a man drunk with power.”

Other Republicans likewise view Bolton as a turncoat, but his critique resonates with plenty of leading figures in the president’s party who keep their views to themselves. Instead, they either avoid commenting or fall in line with Trump, unwilling or afraid to break with him. The five incumbents endorsed by Bolton last fall have either ducked questions about him, like Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado, or renounced him.

Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, one of those Bolton’s political action committee backed, dismissed the book on Fox News, saying that “I find many of the claims to be simply implausible.” Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina, another of his chosen, endorsed the view of a leading Democratic congressman that Bolton is no patriot.

“For the first time in my 14-year political career, I agree with Adam Schiff,” he told Politico.

Still, others said Bolton cuts at the heart of Trump’s argument for reelection.

“Bolton has done more damage to President Trump than anyone who has left the administration,” said Anthony Scaramucci, who served briefly as White House communications director before breaking with Trump. “This will have lasting effects on the president and undermine him with a group of his base that are hard-core conservatives.”

Bolton said he was hardly surprised by his former friends on the right.

“I understand the nature of the situation we’re in, so I’m prepared for it,” he said. “There’s nobody who’s been in the White House whose style of personal assault comes anywhere close to Donald Trump.”

Even so, Bolton has hardly joined the Never Trumpers who have endorsed former Vice President Joe Biden. His break from Trump has not changed him.

“That doesn’t mean I’ve become a liberal Democrat,” he said. “I’m still the same Goldwater Republican I was on the day I started in the job.”

He will not vote for Trump or Biden.

“My political plan for the year is to hope for a miracle,” Bolton said, “and the miracle is that some way or another a real conservative Republican is on the ballot.”

He knows there is little hope of that.