One day in the summer of 2018, John R. Bolton commiserated with John F. Kelly over the burdens of working for President Trump. Mr. Kelly, then the White House chief of staff, had just had another argument with the president in trying to stop him from using the power of his office to punish a political foe. It did not go well.
“Has there ever been a presidency like this?” Mr. Kelly asked plaintively.
“I assured him there had not,” Mr. Bolton recalls in his new book.
That is self-evidently true and yet it bears repeating every once in a while. After more than three years of the Trump presidency, it has become easy to forget at times just how out of the ordinary it really is. The normalization of Mr. Trump’s norm-busting, line-crossing, envelope-pushing administration has meant that what was once shocking now seems like just another day.
Which is why Mr. Bolton’s damning book stands out even among the proliferation of volumes about this president. In 494 pages, the former national security adviser becomes the first person with daily access to Mr. Trump’s Oval Office to catalog the various ways that he has seized the presidency to suit his own needs, much to the consternation of not just liberal critics but a lifelong, left-bashing, conservative stalwart like Mr. Bolton.
The portrait he draws in “The Room Where It Happened,” due out Tuesday, is of a president who sees his office as an instrument to advance his own personal and political interests over those of the nation. That is what got Mr. Trump impeached in the first place, but the book asserts his Ukraine scheming was no one-off. The line between policy and politics, generally murky in any White House, has been all but erased in Mr. Bolton’s telling.
Decisions on trade, foreign policy, national security, law enforcement and other issues are fashioned through the prism of what it will mean for Mr. Trump. Other presidents at least maintained the notion that there was a difference between presidential duty and campaign imperative, but as Mr. Bolton describes it, Mr. Trump sees little need for pretense.
“Throughout my West Wing tenure, Trump wanted to do what he wanted to do, based on what he knew and what he saw as his own best personal interests,” Mr. Bolton writes in the book. At another point he adds, “I am hard-pressed to identify any significant Trump decision during my tenure that wasn’t driven by re-election calculations.”
In this portrayal, an “erratic,” “impulsive” and “stunningly uninformed” Mr. Trump could make “irrational” decisions and “saw conspiracies behind rocks.” In an interview to promote his book, Mr. Bolton told ABC News this week that he had concluded that Mr. Trump was not “fit for office” and did not have “the competence to carry out the job.”
He added, “There really isn’t any guiding principle that I was able to discern other than what’s good for Donald Trump’s re-election.”
Beyond withholding security aid to a war-torn Ukraine unless its leaders incriminated his Democratic foes, Mr. Trump also sought to intervene in criminal investigations of major firms in China and Turkey to “give personal favors to dictators he liked,” according to Mr. Bolton — all part of what he described as “obstruction of justice as a way of life.” Likewise, Mr. Trump was “pleading” in a meeting with President Xi Jinping of China to help him win re-election by buying American agricultural products, which he thought would bolster him in farm states.
Other presidents have pursued what they saw as their own best interests or were driven by re-election calculations, even in the farm arena. The grain embargo imposed against the Soviet Union by Jimmy Carter to protest the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan was lifted by Ronald Reagan in deference to American farmers who formed a key voting bloc. Other presidents kept the domestic reaction in mind when making foreign policy decisions.
And other presidents exploited the power of their office for political reasons. Even before Richard M. Nixon and the wide array of abuses that fell under the rubric of Watergate, John F. Kennedy ordered the C.I.A. to wiretap American reporters, while the agency under Lyndon B. Johnson infiltrated the 1964 campaign of his Republican challenger, Barry Goldwater.
But what Mr. Bolton argues is that Mr. Trump’s personal and political interests are the essential elements of this particular presidency, that to him the rules that governed other presidents in the post-Watergate era are meant to be broken. That has been ever clearer in the months since Mr. Trump was acquitted in his Senate impeachment trial: He has ousted officials who testified for House prosecutors, fired quasi-independent inspectors general who angered him and publicly pressured the Justice Department to go easy on his associates who have been convicted of crimes.
Mr. Trump’s defenders say that he is simply exercising control over the executive branch in keeping with an expansive but constitutional interpretation of his power and that he has every right to demand loyalty and to make decisions with his political future in mind. As with the Ukraine case, they say, he has legitimate reasons for his actions, even if they may look unseemly at times. They argue that his supporters want him to break glass in Washington.
As for Mr. Bolton, Mr. Trump and his allies dismiss his account as another tell-all by another disgruntled employee grinding an ax — “the Washington swamp’s equivalent of revenge porn,” as Peter Navarro, the president’s trade adviser, put it.
“Bolton’s book, which is getting terrible reviews, is a compilation of lies and made up stories, all intended to make me look bad,” Mr. Trump wrote Thursday on Twitter after news accounts about the memoir. “Many of the ridiculous statements he attributes to me were never made, pure fiction. Just trying to get even for firing him like the sick puppy he is!”
Mr. Bolton, by his own account and those of other White House officials, actually resigned last September before the president later claimed to have fired him. And Mr. Trump, who has compiled a long record of false and misleading statements, offers a contradictory defense against his former aide, claiming that Mr. Bolton’s account is both “made up” and classified at the same time, without explaining how it could be full of national secrets if it is “pure fiction.”
The White House effort to stop Mr. Bolton from publishing his memoir on the grounds that it contains classified information goes to the book’s larger theme of turning the office into a tool for Mr. Trump’s own gain. In short, the president has turned a process meant to safeguard the nation’s secrets into a political cudgel against an adviser turned critic.
Mr. Bolton submitted his book to the National Security Council for prepublication review in December as required of a former official and participated in an extensive, monthslong process with a career employee, making the changes requested until there were no more requests.
But after the career employee completed the review, which would have normally cleared the book for publication, Mr. Trump’s political appointees, led by Robert C. O’Brien, his new national security adviser, stepped in. They ordered a new review and insisted there was more classified information still in the manuscript. Exactly what, they have not disclosed publicly, but Mr. Trump claimed this week that every conversation with him was “highly classified,” a fanciful notion that goes well beyond what most of his predecessors asserted.
With Mr. Trump vowing to block Mr. Bolton’s book from seeing the light of day, the Justice Department then went to court twice this week to stop the book’s distribution, a move that four former White House lawyers from Republican and Democratic administrations said had no precedent that they could think of. While no president enjoys revelatory books by former aides, they are a cross many have born without employing the Justice Department as a weapon to punish perceived transgressors.
Not that Mr. Trump’s usual critics are all that sympathetic to Mr. Bolton, harshly blaming him for not testifying during House impeachment hearings last year and instead holding his information back for his $2 million book. But some have seized on the material in the book, however belated, as confirmation of Mr. Trump’s politicization of the office.
Mr. Bolton, who served in three previous Republican administrations, makes clear that Mr. Trump is like no other president of his acquaintance. Consumed by his enemies, Mr. Trump seeks to use his power to strike back. He badgers Attorney General William P. Barr to prosecute former Secretary of State John F. Kerry for talking to Iran in supposed violation of the Logan Act. After an irritating leak, he tells his White House counsel to instruct Mr. Barr to “arrest the reporters, force them to serve time in jail and then demand they disclose their sources.”
And he ordered Mr. Kelly, his chief of staff, to strip security clearances for Trump critics like John O. Brennan, the former C.I.A. director under President Barack Obama. Mr. Kelly, a retired four-star Marine general, told Mr. Trump it was “not presidential” and complained to Mr. Bolton that it was “Nixonian.” Mr. Bolton, no fan of Mr. Brennan, agreed with Mr. Kelly.
“I thought there was a case against Brennan for politicizing the C.I.A., but Trump had obscured it by the blatantly political approach he took,” Mr. Bolton writes. “It would only get worse if more clearances were lifted. Kelly agreed.”
In the end, many of Mr. Trump’s exhortations go nowhere. Mr. Kerry has never been prosecuted, reporters have not been arrested and it remains unclear whether Mr. Brennan’s clearance was actually revoked as the president said it was. His defenders say Mr. Trump’s critics make too much of flamboyant outbursts that actually do not result in action, that he is more bark than bite.
But Mr. Kelly is now gone. Mr. Bolton is now gone. And Mr. Trump faces a 137-day sprint to Election Day that will decide whether he should keep control of the instruments of state for four more years.
Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com