A review of The Room Where It Happened—A White House Memoir by John Bolton, Simon and Schuster (June 2020), 592 pages.
Donald Trump’s White House is fast approaching the end of its first term. Meanwhile, the consequences of the administration’s early insouciance about the onset of COVID-19 are manifest across a country experiencing a ferocious new surge in cases. The US President offers his leadership to those who would scrap the sheltering and distancing rules, characterising them as the imposition of a despised bureaucracy—evidence, as one protestor put it, of a “Communist dictatorship.” Trump is, in most moods, fond of Communist dictators, as China’s Xi Jinping and North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un have been pleased to discover. The head of his National Security Council (NSC) from April 2018 until September last year, John Bolton, fears and hates them. These two men, both in their early 70s, were yoked together for 18 months, a period that ended in predictable acrimony, and which has now produced a memoir from Bolton.
Several books have already sought to illuminate the malign zaniness of the Trump White House. Journalist Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury arrived in January 2018, and its pumped-up narrative gave a lurid but quite plausible account of dysfunction, underpinned by comments from conservative figures like the late Roger Ailes, creator of Fox News, who opined that Trump “lacks both principles and backbone.” (Nevertheless, the Fox network has acted as the propaganda arm for a president its boss thought was an unprincipled coward from the beginning—and still does, if with less enthusiasm and more reservations.) Unhinged by Omarosa Manigault Newman—a former competitor on Trump’s reality TV show The Apprentice who briefly became White House Communications Director for the Office of Public Liaison—was published in August 2018. It announced that Trump is a racist and that he frequently used racial slurs during his time on The Apprentice. Bob Woodward’s Fear, which came out hard on the heels of Unhinged, is the most substantial of these early works, informed (in its author’s usual fashion) by hundreds of hours of interviews as well as comments from Trump staffers. Defence Secretary Jim Mattis believes the president has the intellectual capacity of a “fifth or sixth Grader”; Chief of Staff John Kelly called the president an “idiot” and “unhinged”; and former Trump lawyer John Dowd described him as a “fucking liar.”
These three books, those that have followed, and the millions of words and images produced over the course of the Trump presidency all converge on a contemptuous assessment of the White House incumbent. So yet another volume—even one written by a person whose leadership of the NSC meant a great deal of face time with Trump—may seem otiose. Indeed, some reviewers have concluded it is exactly that. Bret Stephens, a conservative Trump opponent and columnist for the New York Times, sums up Bolton’s book as one which “tells all, yet somehow manages to say nothing.” The litany of stupidity, ignorance, vanity, and bluster it reveals only causes Stephens to think “knew that” or “not surprised.” A fellow Conservative, the former editor-in-chief of the Wall Street Journal Gerald Baker, wrote in the (London) Times that Bolton was generally “ineffective,” and should have known better than to join Trump’s administration in the first place. Stephens’s New York Times colleague Jennifer Szalai, meanwhile, is dismissive in another way. Attacking the author rather than his work, she reminds the paper’s largely liberal readership of Bolton’s strongly hawkish views, and finds him deficient in style, organisation of material, and ability to mark out large issues from “a stew of detail.” David Ignatius in the Washington Post and Graeme Wood in the Atlantic are less reproachful, and indeed at times complimentary, but both agree that this is not a significant piece of work.
I think it is, but I should first concede some agreement with the above. It’s not as badly written at Szalai says, but it’s clunky, and certainly overly detailed. Bolton particularly likes to highlight the compliments he receives, even when they come from people he despises or thinks are evil. Trump, we are told, said “I like John”; Russian President Vladimir Putin described Bolton as “very powerful and specific” in argument; and the Supreme Leader of Iran, Sayyid Ali Hosseini Khamenei, offered a compliment dressed as a curse: “Death to Trump, John Bolton, and (Secretary of State Mike) Pompeo.” However, Bolton never provides even the most minimal of introductions to the world leaders he meets and with whom he often speaks at length. Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and Boris Johnson, who was then British Foreign Secretary, all drift in and out as mere appendages to his narrative, when a better writer would have provided a brief character sketch to help us locate them as individuals.
And he stresses his dislikes, which include many of his administration colleagues—especially UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, Defence Secretary Jim Mattis, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, and Trump son-in-law and freelance emissary Jared Kushner. He has a frequent ally in Pompeo, but believes him to be servile to Trump. Bolton shares Trump’s disdain for European leaders, who he claims are mesmerized by the “end of history” and believe “that nothing external should be allowed to roil their contented continent.” And he loathes the European Union, which he describes as “worse than China, but smaller.” Macron, he says, spoils everything he touches and Merkel’s Germany is dangerously beholden to Putin, largely because the Nord Stream gas pipeline makes her country dependent on Russia for a large part of its energy needs. When, in November 2018, Russian vessels fired on three Ukrainian naval ships bound for the Sea of Azov, Bolton notes that the EU “did nothing” except issue a tepid statement condemning the action—“the usual mush.”
There’s more where that comes from. Like Trump, Bolton believes that the Obama presidency’s conduct of foreign policy between 2009 and 2017 was pretty much a disaster. But unlike Trump, he knows why he thinks that. Like most of Trump’s weary aides, he learns quickly the correctness of the observation attributed to Jonathan Swift that “you cannot reason someone out of something that he or she was not reasoned into.” Trump seems never to have “reasoned” himself into anything requiring serious discussion or thought. So why—as many have asked—did a man as experienced as Bolton, and as savvy about the ways of Washington and of the White House, agree to take the post at all? More, he lobbied energetically for it, refusing offers of lesser appointments until Trump gave him the NSC, and with it, responsibility across the range of foreign, defence, and security policy, as well as some domestic issues. Bolton noted the bluster and chaos which surrounded Trump’s election and inauguration, but he had already served in three Republican administrations and “international relations had fascinated me since my days at Yale College.” He wanted to become Secretary of State, but settled for the NSC with a free hand in the post, to which Trump agreed.
The importance of his job is the central reason why this inelegant memoir is valuable. Unlike the former chroniclers (including Newman, a minor figure in the hierarchy) and the many reporters who have prised, or been granted, leak after leak from the White House, Bolton was in the Oval Office, in the conference rooms, in the meetings with foreign leaders, even at the dinner-summit tables in Washington and abroad. These were the times when the President of the United States sat down with, or opposite, his fellow leaders to discuss the issues of a world for which the US, even now, is more responsible than any other single state. And the witness can be devastatingly, frighteningly revealing. At one dinner with Xi, Bolton recounts how the Chinese leader went through a list of points on a set of prepared cards he considered central to this most crucial relationship. Trump, on the other hand, ad libbed and said whatever came into his head. In another meeting, Trump did manage to focus, but only to “plead” with Xi to help him be re-elected. Sensing his love of flattery, Xi said that he wished that Trump could (like Xi) be president for as long as he wanted: a prospect to which, Bolton remarks, Trump clearly warmed.
On yet another occasion, when the matter of the Muslim Uighurs of Xinjiang came up, the US President—and “leader of the free world”—told the leader of the Chinese Communist Party that camps were just where such people belonged. Trump’s attraction to authoritarian leaders was well established long before Bolton’s memoir, of course. Still, to read that, in his capacity as president, Trump actually encouraged the oppression of a people on account of their religious beliefs is one of many jolts Bolton’s memoir administers. I received another when I discovered that Trump had told Erdoğan that he would intercede on behalf of a Turkish state-owned bank being investigated by US prosecutors he described as “Obama people.” Bolton speculates that Trump was “trying to show he had as much arbitrary authority as Erdoğan, who had said twenty years earlier as mayor of Istanbul, ‘Democracy is like a streetcar. You ride it to the stop you want and then you get off.’”
We have become used to stories of this kind, but an account from someone who actually witnessed these hair-raising exchanges has considerably more power than anonymous briefings of what may be politically or personally motivated hearsay. In narratives of this kind, nothing is more valuable than a narrator who has followed the advice an old minister gives to successors in C.P. Snow’s 1954 novel The New Men—“always be present in the flesh.” That Trump thought that Finland is part of Russia, and did not know that the UK is a nuclear-armed power are almost comic stupidities—interesting additions to the accumulated stock of Trumpian idiocy. But the key understanding, which The Room Where It Happened conveys in example after example, is the quotidian mindlessness of his behaviour—the narcissistic ravings and the deliberate inattention to briefings or other necessary information.
Fiona Hill was Bolton’s senior director for Europe and Russia and Deputy Assistant to the President, and is the author (with Clifford Gaddy) of Mr Putin: Operative in the Kremlin, one of the most lucid books about the Russian president. Hill told a Congressional committee during the doomed 2019 impeachment hearings that Trump had no idea who she was, and once asked her to take notes during an Oval Office meeting on the assumption that she was a secretary. During a briefing she had been asked to deliver, Trump never glanced at her, and continued to write on a notepad throughout. At least on that occasion he was silent—usually, he would free associate for long stretches of priceless White House time, departing from a discussion on Afghanistan to complain about paying for NATO, pointing to what Erdoğan was doing in Turkey, and asking “Why are we in Africa?”
Money is a consistently recurring theme. Trump told Bolton at one point that other presidents had not talked about money, but that he liked to do so. He complained constantly (and with some justification) that European countries were not abiding by their commitment to contribute two percent of their GDP to defence. He would illustrate these riffs with reference to miniscule examples, such as the cost of helicoptering Afghani children to school in Taliban-penetrated areas. He would deplore aid going to, for example, Nigeria, because that country wasn’t buying US agricultural produce. And money was the largest reason for another persistent refrain—to get out. America, Trump would intone, should get out of Syria; get out of Afghanistan; get out of Africa; get out of Germany, out of Poland (even though the deferential government there had told him it would christen a new base “Fort Trump”), out of Ukraine. During a discussion in which Trump’s riffs were more than usually all-embracing, Bolton notes that “Something was bothering him, but I couldn’t tell what. Suddenly, off to the races again: ‘I want to get out of everything,’ he said.”
It is an epiphanic moment—though not, by that time, for Bolton who wanted to stay or get into Syria, Afghanistan, and Africa. He and his colleagues repeatedly found themselves having to resist Trump’s determination to withdraw from NATO. And it is this, more than any other disagreement between the two men, that best illustrates the incongruousness of wooing Bolton into a high administration position. Trump is a nationalist and an America Firster in the tradition of Herbert Hoover (1929–33). He lacks the tough background of the 31st president, but shares with him a bent towards US isolationism and a contempt for Europe and what Hoover called its “eternal malign forces.” Bolton is also an American Eurosceptic, and has throughout his career emphasised his distrust of entangling international agreements and supranational institutions. But among senior political figures, he is one of the most hawkish on the need to project American military strength. This, he believes, is necessary to check powerful opponents like China and Russia, and to crush genocidal regimes like that of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and the would-be returning rulers of Afghanistan, the Taliban. To that counsel, Trump responds with first an irritated shrug, and then the exasperated cry “I want to get out of everything!”
It becomes apparent that Trump wanted Bolton for the latter’s image as a tough working-class operator (father a fireman, mother a homemaker) who had risen to become one of Washington’s principal deriders of liberal internationalism—those Bolton likes to call the “High-Minded” (a phrase he picked up from the French “for those who see themselves as our moral betters”). When Trump said “I like John,” he added that “I temper John” to reassure his base that he’s the man who decides. When Bolton eventually resigns, he is treated to the barrage of public insults that has followed many former officials out of the administration, and from a president who had claimed to admire him.
But Bolton was not driven to resignation by disagreement with Trump’s global, or anti-global, views. On some big issues they found they could work together. Both he and Trump agreed that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (also known as the Iran Nuclear Deal) negotiated in 2015 by Obama’s Secretary of State John Kerry was unfit for purpose. Consequently, the US withdrew from the deal in May 2018, re-established punishing sanctions, and a year later ended waivers that had allowed oil exports—all this in spite of strong European opposition, especially from France. The economy of Iran, already weakened before the reimposition of sanctions and the new oil export ban, is now expected to shrink by around 10 percent this year—an IMF estimation made before the onset of the pandemic, which has hit Iran hard.
Bolton and Trump also agreed that the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) between the US and Russia was observed only by America, a claim broadly assented to even by Russia’s allies. Notwithstanding the personal affection Trump retains for Putin, US-Russian relations were already poor, and the US decision to scrap this arms control agreement in August of last year does not seem to make them appreciably worse. Chris Miller, a Russian specialist at the Fletcher School of Diplomacy in Massachusetts, argues that the collapse of the INF is no great matter, since “despite Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its military build-up in the Black Sea and the Baltic, the biggest challenge of international politics is posed not by revanchist Russia but by rising China.” And China is not a party to the INF.
If Bolton and Trump disagree on the flattery the president slathers on Xi, they do agree that “America’s economic and geopolitical relations with China will determine the shape of international affairs in the twenty-first century,” and that the US must be strong—economically as well as militarily—since the strength of the first ultimately determines the robustness of the second in a democracy. They also agree, although only Bolton does so coherently, that the liberal view—or, more accurately, hope—that China would become more free and democratic as it grew its middle class and civil society was a delusion. Xi has, of course, dictated the reverse—minorities like the Uighurs and the Tibetans are treated more harshly than before; those, especially lawyers, pursuing human rights are jailed, the news media are corralled under tight control, and the Internet is closely monitored and strictly policed. The visible success of Xi—and, to a lesser extent, his ally Vladimir Putin, who is playing a much weaker hand—has won sincere admiration from Trump.
Bolton’s resignation was long in maturing as the absurdities and humiliations mounted (it’s clear that no-one, Bolton included, would seriously confront Trump: the “Sir yes Sir!” response of his senior officials compares badly with the more robust arguments leaders in European and other anglophone states get from their colleagues over policy). Expressions of close friendship for Xi and Putin, though often disgraceful, could at least be given threadbare justification as serving diplomatic ends. But Trump’s almost paternal affection for the North Korean President Kim Jong-Un, who has aides and relatives killed and who sentences hundreds of thousands to starvation in prison camps, was a bitter process in which Bolton was forced to participate and which yielded nothing. Kim simply strung the US along through several futile trips as Trump haplessly pursued a nuclear disarmament deal that never stood a chance of materializing. In addition to which, the endless boasting, the lies, and the denigration of an office Bolton revered made the NSC director’s efforts to serve with enthusiasm increasingly difficult.
Ukraine and Afghanistan were the straws that broke the back of this particular camel. Trump wanted dirt on Hunter Biden, son of former Vice President and presumptive Democratic Party presidential nominee Joe Biden. So, he called Ukraine’s newly elected president Volodymyr Zelensky and made it clear that a $391m military spending package for his embattled country depended on a public announcement of a Ukrainian investigation into a company for which Hunter served as a board member. Zelensky agreed, the deal was leaked, and the Democrat-controlled Congress moved to impeach, but conviction was defeated in the Republican-controlled Senate. Bolton writes that the whole process was badly handled. However, unenthused by the prospect of helping the Democrats, he initially refused to testify, despite being in possession of a great deal of information germane to the Democrats’ case.
Bolton’s stance on impeachment, and his narrative on the Ukraine affair, is not his finest passage. He understands what’s going on, sees the involvement of Trump’s lawyer, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, as akin to a “drug deal,” but appears to remain a detached observer, doing nothing to warn Trump or Giuliani off. He clearly finds Trump’s conduct unethical and contemptible, but is not as alarmed as he is by Trump’s desire to ask the Taliban leadership for talks at Camp David—an extraordinary invitation to a terrorist group, which went too far before it was closed down. In a bad mood, Trump called Bolton to the Oval Office, suggested he was a leaker, and complained about his opposition to the Taliban meeting. Bolton said “If you want me to go, I’ll go.” Trump said “Let’s talk about it in the morning.” Instead, Bolton had a long-prepared resignation letter typed up and delivered, then went home.
In an epilogue, he writes that were Trump to win a second term, he would be “far less constrained by politics than he was in his first term,” a theme he has repeated in his many post-publication interviews. Even the “axis of adults” who many commentators credit with preventing the administration from going off the rails in the first half of the administration, he says, were largely ineffectual and counterproductive. “They didn’t do nearly enough to establish order,” he writes, “and what they did do was so transparently self-serving and so publicly dismissive of many of Trump’s very clear goals (whether worthy or unworthy) that they fed Trump’s already-suspicious mind-set, making it harder for those who came later to have legitimate policy exchanges with the President.” Bolton says he would now never vote for him (although he has said he won’t vote for Joe Biden either). He left the White House as thorny, prideful, and hawkish as he went in. But with the publication of this memoir, he has done his state a belated service.
John Lloyd is a contributing editor to the Financial Times and co-founder of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford. His latest book is Should Auld Acquaintance Be Forgot: The Great Mistake of Scottish Independence (Polity Press).
Image: Gage Skidmore (Flickr).