“The Room Where it Happened: A White House Memoir” by John Bolton. Simon & Schuster. 577 pp. $32.50. Review provided by The Washington Post.
“Vengeance is mine; I will repay, says the Lord,” reads a famous passage from the Apostle Paul’s Letter to the Romans. John Bolton has provided a secular version of that cosmic payback in his account of Donald Trump’s presidency, “The Room Where It Happened.”
Bolton’s account will astonish you as he narrates his 17 months as national security adviser in remarkable detail. He seems to have collated every Trump rant, reckless phone call and muttered aside. No wonder the White House was so determined to block this book: It eviscerates Trump’s foreign policy record and exposes him, in Bolton’s words, as “stunningly uninformed.”
Bolton offers new tidbits about Ukraine, the issue on which Trump was impeached and where Democrats desperately sought Bolton’s testimony. He confirms an aide’s account that Bolton viewed Trump’s Ukraine machinations as a “drug deal” and provides new evidence that “Ukraine security assistance was at risk of being swallowed by the Ukraine fantasy conspiracy theories.” In sum, he says, “the whole affair was bad policy, questionable legally and unacceptable as presidential behavior.”
The great achievement of this book is that it links the Ukraine fiasco to Trump’s other foreign policy misdeeds. Indeed, Bolton argues that the Democrats committed “impeachment malpractice” because the Ukraine focus “provided no opportunity to explore Trump’s ham-handed involvement in other matters ... that should not properly be subject to manipulation by a President for personal reasons.”
Bolton’s takeaway line: “I am hard-pressed to identify any significant Trump decision during my tenure that wasn’t driven by reelection calculations.”
Perhaps the most startling new disclosure is that Trump sought political help from China’s Xi Jinping, just as he had expressed support for a Russian email dump in 2016 and Ukrainian political favors in his famous July 25, 2019, phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
According to Bolton, in a June 18, 2019, phone call with Xi about trade matters, Trump “then, stunningly, turned the conversation to the coming U.S. presidential election ... pleading with Xi to ensure he’d win.” Bolton also notes that North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un at the February 2019 summit in Hanoi said “he didn’t want Trump to do anything that would harm him politically,” to which Bolton adds in his text, “Oh great,” one of the snarky literary asides scattered throughout the book.
Bolton should have taken these insights about Trump to House impeachment investigators, or to Senate impeachment jurors. The closest he seems to have come to seeking accountability was a visit to Attorney General William Barr while the Ukraine “drug deal” was unfolding. Bolton says he “wanted to brief him on Trump’s penchant to, in effect, give personal favors to dictators he liked,” including Xi and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. That comment begs for further investigation.
Bolton offers a damning review of nearly every theater of Trump’s foreign policy: His coddling of Kim “made me ill”; his last-minute reversal of a retaliatory strike against Iran after the shoot-down of a U.S. drone was “the most irrational thing I ever witnessed any President do”; his withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria was a “huge mistake”; and the “slowness and lack of agility” of his Venezuela policy was “painful to watch.”
Bolton dishes dirt about everyone he doesn’t like, and it’s a very long list. Former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley was “untethered” and a “free electron”; former national security adviser Michael Flynn was “inadequate” and “self-destructed”; senior adviser and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner was a meddler who was “doing international negotiations he shouldn’t have been doing (along with the never-quite-ready Middle East peace plan)”; and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was secretive, too willing to make concessions that Trump wanted and so overly subservient to the boss that a pushback on arms control was “a rare occasion of Pompeo’s being explicitly critical of something Trump did.” One intriguing note is how often Pompeo (like Bolton) talked of resigning.
But it’s Jim Mattis who’s Bolton’s favorite punching bag. Every dozen pages there’s another shot at the former secretary of defense. He’s “looking for excuses not to do much of anything” in retaliating against Syrian chemical weapons use; he would “predict gloom and doom when he didn’t get his way” on policy; and he used “spite” as a common tactic, prompting Bolton to observe “they didn’t call him ‘Chaos’ for nothing.”
Mattis’ resignation in 2018 appears to have gratified Bolton. He quotes Trump’s parting line: “He’s leaving ... I never really liked him.” And Trump’s bizarre claim: “He’s a liberal Democrat, you know that, don’t you?”
Bolton is the hero of nearly every anecdote in the book. Indeed, his utter lack of self-criticism is one of the book’s significant shortcomings. Nearly every policy discussion is an opportunity for Bolton to say that he was right, people should have listened to him, he knew it would never work, he was vindicated.
Given how long and disastrously Bolton enabled this president, his self-satisfaction becomes annoying. So does Bolton’s trademark disdain for the foreign policy establishment (who he likes to deride as the “High-Minded”). Sometimes, his antagonism toward negotiations is so reflexive, you almost sympathize with Trump’s desire to talk with forbidden adversaries, such as North Korea and Iran.
It’s telling that one of the criticisms Bolton makes about Trump’s opening to North Korea was that he was acting like a diplomat. “The real irony here was how similar Trump was to the Foreign Service.”
Many previous books have revealed Trump’s bizarre machinations and musings, but none so damagingly as this one by a conservative former supporter. At times, Trump rambles during a long flight to Iraq about how he may drop Mike Pence for Nikki Haley as vice president in 2020, and whether he’ll win the Nobel Peace Prize. Discussing Trump’s ever-vacillating views about China, Bolton says, “This was policy by personal whim and impulse.”
As Bolton describes his running conversation with the president, it’s a series of broken records. Trump rambles through repeated tirades about Europeans who don’t pay enough for defense, the perfidy of Mattis who’s trying to box him in, the need to indict John F. Kerry for alleged Logan Act violations for interfering with Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran. And most especially, the need to withdraw American troops from Syria, Afghanistan, Germany and South Korea.
The abiding problem, Bolton says, was Trump’s lack of a clear vision of what he wanted to accomplish, beyond dominating the news cycle. This was foreign policy by disruption, conditioned on Trump’s view that he could charm or intimidate anyone (seemingly unaware that he was being played by the toughest and most ruthless people in the world).
“Trump was not following any international grand strategy, or even a consistent trajectory,” Bolton observes. “His thinking was like an archipelago of dots (like individual real estate deals), leaving the rest of us to discern – or create – policy.” Bolton comments at another point: “He opposed ‘endless wars’ in the Middle East but had no coherent plan for what followed withdrawing U.S. forces.”
Perhaps the most damning comment Bolton offers, in the end, isn’t about foreign policy but Trump’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. “Trump’s reflex effort to talk his way out of anything ... even a public-health crisis, only undercut his and the nation’s credibility, with his statements looking more like political damage control than responsible public-health advice.”
John F. Kelly, Trump’s harassed chief of staff, mutters to Bolton at one point, “Has there ever been a presidency like this?” To which Bolton replies tartly: “I assured him there had not.”
This book ought to be a wake-up call for Republicans who have defended Trump and belittled his critics. Bolton took his time in telling us the truth, and he should have done more when it was his duty during the impeachment inquiry. But it’s all here. In boxing, you’d call it a knockout punch.
– Reviewed by David Ignatius, who writes a twice-a-week foreign affairs column for The Washington Post. His latest novel is “The Paladin.”