The Room Where It Happened
John Bolton

A White House Memoir


This is a controversial book, so it seems necessary to make my own biases clear before saying anything else. John Bolton has been criticised for resisting Democrats’ attempts to subpoena him for the impeachment of President Trump, only to later tantalisingly agree to testify if a Republican controlled Senate should vote for his testimony during the impeachment trial. I felt this was disingenuous, along with his assertion that his testimony would probably have made no difference to the outcome. Admittedly, that is probably true, yet it still ignores the moral obligation public figures have to the people first, rather than partisanship. In his epilogue Bolton argues that his failure to testify was based upon Deputy National Security Advisor Charlie Kupperman’s situation. Kupperman had been subpoenaed to testify yet had been instructed by President Trump to seek testimonial immunity. Kupperman took the matter to court for a resolution. Bolton argued that Kupperman’s matter had not yet been decided by the court but that he would testify if called to do so by the Senate during the trial. Of course, that was never going to happen.

Bolton’s decision to serve Trump

Bolton’s account of his decision to serve in President Trump’s administration, likewise, seems disingenuous to me. The opening chapter of Bolton’s book covers the period leading to Bolton’s appointment as National Security Advisor. It’s an interesting opening since Bolton has to reconcile his current criticism of the Trump administration and his former willingness to serve Trump. Bolton describes his sense that the transitional team was chaotic from the start, having failed to appoint a National Security Advisor, while filling subordinate positions, nevertheless. And Bolton wishes us to accept competing realities. First, that the ‘axis of adults’ – men like Tillerson, Mattis and McMaster - served Trump so poorly on issues like the Iran nuclear agreement, that Trump was later reluctant to listen to experts and second-guessed people’s motives. This may be an attempt to explain Trump’s increasingly bizarre behaviour and decisions – Bolton asserts that it is wrong to assume Trump was always bizarre – but it is primarily aimed at explaining why Bolton was willing to join the administration fifteen months after Trump took office, a period long enough, surely, to make a sound judgment on Trump’s suitability. After all, the Never-Trump movement began during the primaries of 2016 when it became increasingly clear that Trump would be the Republican candidate. He was judged to be unprepared and temperamentally unsuitable. I remember Ted Cruz telling Republican supporters after he withdrew from the race to vote with their conscience and failed to endorse Trump. He was booed. Yet, as so often is the case, Bolton’s account is an exercise in self-justification as much as it is a critical dissection of Trump’s presidency.

Bolton’s book, to this extent, is self-serving and contradictory. Bolton entered the administration believing he could change things, he argues, thereby portraying his stated aims as altruistic on behalf of conservative principles, while at the same time making his decision sound like an act of hubris: No one could claim by this point not to know the risks in store, up close, but I also believed I could handle it. Others may have failed for one reason or another, but I thought I could succeed. Yet Bolton also admits three pages later, I had watched Trump closely during his nearly fifteen months in office, and I had no illusions I could change him. Instead, he chose to accept a different metric by which to measure success in his new appointment, not by how outsiders compared it to prior Administrations but by how his own processes shaped policy.

Areas of Focus

Bolton, therefore, is focussed on conservative policy – the Iran nuclear deal, the Paris Agreement, ISIS, North Korea and the Middle-East – but barely touches upon issues of character in the early part of his account. In the opening chapter where he is most concerned with explaining his own decision to serve, Comey’s firing is mentioned in half a sentence, the Mueller investigation is mentioned only because Mueller’s offices shared the same entrance as Bolton’s superPAC, and Trump’s comments on the Charlottesville Neo-Nazi demonstrations are mentioned in passing without comment. These are interesting glosses in an opening that sets to justify Bolton’s decision to serve, given that Bolton’s criticism of Trump in this book speaks to character and fitness for office.

Naturally, there is much to recommend the book as well. Barring the limitations of non-disclosure of national security secrets, Bolton’s account offers an insight into the personalities and decisions that shape international relations and an insider account of some of the key issues shaping the world right now. As former National Security Advisor, Bolton’s main points of focus are upon North Korea’s attempts to manipulate Trump and its manipulation of previous presidents in order to facilitate its nuclear weapons program; the Iran Nuclear deal, the Trump administration’s scuttling of the deal and the subsequent tensions arising from that; the rise of China, the trade war with China and issues like the theft of intellectual property and the situation in Hong Kong; the crisis in Venezuela and the Trump administration’s attempts to support Juan Guaidó as interim president against Maduro; Trump’s obsessive desire to make NATO allies pay for the cost of America’s involvement in NATO; and Trump’s fluctuating commitment to the Middle-East.

Of interest is the impression Bolton builds of Trump as a leader. Bolton’s assessment that Trump is enamoured of other strong leaders – Putin and Kim Jong-un, for instance – is well documented. But Bolton is able to trace specific attempts by the Korean leader to draw Trump in, to play to his vanity and wheedle concessions from America for very little in return. Again and again, Trump is portrayed as over enthusiastic to meet leaders whom other presidents had avoided, thereby inverting the position of power an American president would normally enjoy with a small country; even to suggest bringing groups like the Taliban to the White House, which, had it happened, would have thereby legitimated them. In some cases, Trump’s actions overturned the stated objectives of his own government, such as his overturning the moratorium on communication with Russia over the Kerch Strait Incident when he called Putin against advice.

While Bolton steadfastly adheres to Republican principles, his book is essentially a takedown of Trump. Lacking focus, understanding, discipline, moral rectitude, consistency – you name it – Bolton portrays Trump as an easily manipulated leader without focus or discipline whose position becomes increasingly untenable. Therefore, some readers may be surprised, that while Bolton’s refusal to testify in the Senate played along partisan lines, he does not defend the Trump presidency as the Republican controlled Senate chose to do. Sure, he is critical of the Democrats’ handling of the impeachment process, and his points are actually well made regarding that; that Democrats rushed and failed to prosecute their case for reasons readers may or may not agree with. But according to Bolton’s unfolding narrative, Trump’s actions were unquestionably corrupt. His assessment is that Trump’s actions – his handling of his personal legal issues, and criminal cases relating to Halkbank, China’s ZTE and Huawei – took on a pattern [that] looked like obstruction of justice as a way of life. Bolton’s assessment suggests Trump was a president who deserved to be impeached for far more than just the Ukraine military aid and quid pro quo.

Bolton on Bolton

As a personal account, Bolton’s book is certainly detailed, but it is not without its flaws, and Bolton will come across as arrogant, even unlikeable to many. It is easy to guess Bolton’s response: he repeatedly expresses pleasure over the anger or opprobrium of others concerning his views or decisions: it means he’s being effective he asserts. Yet there is a level of intellectual contempt Bolton holds for those who disagree, who have different political views, and the press, which is worrying. They are ill-informed, ill-educated or implied to be so. Recalling remarks by Eisenhower Bolton describes the press as little more than intellectualoids; that the media (which he describes as biased) displayed laziness, lack of education and professionalism, and short attention span Bolton repeatedly shows his contempt for liberal thinkers and never misses an opportunity to belittle them. When speaking of Volydymyr Zelensky’s prospects in the election polls he quips that he was not taken seriously because he was just an actor. He adds, For liberal readers, that’s a joke. Ronald Reagan, one of America’s greatest Presidents, was also an actor. There is a level of contemptuous presumption that that needs explaining to ‘liberals’.

As much as this is an account of Bolton’s time in the White House, it is also a justification and defence. Having obviously kept daily records from his tenure, Bolton never misses an opportunity to repeat praise he received; though one feels he is producing evidence of his competence rather than doing it out of pride. And he consistently represents political rivals as incompetent or obstructionist, rather than accepting that the push and pull of democracy produces various points of view that have validity. When describing the decision process over how to respond to the Syrian chemical attack, for instance, Bolton reveals a penchant for clear military responses and despises anything nuanced. So he portrays Mattis’ attempt to present a range of options to Trump as gaming the process (we had been completely gamed by Mattis) and demeans Mattis’s advice as a classic bureaucratic ploy by a classic bureaucrat, structuring the options and information to make only his options look acceptable in order to get his way. This belies part of the real problem of the situation that Trump didn’t help by not being clear about what he wanted, jumping randomly from one question to another, and generally frustrating efforts to have a coherent discussion… Surely the responsibility of the president is to listen to options and make a decision. Bolton’s frustration at Mattis might reflect the naivety of his stated belief that he came into the job fifteen months into Trump’s presidency believing he could influence Trump. Bolton’s instinct is hawkish, and he advocates the use of America’s military force, from intervening in Syria, the effective threat of force against North Korea, as well as the use of force for regime change in Iran.

Bolton’s book is a good insight into his own thinking and international affairs during the course of his tenure as National Security Advisor. Bolton assumes a certain familiarity with all the issues and people he dealt with from his reader, so some may find his account overly dense. His writing is also, at times, overly repetitious, although it is sometimes difficult to judge whether this is a fault of Bolton’s narrative style or a reflection of Trump’s idiosyncratic fixations with certain issues. Bolton could distil some of the issues he discusses into a more compact and reader-friendly account, but at other times one gets the sense that Bolton is providing readers with an accurate impression of what it was like to deal with Trump and his endless cycling back to key issues, his paranoia and obsessiveness. Trump, as represented by Bolton, is easily manipulated by other leaders, unfocussed, sometimes ill-informed, incurious and dangerous to the interests of America. Whatever the truth of it is, the sense that I had read a detailed and well-informed account of the Trump administration was inescapable, even if I was left feeling that I did not admire Bolton, his self-serving asides, his attitude towards those he worked with or his political stance. Other readers will have to make their own minds up about that, however.

Watch John Bolton speak about his book and Donald Trump
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John Bolton looks on as President Trump speaks
Trump with Kim Jong un
Bolton speaks extensively of Trump's relationship with Kim Jong un, and portrays Trump as overly eager to befriend Jong un
Trump withdraws from the Iran Nuclear Deal
Bolton was highly supportive of Trump's desire to get out of this deal and America's INF treay with Russia. Bolton had many points on which he could praise the Trump administration, but ultimately saw that Trump as a leader was unsuitable.

Esper, Pompeo, and I continued exchanging thoughts about how to persuade Trump to release the security assistance before September 30. We could have confronted Trump directly, trying to refute the Giuliani theories and arguing that it was impermissible to leverage US government authorities for personal political gain. We could have, and we almost certainly would have failed, and perhaps have also created one or more vacancies among Trump’s senior advisors.

John Bolton, The Room Where It Happened, page 469-470