Frank Bruni: John Bolton Gets the Last Laugh

Bolton has always been vain, brilliant and ruthless, and this is the timeline that a vain, brilliant and ruthless operator would cinch

In this file photo taken on August 29, 2019 US National Security Advisor John Bolton answers journalists questions after his meeting with Belarus President in Minsk. (Photo by SERGEI GAPON/AFP via Getty Images)

President Donald Trump’s reaction to the leak of incriminating details in John Bolton’s forthcoming book shocked me. Not the part where the president said that Bolton was making up a Ukraine quid pro quo in the service of the best-seller list — that he was lying for lucre. Trump sees that transaction everywhere he looks, because he sees it first and foremost in the mirror.

No, I was surprised that the president didn’t dispute knowing Bolton, or at least didn’t say that he was so slightly acquainted with his own former national security adviser that he couldn’t pick him — chinchilla-bushy mustache and all — out of a lineup. That’s Trump’s favorite ploy. Ask Michael Cohen, Anthony Scaramucci, Prince Andrew, Stormy Daniels, Gordon Sondland, Lev Parnas. Fall into disrepute, cross Trump or claim to have the goods on him and you’re wiped clean from his memory, no matter the existence of contradictory forensics. Ivanka, beware. You’re one bad manicure away from paternal amnesia.

Bolton is the impeachment star of the week, whether he winds up testifying or not, and I can’t shake the feeling that he plotted all of this out: keeping his head down during the hearings in the House; letting it be known only afterward that he’d be willing to testify in the Senate; the revelation this week — simultaneous with assertions by Trump’s defense team that there were no firsthand witnesses to the president’s wrongdoing — that his book indeed addresses Ukraine and fully backs up the charges in the articles of impeachment.

Bolton has always been vain, brilliant and ruthless, and this is the timeline that a vain, brilliant and ruthless operator would cinch. I’m not personally acquainted with the sound of his laughter, but I’m certain I hear it.


When Trump came down that escalator in June 2015, the laws of political gravity were suspended, and Bolton’s emergence as a darling of Democrats is the latest example. He was so far to the right and such a ferocious hawk that President George W. Bush bypassed the Senate to sneak him in as ambassador to the United Nations. He later feathered a nest at Fox News, also known as the Trump administration applicant pool.

And at a time when most self-respecting foreign-policy mavens had concluded that Trump was toxic, Bolton opened his lips wide to the poison, signing on to become the president’s third national security adviser. Of course, the president is now on his fourth.

Trump can’t dismiss Bolton’s account of events as partisan. Bolton’s conservative credentials prove otherwise. Trump can’t bellow “deep state,” not when he handpicked Bolton at a stage of his presidency when he’d already become sensitive to that supposedly pernicious force. All Trump can do is command his Republican minions in the Senate to fall in line. Sadly, most of them will.

Don’t be impressed by the possibility that now — and, I stress, only now — some Senate Republicans may press for witnesses, including Bolton, in the trial. This isn’t a stirring of conscience. It’s a cloaking of humiliation. If they ignore Bolton, their still-unshaken commitment to acquitting Trump becomes even more naked.

Besides, hearing from witnesses wouldn’t erase Republican senators’ awful behavior to this point in the trial: all the ugly gloating from the likes of Lindsey Graham that Adam Schiff’s undeniable eloquence was for naught; Marsha Blackburn’s pathologically exuberant attacks on the integrity of Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman; Martha McSally’s disgraceful sniping at a perfectly polite television reporter (“liberal hack,” she spewed) and then her cynical use of that Trumpian outburst to raise money for her reelection campaign. This is sycophancy at its most shameful.

Scratch that superlative: I was forgetting Mike Pompeo. According to The New York Times’ scoop about Bolton’s book, he writes that Pompeo, too, was aware of the Ukraine pressure campaign — the same Pompeo who did nothing to stop the vilification of Marie Yovanovitch; the same Pompeo who promoted the debunked conspiracy theory that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election; the same Pompeo who once warned that Trump would be “an authoritarian president who ignored our Constitution” and then, when Trump gave him a really neat job, decided that a little authoritarianism never hurt anyone.

Of late he seems to be having a meltdown. I attribute it to his realization that his reputation and belief in his own rectitude won’t survive Trump. He’s assessing the bargain he made and understanding how completely his ambition eclipsed his integrity. It’s hell when you’re revealed to yourself.

Bolton, meanwhile, is probably feeling pretty content. He knows how badly the Trump presidency will be judged and has positioned himself on the right side of history — this time around. Maybe bitterness brought him here, maybe ego, maybe this quaint old thing called patriotism. He survived Trump. I’d read that book.

Frank Bruni is a columnist with The New York Times

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