It must be hard to be John Bolton these days. He may not care that the Trump resistance dubiously considers him a coward for not sharing his bombshells with Congress during the impeachment inquiry. But President Donald Trump and his supporters are saying he’s a liar, making up stories to avenge a president who spurned him.
The claim that Bolton is fabricating tales from inside the Oval Office doesn’t hold up. In the past two days, Trump’s defenders have dredged up selective statements that make Bolton appear to be a longstanding prevaricator. The Federalist, for example, reminded its readers that George W. Bush, at the end of his presidency, told a group of columnists that he did not find Bolton "credible."
However, Bush was responding to a question about an op-ed article in the Wall Street Journal in which Bolton expressed his "ineffable sadness" that the Bush administration was lifting sanctions on North Korea without fully accounting for its nuclear program. Bush was responding to a valid criticism of his foreign policy, not indicting Bolton’s character.
Bolton himself is a legendary note-taker who keeps a detailed record of his life. One of his former staffers told me that Bolton takes notes on what he had for breakfast. Also, if Bolton’s book is all lies, why would the White House try to block its publication and claim he is revealing classified information?
Bolton’s account of the Trump presidency is important because it is devastating.
The New York Times, which obtained a copy of the book before publication, says it paints a portrait of a president both craven and ignorant. A few examples: Trump asked if Finland was part of Russia.
He privately wanted to suspend any U.S. assistance to Ukraine until "all the Russia-investigation materials related to Clinton and Biden had been turned over." He wanted to interfere in a high-profile Justice Department case against a Turkish bank in order to curry favor with the country’s leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
An excerpt of Bolton’s memoir in the Wall Street Journal is even more damning. It says that Trump told China’s Xi Jinping in 2018 that he should "go ahead with building the camps" that Xi’s regime has erected for the re-education of his country’s Uighur minority in the Xinjiang Province. Privately, according to Bolton, Trump questioned why his administration was sanctioning China for its treatment of the Uighurs at all.
The most charitable reading of this episode is that Trump was gulled by Xi. In 2019, the Chinese acknowledged the construction of the facilities where Uighur citizens were sent, but called them "re-education centers." It’s possible that Trump simply took Xi’s comment at face value and chose not to believe what his own government was telling him: that they were brutal internment camps.
But this charitable interpretation is undermined by Trump’s past praise of autocrats. In 2018, he asserted that the North Korean people "love" their tyrant, Kim Jong Un — an insult to the millions who have suffered under three generations of Kim’s family’s totalitarianism.
A leaked transcript of Trump’s call with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte in 2017 shows Trump praising Duterte’s "unbelievable job on the drug problem." A Human Rights Watch report from 2016 found that, in Duterte’s drug war, more than 2,500 Filipinos were killed by the national police. In a 1990 interview with Playboy, Trump praised China’s crackdown on the Tiananmen Square uprising.
The irony is that officials like Bolton often try to keep the ship of state from being steered by Trump’s craven instincts. On the same day that The Wall Street Journal published Bolton’s book excerpt, the president signed the Uighur Human Rights Act, which had passed the House on a vote of 413 to 1.
The new law will potentially impose sanctions on the top Chinese official in the Xinjiang province and compel the director of national intelligence to compile a list of Chinese companies that have built the Uighur internment camps.
The president’s defenders have argued that signing this bill is evidence that Trump wouldn’t have given Xi a green light to continue persecuting a minority. But Bolton’s memoir has revealed how Trump’s personal diplomacy undermines his own government’s efforts to pressure China to end its internment of Uighurs. The new sanctions on China are a minor irritant for Xi when he knows America’s president doesn’t really care what he does.
And that is a stain on Trump’s presidency.
It’s understandable that the president and his fans have chosen to attack the messenger. But Bolton’s warning should be heard. He is not the first senior official to serve Trump who has come away horrified by the president’s character and judgment.
This month, we saw former Marine General James Mattis chastise Trump for dividing the nation and undermining the Constitution. Last year, Trump’s former chief of staff John Kelly said he urged Trump not to hire a "yes man" to replace him, warning that if he did, he would be impeached.
Rex Tillerson, Trump’s first secretary of state, said in 2018 that often he had to tell Trump that what he wanted to do was against the law.
Trump would like us to believe that all of them are lying. A better explanation is that his former advisers have exposed a president unfit for his office.
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun, and UPI. Read Eli Lake's Reports — More Here.
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