The Real Power of Bolton’s Memoir

It’s less in the shocking revelations we’ve already heard and more in the mundane recklessness.

After working alongside Donald Trump for 453 days as national security adviser, John Bolton, has concluded that Trump is mentally unfit to serve as president and that his continuation in office is a danger to the future of the republic. 

Yes, it’s true that others have come to similar conclusions long before these. And, yes, it’s true that the picture Bolton paints of a chaotic and dysfunctional White House is consistent with the steady stream of reporting we’ve gotten over the years Trump has been president. 

But Bolton’s book, The Room Where It Happened, adds considerably to our understanding of the Trump presidency. And because it was written by a longtime Republican and stalwart conservative—whose mustachioed face has appeared on Fox News more often than just about anyone other than the anchors—it matters. That it comes so soon after Gen. James Mattis, Trump’s former defense secretary, offered a similarly withering, if considerably shorter indictment, gives it more heft. Bolton’s 492 pages of detailed narrative, written in the voice of someone who participated in the conversations and meetings described and took copious notes in near real-time, give the account an authority that others can’t possibly bring to their assessments. 

It’s true that Bolton is hardly a disinterested narrator. His story is undoubtedly shaped by his successes—and failures—as it unfolded. By sharing this information the way that he has —and when he has chosen to—he has earned the criticism he’s receiving. Still, it’s unwise for liberals and doves to dismiss it because of their philosophical differences or frustration that Bolton will never be the impeachment witness they’d hoped. And it’s even more foolish for Trump supporters, of either the diehard or reluctant variety, to reject it summarily. For the former, it’s the most devastating indictment of the Trump presidency on offer and a powerful addition to their case that he should be turned out of the Oval Office as soon as possible. And for the latter, it’s a preview of the coming histories, with the kinds of detail about Trump’s tenure that will have all but the most fanatical Trump guardians loudly disclaiming any support for the man and his presidency. 

Leaked excerpts and early reviews have cataloged some of the book’s most shocking revelations. Bolton reports in an excerpt in the Wall Street Journal that Trump told Chinese President Xi Jianping to expand the concentration camps where his regime tortures and kills Uighurs—and further reports that Matt Pottinger, a top National Security Council official, told him that Trump had said the same sickening thing in 2017. The president, according to Bolton, offered to scuttle a Justice Department investigation in order to win the favor of Turkish strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogan. 

Trump privately urged foreign leaders to help in his re-election 2020 bid, including a request to Xi for China to buy more red-state agricultural products and the infamous Ukraine quid pro quo based on “fantasy conspiracy theories” at the heart of Trump’s impeachment inquiry. 

Such diplomatic politicking was so common that Bolton wrote he was “hard-pressed to identify any significant Trump decision during my White House tenure that wasn’t driven by re-election calculations.” 

The power of the book lies less in attention-grabbing disclosure than in the relentless, almost mundane stupidity and recklessness of it all. Take Bolton’s account of the second summit with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, this one in Hanoi, Vietnam in February 2019. The outcome was anticlimactic. But the details, reported in the unadorned, matter-of-fact prose that you might use in an email about pet food options or car repairs, are shocking for their ordinariness. 

Trump had suspended some of the military exercises on the Korean Peninsula, at the request of Kim and against the advice of his national security team, raising serious concerns with the war planners at the Pentagon. So, one of Trump’s preparatory briefings from Bolton’s National Security Council began with a showing of a North Korean propaganda film “showing them still engaged in robust war games, even if we weren’t, pursuant to Trump’s orders.” Trump was taken by the video and requested a copy. 

The other briefing featured another kind of propaganda film, this one prepared for Trump himself, by his own team. It featured news clips of past presidents boasting about their great deals with North Korean, followed by a video tutorial on North Korea’s behavior since the first summit, in Singapore, after which Trump had declared North Korea was “no longer a nuclear threat.” (In making that claim, it’s worth noting, Trump was repeating almost verbatim something Kim Jong-un had said privately in that first meeting.) Those clips were followed by others showing Ronald Reagan talking about his 1986 summit with Mikhail Gorbachev, where the U.S. walked away and later won important concessions from the Soviets. It would prove effective.

The entire summit—from the pre-briefs to the postmortems—was built around Trump’s obsession with how he’s depicted in the media. In a pre-summit call with South Korea’s Moon Jae-in, Trump “pressed Moon to let the media know that progress was being made, since they typically tried to put a negative spin on whatever he did.” The next day was consumed with responding to Trump’s frustration over a Time magazine story revealing how little attention Trump paid to his intelligence briefings. (Trump took briefings only a couple times a week and usually talked more than his briefers.) 

Pompeo released a statement insisting that Trump was an eager and attentive consumer of intelligence. Trump canceled his morning briefings the following day because he’d “stayed up well into the night” watching television coverage of congressional testimony of his former lawyer, Michael Cohen. When he met with his national security team, he asked “whether it was a bigger story if we got a small deal or we walked away”—and Bolton was happy to nudge the president toward walking away. After his initial meetings with Kim in Hanoi, Trump used a short break in the talks and “immediately switched on Fox News to see how the late-night shows were covering Cohen’s testimony, as well as events in Hanoi.” When the talks restarted, Trump wondered aloud whether North Korea’s media was as frustrating as his own. “Does the press give you a hard time?” he asked Kim. As Bolton reports: “Somewhat stunned, Kim said, ‘That’s an obvious question. I don’t have that burden,’ and laughed.” 

If the chief strength of Bolton’s book is this kind of in-the-room detail, its main weakness is the unresolved tension between the two competing narratives that shape the text. In one, Bolton makes the case that Trump is far too crazy to serve as president of the United States and leader of the free world. In the other, Bolton advances the kinds of aggressive policy arguments that have contributed to his reputation as a hawk (among admirers) or a warmonger (among detractors). 

The obvious question: If Trump is crazy, do we want him leading the country into high-stakes military confrontations with adversaries and rogue states, some of them with advanced nuclear programs? For Bolton, the answer is—or was, anyway—yes. “I explained why and how a preemptive strike against North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic-missile programs would work; how we could use massive conventional bombs against Pyongyang’s artillery north of the DMZ, which threatened Seoul, thereby reducing casualties dramatically,” Bolton writes, describing an early argument he made to Trump. On Iran, a similar approach: “A lot remained to be done to bring Iran to its knees, or to overthrow the regime, Trump’s state policy to the contrary notwithstanding, but we were off to a great start.” Bolton wanted more robust military action in Syria and Afghanistan, too, and a more confrontational approach to China and Russia. 

If Bolton had been advising George W. Bush or John McCain or Mitt Romney, it would be easier to understand how he’d make these arguments—arguments like the ones he’s made over the course of his long career. But Bolton wasn’t advising those men. He was advising Donald Trump. And he thinks Donald Trump is unfit for office.

In an interview with ABC’s Martha Raddatz that aired Sunday, Bolton responded to a question about how history will remember Trump. “I hope it will remember him as a one-term president who didn't plunge the country irretrievably into a downward spiral we can't recall from,” he said. “We can get over one term. I have absolute confidence—even if it's not the miracle of a conservative Republican being elected in November. Two terms, I'm more troubled about. But I'm really troubled about the absence as well of a viable national security wing in the Democratic Party. So, this is an election for me of a choice of two unacceptable alternatives. And it's not one I relish.”

Photograph by Jabin Botsford/Washington Post/Getty Images.