John Bolton, the former national security adviser, plans to publish a damning book next week depicting President Donald Trump as a corrupt, poorly informed, reckless leader who used the power of his office to advance his own personal and political needs even ahead of the nation’s interests.
The book, “The Room Where It Happened,” describes Bolton’s 17 turbulent months at Trump’s side through a multitude of crises and foreign policy challenges, but attention has focused mainly on his assertions that the president took a variety of actions that should have been investigated for possible impeachment beyond just the pressure campaign on Ukraine to incriminate Democrats.
Bolton, who did not testify during House proceedings and whose offer to testify in the Senate trial was blocked by Republicans, confirms many crucial elements of the Ukraine scheme that got Trump impeached in December. He also asserts that the president was willing to intervene in criminal investigations to curry favour with foreign dictators. And he says that Trump pleaded with China’s president to help him win re-election by buying American crops grown in key farm states.
Here are some of the highlights:
An offer of firsthand evidence on the Ukraine matter
The book offers firsthand evidence that Trump linked his suspension of $391 million in security aid for Ukraine to his demands that Ukraine publicly announce investigations into supposed wrongdoing by Democrats, including former Vice President Joe Biden — the heart of the impeachment case against the president.
If Bolton’s account is to be believed, it means that Trump explicitly sought to use taxpayer money as leverage to extract help from another country for his partisan political campaign, a quid pro quo that House Democrats called an abuse of power. At the time of the impeachment hearings, Republicans dismissed the accusation by saying that the witnesses offered only second-hand evidence. Bolton, by contrast, was in the room.
Bolton says that he and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Mark Esper tried eight to 10 times to persuade the president to release the aid, which Ukraine desperately needed to defend itself against a continuing war with Russia-sponsored forces. The critical meeting took place Aug. 20 when, Bolton writes, Trump “said he wasn’t in favour of sending them anything until all the Russia-investigation materials related to Clinton and Biden had been turned over,” referring to Hillary Clinton.
Bolton otherwise confirms testimony offered by his former Russia adviser, Fiona Hill, that he objected to the “drug deal” being cooked up by Trump’s associates to force Ukraine to help and that he called Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer who was hip deep in the affair, “a hand grenade who’s going to blow everybody up.”
He writes that he suspected that Giuliani had personal business interests at stake and adds that he had the matter reported to the White House Counsel’s Office.
“I thought the whole affair was bad policy, questionable legally, and unacceptable as presidential behaviour,” Bolton writes. “Was it a factor in my later resignation? Yes, but as one of many ‘straws’ that contributed to my departure.”
Explaining a lack of testimony and placing blame on Democrats
As the book nears publication and details spill out, many congressional Democrats quickly assailed Bolton for not telling his story during the impeachment proceedings and instead saving it for his $2 million book.
Bolton explains his position in the epilogue, saying he wanted to wait to see if a judge would order one of his deputies to testify over White House objections. Once the House impeached Trump over the Ukraine matter, Bolton volunteered to testify in the Senate trial that followed if subpoenaed.
But Senate Republicans voted to block new testimony by him and any other witnesses even after The New York Times reported that his forthcoming book would confirm the quid pro quo. Some of those Republican senators said that even if Bolton was correct, it would not be enough in their minds to make Trump the first president in American history convicted and removed from office.
Bolton blames House Democrats for being in a rush rather than waiting for the court system to rule on whether witnesses like him should testify, and he faults them for narrowing their inquiry to just the Ukraine matter rather than building a broader case with more examples of misconduct by the president.
“Had a Senate majority agreed to call witnesses and had I testified, I am convinced, given the environment then existing because of the House’s impeachment malpractice, that it would have made no significant difference in the Senate outcome,” he writes.
Singling out episodes of “obstruction of justice as a way of life”
The other episodes that Bolton says the House should have investigated include Trump’s willingness to intervene in Justice Department investigations against foreign companies to “give personal favours to dictators he liked.” Bolton said it appeared to be “obstruction of justice as a way of life.”
He singles out Halkbank of Turkey, a financial institution investigated for a multibillion-dollar scheme to evade U.S. sanctions on Iran. At a side encounter during a Buenos Aires summit meeting in late 2018, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey handed Trump a memo by the law firm representing Halkbank, “which Trump did nothing more than flip through before declaring he believed Halkbank was totally innocent.” He then told Erdogan “he would take care of things.”
Attorney General William Barr later spent months trying to negotiate a settlement with the bank, but that came to an end in October, after Bolton left office, when the Justice Department charged Halkbank in a six-count indictment.
Bolton also mentions ZTE, the Chinese telecommunications giant that was convicted of evading sanctions on Iran and North Korea and then faced new penalties for further violations during its follow-up consent decree. During a conversation on trade with President Xi Jinping of China, Trump offered to lighten the penalties.
“Xi replied that if that were done, he would owe Trump a favour and Trump immediately responded he was doing this because of Xi,” Bolton writes. He called himself “appalled” and “stunned” by the idea of intervening in a criminal investigation to let a sanctions buster off the hook. In the end, the Justice Department accepted a $1 billion fine and lifted a seven-year ban on buying American products, an act of lenience that saved the company from going out of business.
A new allegation in the book accuses Trump of “pleading” with Xi to help him win re-election by buying American agricultural products, which would help the president in farm states. Trump did not deny it when asked about the matter Wednesday night by Sean Hannity on Fox News, but Robert Lighthizer, his trade representative, did on his behalf earlier in the day, saying it was not true.
Describing a toxic environment inside the administration
Over a long career in and out of Republican administrations in Washington, Bolton has rarely shied from giving his opinions, usually born of strong conservative national security convictions that have made him one of the capital’s most outspoken hawks advocating the use of military power and sanctions.
While he agreed with Trump on issues like getting out of the nuclear accord with Iran, he found himself repeatedly trying to stop the president from making concessions to other rogue states or inviting the Taliban to Camp David for a peace deal while pushing for a more robust use of force against outliers like Iran or Syria. He considered Trump’s diplomacy to be folly.
To Bolton, Trump’s decision to meet North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, in Singapore was a “foolish mistake,” and the president’s desire to then invite Kim to the White House was “a potential disaster of enormous magnitude.” A series of presidential Twitter posts about China and North Korea were “mostly laughable.” Trump’s meeting with President Vladimir Putin of Russia in Helsinki was a “self-inflicted wound” and “Putin had to be laughing uproariously at what he had gotten away with in Helsinki.”
Bolton also describes an environment inside the administration marked by caustic infighting in which various players trash one another in a contest for the president’s ear — and the president trashes all of them.
When Bolton took over as national security adviser in 2018, John Kelly, then the White House chief of staff, disparaged the departing adviser, H.R. McMaster, by saying, “The president hasn’t had a national security adviser in the past year and he needs one.” Pompeo, the book says, disparaged Nikki Haley, then the ambassador to the United Nations, calling her “light as a feather.”
Battling over what is deemed classified information
The Justice Department has gone to court to stop the book from being published, arguing that it has classified information in it and that it was not cleared by a prepublication review required of former government officials like Bolton.
In fact, according to his lawyer, Charles Cooper, Bolton participated in an extensive back-and-forth over the book and agreed to all of the revisions mandated by the career official who reviewed it or came up with acceptable alternatives. Only when the review was over did another official, Michael Ellis, a political appointee, step in to review it all over again at the instruction of Robert O’Brien, Bolton’s successor as national security adviser.
If there is classified information still in the book, it is hard to figure out what it might be. There are no references to secret intelligence programs or espionage sources and methods. But Trump insisted this week that every conversation with him was “highly classified” and therefore could not be disclosed, an assertion that goes far beyond tradition.
In his epilogue, Bolton says that in a few cases, “I was prevented from conveying information that I thought was not properly classifiable, since it revealed information that can only be described as embarrassing to Trump or as indicative of possible impermissible behaviour.” One example is the direct quote of what Trump said to Xi about helping him win re-election.
For the most part, Bolton explains in the epilogue that the career official who reviewed the book merely made him take quotation marks off things that the president said and otherwise generally left them in. And so Bolton offers a guide to readers: “In some cases, just put your own quotation marks around the relevant passages; you won’t go far wrong.”
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