Bolton assaults Trump from the right and takes fire from all directions
By Peter Baker
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 politi- cal 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 conser- vative 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 vot- ers 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 of- fered 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 Re- publicans is that he is taking on the president from the right, making the case that when it comes to conser- vatism, 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 Repub- licans 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 Repub- lican stalwart far longer than Trump. The son of a firefighter and machin- ist, 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 administra- tions of Presidents Ronald Reagan, George Bush and George W. Bush, eventually rising to become ambas- sador to the United Nations.
With his trademark bushy mus- tache and say-anything style, he be- came known as one of Washington’s most outspoken hawks, derisively scorning international organiza- tions 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 archi- tects 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 mak- ing 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 ad- viser 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.”