OP-ED: Bolton rolls a hand grenade into Trump’s impeachment trial

Doyle McManus
Los Angeles Times (TNS)
U.S President Donald Trump, left, and John Bolton, right, the new national security adviser attend a briefing from Senior Military Leadership in the Cabinet Room of the White House on April 9, 2018 in Washington, D.C. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS)

Why did John Bolton, President Donald Trump’s former national security adviser, offer to become a witness against the president?

People who know the famously irascible war hawk say yes, he’s selling his upcoming book. But there’s a stronger impulse at work.

“He was publicly humiliated, and now he’s settling scores,” one former colleague said.

And, as an afterthought: “He’s also telling the truth.”

Senior Washington officials normally write memoirs to make sure their version of history gets a hearing. They usually wait until the president they served is out of office, especially if they plan to say anything critical.

Bolton has chosen the opposite strategy. His book is more like a hand grenade, ready to roll into the Senate’s impeachment trial. It was scheduled for publication in March, but details leaked to the New York Times just as Trump’s impeachment lawyers were arguing that no witnesses had firsthand knowledge of any alleged wrongdoing by Trump.

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But Bolton does. In his manuscript, he reportedly writes that he asked Trump to release $391 million in military aid to Ukraine last August, but the president replied that he wanted Ukraine to start investigating Joe Biden and other Democrats first. In plain English, a quid pro quo.

So Bolton could become a key witness, if the Senate decides to call him. The debate will probably take place Friday, and Democrats need just four Republican votes. By all rights, they should get more.

Bolton’s appearance would be a spectacle unseen since Watergate: a former senior White House official testifying under oath against the president for whom he worked.

And it would be an ordeal for Trump’s defenders, even if it doesn’t convince Republicans to vote to remove him from office. It won’t. It would serve instead as the equivalent of a censure.

Bolton isn’t a liberal Democrat or even a moderate “Never Trump” Republican. His conservative credentials are impeccable.

He’s been a Republican since he volunteered as a teenager for Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign — which means he’s been in the GOP far longer than the party-switching, ideologically mercurial president.

He’s never been an “establishment Republican,” either. Bolton has long been a right-wing outlier in his own party, a relentless hawk on foreign policy who criticized many of his colleagues as too soft.

“John sees everything in black and white,” one former associate said. “That makes him hard for a lot of people to deal with.”

Bolton wasn’t an early Trump supporter in 2016. He wasn’t sure Trump had enough foreign policy experience and publicly criticized his threats to weaken U.S. support for NATO.

But he endorsed the nominee, and later campaigned openly for top jobs, including secretary of State. He finally joined the White House as Trump’s third national security adviser in April 2018, succeeding H.R. McMaster.

But Trump and Bolton didn’t see eye to eye on major issues.

Trump views Russia’s Vladimir Putin as a potential ally; Bolton sees Putin as an adversary. Trump believes he can make a nuclear disarmament deal with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un; Bolton thinks that’s a fantasy. Trump wants to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria; Bolton thinks most of the troops need to stay.

Still, some of Bolton’s associates thought he would adjust to the whims of his new boss.

“This is the job John has wanted his whole life,” one said at the time. “He’ll do anything to keep it.”

That didn’t happen.

Trump hailed his 2018 summit in Singapore with Kim as a diplomatic triumph; Bolton scarcely concealed his skepticism.

Trump wanted to negotiate with Iran; Bolton campaigned against the idea.

Trump wanted to sign a peace deal with Afghanistan’s Taliban, and even invited the militants to Camp David for a ceremony; Bolton objected and helped spike the idea.

Trump’s impatience grew. He left Bolton off the plane when he visited Kim in the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea (he took Fox News host Tucker Carlson instead).

He publicly contradicted Bolton’s promises that troops would stay in Syria and Iraq. He told visitors, in a comment that quickly leaked, that if Bolton had his way, “we’d be in four wars by now.”

Finally, last September, Trump publicly fired Bolton in a tweet. Bolton, stung, fired back that he had offered to resign first.

With that humiliating exchange, Bolton was outside again, after only 17 months at the center of power. The title of his memoir, borrowed from a song in the musical “Hamilton,” betrays his sense of loss: “The Room Where It Happened.”

He promptly became a critic of the White House that had cast him out. He warned publicly against weakening NATO. He warned against negotiating with Iran. He said Trump’s talks with North Korea had achieved “no visible progress.”

Only this time he didn’t get invited back onto Fox News, where he had made $569,423 before joining the White House.

That left one time-honored vehicle for seizing center stage: a score-settling book.

Ronald Reagan’s former chief of staff, Donald T. Regan, did it in 1988 and revealed that Nancy Reagan ruled her husband’s schedule with the advice of an astrologer. Barack Obama’s former Defense secretary, Robert M. Gates, did it in 2014 and wrote that then-Vice President Joe Biden had been “wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.”

But even they didn’t get a chance in the middle of an impeachment trial and a reelection campaign.

Until now, Trump has escaped public criticism from most of the top officials he’s fired, even those he treated with insults and contempt. McMaster, former Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, and former Defense Secretary James N. Mattis have mostly observed a military code of silence, although Kelly said this week he believes Bolton’s account.

In Bolton, Trump has tangled with a man who enjoys a public fight. This time, Trump may have chosen the wrong opponent. Humiliating Bolton wasn’t a crime or an impeachable act. But it has definitely turned out to be a blunder.