John Bolton Is the Model of a Trump Sellout
He is a creature of the administration, not a critic of it.
Dr. Gans is the author of “White House Warriors: How the National Security Council Transformed the American Way of War.”
· June 18, 2020
The first time I ever saw John Bolton in person, he was sitting all alone.
In spring 2005, we were both in the State Department cafeteria and hoping for new jobs: He was a hawkish under secretary of state trying to become ambassador to the United Nations and I was a young kid looking for a break into foreign policy. As I sat getting advice from a friend of a friend of a friend at the department, who kept getting pulled away from our conversation by eager colleagues, my eyes kept drifting back to Mr. Bolton, reading papers undisturbed across the room.
That image has come back to me often over the last year. First, as Mr. Bolton, then the national security adviser, fell out of favor with Donald Trump; then when he failed to step forward in any meaningful way during January’s impeachment trial; and again this week as revelations from his book “The Room Where It Happened” rocked an already shellshocked Twittersphere.
At a moment when everyone is looking for heroes, Mr. Bolton’s lonely, self-interested crusade against Mr. Trump says volumes about where Washington finds itself.
I spent the last few years researching and writing , and I have had a lot of time to think about what makes John Bolton tick. Like many others, I wondered whether he’d testify in the impeachment hearing into Mr. Trump’s misconduct with Ukraine; whether his book would ever come out; around Doha, Qatar; and what each of his cryptic tweets (and retweets) meant.
Every time I thought I understood him, he would surprise me — like when he quietly Congress about Mr. Trump’s alleged misdeeds regarding Ukraine. And yet Mr. Bolton kept quiet when everyone was listening during the impeachment proceedings in January. What was his game?
Whichever way Mr. Bolton wanted to go public with what he knew — a network interview, a press conference at the end of his driveway, an epic Twitter thread, an early launch of the book — a big disclosure would’ve guaranteed that he never again ate alone in Washington. Yet January, and impeachment, came and went without much more than a peep from him.
There were a few factors that surely contributed to his taciturnity. There was and remains a clear risk of legal jeopardy, including potential criminal and financial penalties for revealing classified information. He also had a book to promote and paid speeches that pay more for exclusivity. And he dreams of being the future of Mr. Trump’s Republican Party, not a darling of either the resistance or the Democratic Party.
Yet, aside from Mr. Bolton’s idiosyncrasies, his no-show when it mattered says something about what Washington has become in 2020. It is hard to see any more in Mr. Bolton’s crusade beyond self-interest: for vengeance, attention and sales of the book, which cravenly opened for pre-order in the hours after the first story with details from his manuscript went live.
Maybe Mr. Bolton is unique in that regard, but I don’t think so. Mr. Trump has so upended the way Washington works. Mr. Bolton and many others have struggled amid the anarchy and been reduced to the mere pursuit of self-interest. That’s one of many reasons Mr. Trump has been able to get his way so often.
In the book, Mr. Bolton writes about how Mr. Trump “second-guessed people’s motives, saw conspiracies behind rocks, and remained stunningly uninformed on how to run the White House, let alone the huge federal government.” But all of this was clear the day Mr. Bolton entered the White House in 2018.
Regardless, Mr. Bolton was willing to work for Mr. Trump, the governmental structures that could check the president and during vulgar episodes like the president’s endorsement of China’s concentration camps, as long as he got to stay in the room where it was happening and pursue uber-hawkish foreign policies.
When Mr. Trump grew tired of Mr. Bolton’s company and policy ideas, he was out of the White House, “I will have my say in due course.” As the world waited, the same selfish dynamic played out.
Mr. Bolton was willing to feed information to the Democrats, but not side with them. He was willing to leak to reporters but not speak publicly. He was open to impeaching Mr. Trump, but not on the crimes and misdemeanors as written. He was willing to testify, but only under a subpoena from the Senate. In short, Mr. Bolton wanted to have say and do it way. With the book coming out, he has — thanks, in part, to an all-too-willing public. But because it’s only a story about Mr. Bolton versus Mr. Trump, few will ever rally to his side.
As Mr. Bolton finds himself alone at the center of the week’s conversation, one could wonder whether there’s any reason for hope in Washington. Yet, amid the Bolton news storm was a far less noticed story: that Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, who worked for Mr. Bolton on the National Security Council and testified openly during the impeachment inquiry only to be dismissed by Mr. Trump, may not be promoted to colonel because of presidential pressure.
Why is that a hopeful sign? Mr. Vindman’s ordeal is a reminder that there are still heroes in Mr. Trump’s Washington, willing to pay the price to do what’s right — not just what’s in their interest.
During his testimony, Mr. Vindman appealed to and embodied the principles that we all at least claim to hold dear. The contrast with Mr. Bolton, and his book, could not be more stark. After all, what do you call a hero without any followers? Just a guy having lunch all alone.
John Gans (), the director of communications and research at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perry World House, is the author of “White House Warriors: How the National Security Council Transformed the American Way of War.”