There is a passage in his new book where John Bolton recalls a conversation with former White House chief of staff John Kelly in the West Wing. Donald Trump had just decided to revoke the security clearance of former CIA director John Brennan. An exasperated Kelly was trying to change his mind, describing the move as “Nixonian”.
A weary Kelly turns to Bolton. “Has there ever been a presidency like this?” he asks. Bolton replies drily: “I assured him there had not.”
My book is critical of Trump, and I think it’s perfectly obvious from the book why that criticism is there
The excerpt is just one of many in a new book by the former national security adviser John Bolton that sheds light on the inner works of the Trump presidency. The book was published despite efforts by the White House to block it, citing confidentiality breaches.
Speaking from his office in downtown Washington DC, Bolton is characteristically unperturbed as he is asked if it was appropriate to spill the beans on an administration still in office.
“Not at all – I wrote a book when George W Bush was still in office. Hillary Clinton wrote a book on her time as secretary of state while Obama was in power.” He lists other former Trump officials who have written books including Sean Spicer and former acting attorney general Matt Whitaker.
“Nobody criticised any of them. The fact is the book is critical of Trump, and I think it’s perfectly obvious from the book why that criticism is there.”
On Trump: ‘Decisions are ad-hoc and episodic’
And critical it certainly is. The Room Where it Happened contains startling details about Trump, from his confusion about whether Finland was part of Russia, to his desire to send a Trump-autographed copy of Elton John’s Rocket Man CD to North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un.
The picture that emerges is of a president not in control and dangerously incoherent.
“He doesn’t operate pursuant to philosophy, or grand strategy or policy,” Bolton tells me as he reflects on his 17 months as national security chief. “He’s often described as transactional, but what it means is that every day is a new adventure. Decisions get made on an ad-hoc and episodic basis.”
Bolton himself is a far from straightforward figure. As many have pointed out, despite his concerns about Trump he refused to participate in the impeachment inquiry into the president.
Before his latest incarnation as a Trump cabinet member, Bolton was one of the most recognisable faces in Washington.
Defined by his walrus moustache, he became an almost cartoonish caricature of a certain kind of American conservative. Though he served in the Reagan and Bush snr administrations, it was his role in the George W Bush presidency that brought him to global attention. Bolton became an architect of the Iraq war, and the ill-fated response to the September 11th attacks based on faulty reports of weapons of mass destruction.
Today, he remains defiant on Iraq. “I still think that decision was correct,” he contends.
After he left the George W Bush administration having failed to secure the support of enough senators to continue as ambassador to the United Nations, he continued to proselytise about the wisdom of foreign interventions. He remained an active presence on the speaker circuit, and a regular contributor to Fox News.
Some of the most amusing parts of the book – which is mostly a dense overview of the administration’s foreign policy – occur when Bolton looks on in horror as Trump embraces a policy of appeasement with Kim Jong-un
I ask him is it really true that he begins his day at 3.30am. “Sometimes I sleep in till 3.45am,” he says wryly.
He made no secret of his desire to return to frontline politics, and in 2018 Trump hired him to replace HR McMaster as national security adviser.
Three decades after he had first joined a Republican administration, Bolton’s views had changed little in the intervening years, despite the disaster of Iraq.
“The fundamental aspect of foreign and defence policy is the protection of American national interests around the world,” he tells me. “That means building alliances and working out where are the threats.”
In this sense, he shared some ground with Donald Trump, who had campaigned on an America First policy.
Though both were alike in viewing America’s role in the world purely through the prism of how it affects the United States, they differed sharply in approach. Just months before his appointment, Bolton had called for regime change in Iran, and suggested striking North Korea. Trump, in contrast, wanted to withdraw from the world stage.
Some of the most amusing parts of the book – which is mostly a dense overview of the administration’s foreign policy – occur when Bolton looks on in horror as Trump embraces a policy of appeasement with Kim Jong-un. “The less time we spent in Singapore, the less time there was to make concessions,” he says ahead of the Singapore summit with North Korea, amid fears that Trump would be outwitted by Kim.
Elsewhere he reflects on how Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan “went almost instantly from being one of Trump’s best international buddies to being a target of vehement hostility. It kept my hopes alive that Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Kim Jong-un or others, would, in due course, inevitably show Trump their true colours.”
On Brexit: It was ‘a declaration of independence’
As a long-time opponent of multilateralism, Bolton also has an interest in Brexit. Bolton was the first senior member of the Trump administration to visit London after Boris Johnson became prime minister, promising progress on a US-UK trade deal.
Unsurprisingly, Bolton is a staunch Brexiteer.
“I think the European Union has made Europe less than the sum of its parts. What started out, at least for some, as a free trade idea has gotten transformed into something else,” he tells me. “There’s no doubt that the Brussels institutions are much more important in a whole range of policy areas than the elected governments of the members of the European Union. I told [the British] at the time, and have said since, the Brexit referendum was like a declaration of independence. The US constitution opens with the words ‘We the people’ – well, that’s where sovereignty is vested. ‘We the people’ make the rules that govern us, not a bunch of distant rulers, in this case in Brussels.”
No one who is a strong Brexit advocate wants a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. There has to be a way to do this that isn’t going to jeopardise the economic relationship
What about concerns around the Border between Northern Ireland and the Republic?
“From my study of the Border question, no one who is a strong Brexit advocate wants a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland...There has to be a way to do this that isn’t going to jeopardise the economic relationship,” he says, noting that the difficulty of trans-border trade in the Brexit talks exists not just on the island of Ireland, but also between Ireland and Britain, and Britain and France.
“The problem with the Border question,” he says, was “political theology – that the rulers could not abide that somebody wanted out and they were desperately afraid that others might get the idea that if it’s good for Britain, well, then it could be good for us too.”
On Ireland: ‘I hope the benefits Ireland enjoys are appreciated’
Bolton has previously weighed in on Ireland’s relationship with the EU. In 2008 he delivered a controversial speech in University College Dublin advocating for a “no” vote on the Lisbon Treaty. Recalling this intervention, he says there has been a “pattern” in the European Union that when referendums didn’t go the right way the first time, they “just made people vote again until they got it right”.
“It’s obviously up to people in a democratic country if they want to give up important economic powers to a supranational organisation, that’s their prerogative. But I think it accounts for some of the populism that people have complained about – people feel alienated from distant institutions that are telling them what to do,” he says.
More recently, Bolton accompanied president Trump on his visit to Doonbeg, Co Clare, in 2019. “I don’t play golf,” he quips, but says it was a beautiful place. He sat in on the meeting with Leo Varadkar and previous St Patrick’s Day meetings in the Oval Office. On one occasion, Trump jokingly asked Bolton during a meeting with Varadkar if Ireland was one of the countries he wanted to invade, a dig at Bolton’s hawkish credentials.
I think it’s worth Ireland considering the benefits it gets from Nato without being a member. Nobody begrudges the benefits that fall to Ireland. I hope that it’s appreciated
Bolton is aware of the role Shannon Airport plays in US military adventures. He says he has stopped in Shannon about eight times during the Trump presidency, meeting American troops who were passing through. He sees the controversial arrangement as an important element of the US-Irish relationship.
“I think it is important because time and distance are critical factors in any kind of military operation and to be able to use it as a transit point is critical.”
He also believes Ireland has benefited from Nato, at very little cost. “I mean the defence of the West during the cold war, against the Soviet threat in particular. I think it’s worth Ireland considering the benefits it gets from Nato without being a member.
“Nobody begrudges the benefits that fall to Ireland” from Nato, says Bolton, but adds portentously: “I hope that it’s appreciated.”
On Israel: ‘The two-state solution is doomed’
Bolton’s hardline foreign policy views are particularly evident as regards Israel. He is an admirer of Benjamin Netanyahu, the right-wing Israeli leader who was recently re-elected as part of a coalition government on a promise to annex much of the West Bank.
Many believe Netanyahu may press ahead with the move this summer, in case his ally Trump loses in November. While most of the international community has warned against annexation, Bolton believes it is “always better to conduct yourself in the world on the basis of reality rather than what your aspirations might be”.
“The fact is there’s parts of the West Bank that Israel is never going to give back to the Palestinian state if there is going to be a Palestinian state. My own view is that the two-state solution is doomed to fail.”
Would annexation not provoke a major response from Arab powers in the region and internationally? “People said that would happen when the United States moved the embassy to Jerusalem. It didn’t. They said that when the US recognised the annexed Golan Heights, and even less happened,” he replies.
On the 2020 election: ‘For the first time I will not vote Republican’
As for November’s election, Bolton says it’s too early to predict if Trump will be re-elected, noting that the polls were wrong in 2016. But he will not vote for Trump in November.
“For the first time in my life I will not vote for the Republican nominee,” he says, but will instead write in the name of a conservative nominee. “Trump is not a conservative Republican – that’s what I am, that’s what I’ve been since I was 15 years old.”
He says his main concern is losing a Republican majority in the Senate, and is worried that Trump may damage those chances. How the legacy of Trump will impact the Republican Party will be a key question if Trump wins or loses.
“People are already getting in line for the 2024 presidential nomination,” he says. “The damage [Trump] could do to the party,” is real, he adds. “He is not philosophically a Conservative or a Republican. He is not philosophically much of anything.”