The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir
Simon & Schuster
The key to understanding John Bolton is through his career and what he wanted to achieve with it. Bolton has served every Republican president since Ronald Reagan as Assistant Attorney General, then Assistant Secretary of State (George H. Bush), Assistant Secretary and Under Secretary of State and UN ambassador (George W. Bush).
In the political universe, Bolton resides in the Ronald Reagan-Dick Cheney galaxy: a Cold War won by having that wall torn down, and 9/11 avenged by continuing war against radical Islamic terrorism.
What Bolton again pursued in his campaign to be Donald Trump's Secretary of State, ultimately accepting the job of National Security Adviser, was to attain power in order to further advance his policy objectives for America in a hostile world.
Bolton is indefatigable and unrepentant. He has to be taken with utmost seriousness, even as he has left public life hated by Republicans and Democrats.
The Republicans do so because he could not resist the impulse to slime the President of the United States in an election year in which their fate rests with Trump's. The Democrats, who have always hated what Bolton stands for and worked for, because he provides further incontrovertible proof of Trump's high crimes in the Ukraine affair – but saved his damning testimony for a book he could monetise instead of fulfilling a higher duty to serve the constitutional process of impeachment.
The Democrats' anger is cushioned by Bolton's book coming out before the election, and that he will be prosecuted for spilling secrets ("treason", says Trump), and that will strip him of book riches on his way to prison.
This memoir – an astonishing but turgid inch-by-inch forced march based on his voluminous contemporaneous notes – is really the story of how Bolton simply could not mould Trump to his world view. In the end Trump broke Bolton, principally because Trump has no grand strategy, with so much of his activity being an "exercise in publicity". Trump hated Bolton's support for the Iraq war, but thought Bolton was good on Fox News. So he got the job, but always knew he ultimately would have to go.
The alarm bells went off early for Bolton. Shortly after joining the West Wing, Bolton learns Trump has accepted Kim Jong-un's invitation to meet: "I was beyond speechless, appalled at this foolish mistake." Bolton saw Trump's efforts with Kim as an echo of Neville Chamberlain meeting Hitler.
"I was sick at heart over Trump's zeal to meet with Kim Jong-un." But this and other atrocities were not worth resigning over just yet. "I gritted my teeth, but decided not to pull back now."
Bolton had a huge early victory: Trump's withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal. "It has taken one month to shred the Iran nuclear deal. A lot remained to be done to bring Iran to its knees, or to overthrow the regime … but we were off to a good start."
Months later, Bolton would have to pull every lever he had to keep Trump from meeting Iran's foreign minister.
Trump is America First, and NATO, Iraq and Afghanistan last. Trump shared Bolton's goal of undermining the United Nations and the creeping globalism inherent in arms control, climate change action, international justice and human rights. They were partners on Cuba and Venezuela.
To Trump, Kim is an unrequited love affair; China a deal to be made; Iran the elusive temptress, Vladimir Putin a grandmaster to ingratiate. For Trump, if he can just get in a room with them one-on-one, a deal of Trump glory will emerge.
Bolton gagged on Trump's obsessive courting of Putin, Xi Jinping and Kim, Trump's loathing of NATO and Angela Merkel, and his intent to abdicate American leadership of the West. Leaving NATO didn't bother Trump because "he didn't think NATO was good for America". Trump is obsessed with who pays for US forces abroad, what John Kerry is doing talking to the Iranians and why the US has war games with South Korea.
Ultimately, Bolton broke over Trump's failure to execute a military strike against Iran after the downing of a US drone, Trump's going to the brink of withdrawing the US from NATO, his shameless pursuit of Kim and blindness to the failure to secure any reduction in North Korea's nuclear capability, and his desire to bring the Taliban to Camp David in a peace deal that would evoke America's defeat in Vietnam.
Trump undercut his direct confrontation with China on trade by his obsequious admiration for a leader who has what Trump cannot get: presidency for life. Trump embraces Xi's view that the US has "too many elections". In addition to downplaying human rights in Hong Kong, Trump was completely malleable in the trade talks by offering to blink on Huawei and ZTE, and support the forcing of the Uighurs into concentration camps – all in order to get China to buy soybeans and help Trump get re-elected. Bolton believes Trump could well abandon Taiwan.
It was the aborted missile strike against Iran that ended Bolton's West Wing reverie. It was a vicious, disheartening shock, Bolton wrote, "the most irrational thing I ever witnessed any president do".
Bolton absolutely confirms that Trump corruptly demanded that Ukraine's President investigate the Bidens, and insisted that funds for Ukraine appropriated by Congress be withheld until the political dirt was handed over.
There is high drama from Bolton in the summits with NATO, Kim, Xi and Putin. Three decades of experience show in Bolton's long-game mastery of the system, the key players, how to get things done, how to stop things from getting done. It is dense daily trench warfare to secure what Bolton wants to prevail – but success is only when Trump wants what Bolton was seeking.
Bolton's writing has no redeeming literary qualities; it is leagues below Henry Kissinger's White House Years. There is a moment when Bolton writes, "The whole thing made my head hurt". Indeed, because neither Trump nor Bolton are worthy of being in the room where all this happened.