The Room Where It Happened A White House Memoir - john Bolton
First, the elephant in the room where it happened. Yes, he admits in this book, that the New York Times’ reporting during the impeachment was true: Bolton –did- back up the impeachment by leaking that Trump had withheld congressional funding from Ukraine in order to pressure them to lie and smear Joe Biden (and also to lie and say that Putin hadn’t cheated for Trump to win in 2016.) He withheld tax payer dollars to try to cheat and win the 2020 election--definitely impeachable and disqualifying.
Unfortunately, leaked quotes to the New York Times did not sway Bolton’s fellow Republicans in the Senate in the way that his actual testimony (or even a press conference or sworn affadavit) could have..
Bolton, not lacking in self-regard, has no regrets about his decision not to testify. He even, near the end of this book, bizarrely, accuses the House Managers of committing “impeachment malpractice” by not making a broader case. (He chooses to forget that Trump ordered complete non-cooperation from federal employees and also forbade everyone from turning over requested documents.)
It was only because of the testimonies of people far, far braver than John Bolton—and some good lawyering—that the Democrats were able to build a strong case against President Trump. (Bolton writes that they should have taken their time—apparently also forgetting that the impeachment was about Trump “cheating to win” (again) in 2020. “Cheating to win an upcoming election” wasn’t the kind of danger to democracy that Democrats could pursue at their leisure.
Fortunately, there were some public servants who were far braver than NSA Bolton, including his own subordinates—Fiona Hill and Lt. Commander Alex Vindman. Unlike their boss, they risked their careers and saw their reputations falsely smeared, in order to do the right thing for their country. (In Vindman’s case, Trump not only fired him in retaliation for responding to the subpoena, he also fired his twin brother, an NSC lawyer with no involvement at all in the impeachment.
I thought Bolton might have praised Vindman and Hill and the others who DID testify in spite of the risks. But, based on how he comes across in this 500+ page memoir, Bolton's not apparently the self-reflective type, and so, he doesn’t.
For those expecting a juicy, gossipy book, this really isn't it. Most of the best quotes have already become public. (Trump not knowing Finland was a country or UK was a nuclear power.) Much of this book is about Bolton doing his job as NSA. He writes a lot about his work actually, the meetings he took with others, the policies he wanted to see in North Korea...Syria...Iran...China... Europe, etc. Honestly, a lot of this is pretty dull.
Also, I didn't find Bolton a very satisfying observer, maybe because of his political orientation. Time and again, he's in a situation and emphasizing or describing something in a way very different from what I saw or felt. One example is that press conference between Putin and Trump in Helsinki, which was televised in full, following their one-on-one two hour meeting. Bolton leaves out the context of the two men's answers and his summaries of what was said ise poor.. As always, he shortchanges the importance of the Mueller investigation, including that just three days earlier Mueller indicted 13 Russians for their interference with the U.S. 2016 election. He does mention what a bombshell Trump's expressed support for Putin over U.S. intel was, but doesn't write about the event or followup in a very interesting way. (Maybe Coats will write a memoir. He almost resigned over it, per Bolton.) As with the rest of it, we really don't get much sense of Donald Trump as a personality--what Bolton feels that the president thinks and feels. (Again, if only the writer was a journalist or historian.)
I was surprised he didn't portray Putin--who he clearly sees as in control of the Putin-Trump relationship--as a significantly greater threat to the U.S. because of Trump's ongoing subservience to him, shown in Helsinki as other places..
(I -was- interested in the description of Putin as having two ways of interacting with others "either humiliating them or dominating them". (Sound familiar?) But this is just an aside. There's a blandness to much of his narrative, a docility, that makes you want a journalist or historian "in the room" instead.
It can be disconcerting when a writer's personality and political viewpoint differ so strongly from one's own. For example, Bolton describes a trip to NATO headquarters that sent Mattis, Kelly and himself into a panic. Trump--always eager to undermine NATO (coincidentally, also a top Putin goal)--was going to threaten to leave if Germany didn't "pay what they owed". Bolton says he "doesn't know" if Trump actually was wrong--over and over--about the arrangement or just was shorthanding the fact that it was countries providing military defense, not money..
Well, you don't need national security clearance to know that Trump absolutely doesn't understand that NATO nations' are talking about the amount spent on their own defense, not something paid into a mutual "kitty" (they have one of those, too, but that's never what Trump is badgering them about.) As usual, his target was Germany, whose leader--a woman--has emerged as the global leader of democracies, now that the U.S. has abdicated it. (Bolton's narrative makes clear Trump doesn't care one bit for human rights. He encourages Xi Jinping to build concentration camps to imprison China's 1 million Uighurs. He only makes a statement about Saudi buddy Muhammed bin Salman's role in the grisly murder of journalist--and American resident--Jamal Khashoggi--because he wants to distract reporters from Ivanka's abuse of private email.)
Anyway, the meeting is tense, and eventually it ends without the U.S. withdrawing from yet another international agreement (Bolton, by the way, hates the Paris Climate Accords and the Iran Nuclear Deal. In this, he and Trump are quite simpatico.) There's a large group at the end and Merkel extends her hand. Instead of shaking it, Trump bends down and kisses her on both cheeks, exclaiming, "I love Angela!" The onlookers, according to Bolton, applaud. He seems to feel this was a good moment. I felt embarrassed by my president and his team when reading it. (The Bush back rub wasn't bad enough?)
Much of the book is rather dull. Still, Bolton may deserve –some- credit anyway for bringing it out before the election. (It’s really not ALL about the $2 million from Simon & Schuster, right?) He has, after all, made himself widely disliked on both the right and the left—and also has antagonized the ever-vindictive president and his powerful lackeys, including the attorney general. Trump and Barr have already indicated that they will make sure that Bolton -does- pay a price for making Trump look so bad,
There've been a lot of unflattering quotes from this book--probably most of the interesting things are already out there. But he also appears to whitewash Trump's personality and dexterity with the language. Bolton mentions how he talks too much (including during his infrequent intelligence briefings). But he doesn't capture the rambling, repetitive, often disturbing quality of his verbal expression. Trump here, like everyone else, speaks in short, succinct thoughts whenever directly quoted. In fact, everyone in direct quotes basically sounds thee same. Did the publisher want quote marks in the text even though these are obviously NOT exact quotes?
Again, I want a journalist or historian "in the room" with Trump on these occasions. I want to know what was really said.
Bolton doesn't describe Trump's unique verbal style--or his well-known temper and tirades, He does, at times, remind you of how often he fires people--and how often they quit. Or, as in Bolton's case, it's both. Bolton quit and gave notice, only to have Trump jump the gun and announce Bolton had been fired. It's credible because we saw him do the same with SOD James Mattis.
In one of the most disturbing quotes, Bolton describes "obstruction of justice as a way of life" for Trump. He warns that if he is re-elected, the "last guardrail" on the president--his obsession with being reelected--will be removed. At that point, Bolton--who sees in Trump an opportunist with no core principles or philosophy--could do anything that he felt benefitted him personally. Given his warmth toward the world's dictators and autocrats--Putin, Kim Jung Un, Saudi MBS, Turkey's Erdogan, Xi--the potential for even greater corruption in a second term is huge. Even here, Bolton describes Trump promising Erdogan he will intervene in a case involving SDNY "as soon as I put my people in". (Will he do the same for his major lender, Deutschebank? We don't know how interconnected his personal interests are with the financial perks from the dictators of the world since he refuses to release his tax returns.).
Bolton worked for George W. Bush, GWH Bush, and Ronald Reagan. But his 17 months with Donald Trump convinced him that not only was Trump unlike any other U.S. president, he was unfit to hold the office. Unfit, yet with 89% popularity with Republicans according to recent polls and the support of elected Republicans, it's hard to know if Bolton's intended audience will be reading this. Election Day is less than five months. The question you're left with is:: Will Bolton's warning make any difference/