As President Trump’s National Security Advisor, John Bolton spent many of his 453 days in the room where it happened, and the facts speak for themselves.
The result is a White House memoir that is the most comprehensive and substantial account of the Trump Administration, and one of the few to date by a top-level official. With almost daily access to the President, John Bolton has produced a precise rendering of his days in and around the Oval Office. What Bolton saw astonished him: a President for whom getting reelected was the only thing that mattered, even if it meant endangering or weakening the nation. “I am hard-pressed to identify any significant Trump decision during my tenure that wasn’t driven by reelection calculations,” he writes. In fact, he argues that the House committed impeachment malpractice by keeping their prosecution focused narrowly on Ukraine when Trump’s Ukraine-like transgressions existed across the full range of his foreign policy—and Bolton documents exactly what those were, and attempts by him and others in the Administration to raise alarms about them.
He shows a President addicted to chaos, who embraced our enemies and spurned our friends, and was deeply suspicious of his own government. In Bolton’s telling, all this helped put Trump on the bizarre road to impeachment. “The differences between this presidency and previous ones I had served were stunning,” writes Bolton, who worked for Reagan, Bush 41, and Bush 43. He discovered a President who thought foreign policy is like closing a real estate deal—about personal relationships, made-for-TV showmanship, and advancing his own interests. As a result, the US lost an opportunity to confront its deepening threats, and in cases like China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea ended up in a more vulnerable place.
Bolton’s account starts with his long march to the West Wing as Trump and others woo him for the National Security job. The minute he lands, he has to deal with Syria’s chemical attack on the city of Douma, and the crises after that never stop. As he writes in the opening pages, “If you don’t like turmoil, uncertainty, and risk—all the while being constantly overwhelmed with information, decisions to be made, and sheer amount of work—and enlivened by international and domestic personality and ego conflicts beyond description, try something else.”
The turmoil, conflicts, and egos are all there—from the upheaval in Venezuela, to the erratic and manipulative moves of North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, to the showdowns at the G7 summits, the calculated warmongering by Iran, the crazy plan to bring the Taliban to Camp David, and the placating of an authoritarian China that ultimately exposed the world to its lethal lies. But this seasoned public servant also has a great eye for the Washington inside game, and his story is full of wit and wry humor about how he saw it played.
Former national security advisor Bolton (Surrender Is Not an Option) harps on his foreign policy pet peeves (Iranian aggression in the Middle East, North Korea's nuclear threat), critiques former colleagues (Jim Mattis, Nikki Haley), and defends his decision not to testify in the House impeachment inquiry in this lacerating yet tiresome slog through his time in the Trump administration. Readers eager to hear what Bolton has to say about the Ukraine pressure campaign (namely, that Mick Mulvaney probably came up with the idea of using security assistance as leverage against Prime Minister Volodymyr Zelensky, and that the policy was "baked in" to White House dealings with Ukraine) will have to skip ahead to the last 50 pages. First, Bolton runs down seemingly every meeting, meal, phone call, and international summit of his 18-month tenure, touting his own achievements, such as pushing Trump to finally withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal, and blaming failures on a lack of policymaking structure within the White House and on Trump's vindictiveness, erraticism, and habit of forming competitive "bromances" with authoritarian leaders. The book's most serious allegations, including that Trump offered to "take care of things" when Turkish president Recep Erdogan complained about a U.S. Justice Department investigation, are buried within the avalanche of details. The bombshell to chaff ratio in this well-informed yet self-serving account is tilted punishingly in the wrong direction.
For a book that l had been looking forward to reading, this book disappointed. Most chapters could have done with being 20 or so pages shorter. I am sure as a technical book it will be popular. As a fly on the wall book to long and wordy.