John Bolton is about to take his revenge on Trump. He might save America while he's at it

Bolton may be guilty of serious errors of judgment and defects of character. But he refused to play Trump's game — and now he might be the country's most valuable savior

Eric Lewis
New York
Wednesday 16 October 2019 06:31 BST
Trump sacks John Bolton as national security adviser

Trump didn’t want him as National Security Advisor in the first place because of the walrus-like soup strainer that adorns Bolton’s upper lip. Trump thinks facial hair catches germs. Instead, he went for the clean-shaven Mike Flynn, who caught backhanders from Turkey and Russia, for 24 days. Then he went for a general who was all spit and polish, but H R McMaster bored him with all those options.

Finally, he plucked Bolton from Fox News, where he never saw a global hotspot that could not be improved by American sorties.

Bolton was no babe in the woods. A shrewd Yale-trained lawyer, he had been bouncing around neoconservative Washington since the Reagan administration. He was a legendary in-fighter. It was not simply that he didn’t suffer fools gladly; he suffered no one gladly if they stood in the way to power. He was notoriously harsh on those below him.

As Under Secretary for Arms Control in the George W Bush administration, Bolton opposed virtually every arms control measure, including fighting a proposal to enforce the Biological Weapons Convention, the Chemical Weapons Convention, and the Nunn-Lugar initiative to half nuclear proliferation. He doubled down on Bush’s Axis of Evil, adding Cuba, Libya and Syria to the list after Bush singled out Iran, Iraq and North Korea. He has supported regime change in all six of those countries, and more recently in Venezuela.

He was a driving force behind the Weapons of Mass Destruction hoax that led to the Iraq War: he pressured the intelligence community and tried to fire professionals who argued that there was no proof, then supported the war vociferously. And despite his bull-in-a-china-shop approach to diplomacy and his contempt for international organizations, Bolton was appointed by President Bush to be Ambassador to the United Nations, although never formally confirmed. Warming to his new colleagues, he said, "The Secretariat Building in New York has 38 stories. If you lost ten stories today, it wouldn't make a bit of difference."

Bolton’s reflexive belligerence, misjudgments and contempt for bureaucratic process — not to mention his equal contempt for basic civility — should have been something of a negative in terms of getting back into government. Not to mention the moustache. And National Security Advisor might have been the job he was least qualified to do, as it is the National Security Advisor’s job to assemble the various options and perspectives present throughout the national security bureaucracy and present those options as an “honest broker” for the President to make a decision.

Trump said he liked what he saw of Bolton, who was “a tough cookie.” Conservatives hailed the appointment as indicating a more interventionist foreign policy, while liberals feared that Bolton would be a “yes-man” who fanned the flames of Trump’s most aggressive instincts.

They were both wrong.

Fox News host receives text from John Bolton live on air disputing Trump's claim he was fired

Bolton was who he always had been. He stymied the interagency process and made sure only his views got to the President’s ears. He had a militaristic response to every challenge — including the famous attack on Iran that was aborted with 10 minutes left.

Bolton really believed in the projection of American power. There can be little doubt that if he were still in the administration, he would have raised hell about the tragic sell-out of the Kurds. Trump liked to talk tough but has consistently quailed at responding to provocations. In other words, Bolton is a hawk, and Trump is a chicken hawk. “Speak loudly and carry a twig” is the Pompeo policy, as he knows what the game is; Bolton wouldn’t play that game.

So Trump fired him — and characteristically kicked him on the way out, calling him “Mr Tough Guy” who “made many big mistakes.”

“You know,” Trump said, “John’s known as a tough guy. He's so tough, he got us into Iraq. That’s tough.” And the famously amiable Trump also made the blindingly obvious comment: “I told him, ‘John, you have too many people — you’re not getting along with people, and a lot of us, including me, disagree with some of your tactics and some of your ideas.’” In other words, the President hired himself a war hawk, a bureaucratic infighter with sharp elbows, and then fired him for exactly the same reasons.

Bolton claims he resigned and that he “would set the record straight” about the whole charade eventually. Now it is payback time. As National Security Advisor, he certainly would have been aware of Trump’s rogue operation with Giuliani to run a shadow foreign policy in Ukraine, which allegedly sought to leverage aid to the country in return for dirt on former Vice President Biden, whom he viewed as his strongest opponent. Trump was the crazy uncle preoccupied by conspiracy theories and projecting the nepotistic corruption at the core of his administration. To Trump, it seems, the problem of corruption in Ukraine boiled down to a single family — the Bidens — and the power of the presidency to conduct foreign policy would be used to lever the Ukrainians to concoct the goods.

Bolton has been around long enough to know you can’t do that, and certainly not publicly when dozens of people see such a strategy in action. Now the nuggets of toxic revenge are starting to emerge. He called Giuliani, in an admirably apt metaphor “a hand grenade who’s going to blow everybody up.” Everybody but John Bolton. And he declared he would not “be part of whatever drug deal Sondland and Mulvaney [the Acting Chief of Staff] are cooking up.” Who would have thought the lugubrious Bolton was capable of such vivid metaphor?

John Bolton may be guilty of serious errors of judgment and defects of character. But by entering the Trump administration, declining to be an apparatchik, and then refusing to ignore the mockery that accompanied his departure, he may be in a position to lay out from the inside the true ignorance, narcissism and psychopathy at the heart of the Trump presidency.

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