John Bolton Knows What He’s Doing

The former national security adviser’s secrets are valuable, and will come at a cost.

John Bolton
Joshua Roberts / Reuters

John Bolton, Donald Trump’s former national security adviser, announced the title of his forthcoming memoir last night: The Room Where It Happened, a reference to the Oval Office, the scene of some of the misdeeds he is likely to attribute to the president. (I had hoped for something jauntier, perhaps ’Stached in the Cabinet.) Accompanying that announcement was a story in The New York Times teasing readers with revelations. The most significant is that Trump allegedly conditioned his release of Ukrainian military aid not only on that country’s announcement of an investigation into Hunter and Joe Biden, but also on its release of evidence of the Biden family’s involvement in Robert Mueller’s probe. In fact, there is no such evidence, and the only people who believe that there is such evidence are wing-nut conspiracy theorists and, it seems, the president of the United States.

My colleague David Frum appealed to Bolton’s patriotism a few months ago, asking him to speak freely about Trump. Frum is Bolton’s former colleague at the American Enterprise Institute, so I suspect he knew that appealing to Bolton’s selfless, wholly unremunerated goodwill is about as likely to be successful as asking him for a foot massage. Bolton left office in an embarrassing and undignified way, having been canned by Trump and insulted by Trump’s key informal adviser, Tucker Carlson. (Carlson, a Bolton hater for years, called him a “tapeworm” and told Trump to ignore his advice.) Bolton’s secrets are therefore valuable in numerous ways: They got him a huge book deal; they position him as an insider able to command high speaking fees before rapt right-wing audiences; and finally, they make him a feared enemy of Trump and his allies. For Bolton to surrender these advantages for free, to the advantage not of himself but of liberals with whom he agrees on little, would be for Bolton to stop being Bolton.

He has waited until speaking is to his advantage, and he calculates his advantage like a high-end litigator. Before he rose to important policy-level jobs in government, he attended Yale Law School and practiced law as a partner at Covington & Burling. Whether he was attracted to the law because he is cold-blooded, punctilious, and manipulative, or became cold-blooded, punctilious, and manipulative because the practice of the law rewards those traits, is immaterial. This is his character, and it explains all his delays in coming forward with his account. In litigation, one never makes a concession without getting something in return, and without forcing your adversary to do everything exactly right in the course of making a demand. If the law requires your adversary to tap dance and hum “Flight of the Bumblebee” while making a request, you postpone giving an answer until every note is hummed in tune and every tap lands with a crisp and pleasing crack. Every concession of your own diminishes your own space to maneuver, and every concession by your opponent—even just a factual admission—pens him into a smaller space.

To act this way in a context outside of litigation is commonly known as “being an asshole.” That explains, in part, Bolton’s reputation for unpleasantness: He unapologetically forces people to get the details, what in government is often called “process,” exactly right. I am reminded of a Muslim cleric who explained to me that to mumble your way through prayer is like dialing a phone number that is a digit or two off: The message doesn’t go through, and the exercise is pointless. Bolton has a tendency to regard rivals who flub process as incompetents who can’t get things done. And being an asshole, unlovely as it may sound, might not be such a bad thing, if you get things done and follow the rules.

Silence up to now has bought Bolton the Litigator something very valuable. He has now listened as others present “in the room”—including his deputies, such as Fiona Hill—have recorded their versions of events. He has heard Republicans, including Trump, lay out an impeachment defense—not only a version of events, but also a theory of innocence. By speaking last, he can present testimony precisely calculated to hurt those he most wants to embarrass. Even just today, in response to the initial leaks from Bolton’s book, Trump tweeted a suspiciously grammatical series of statements demeaning Bolton and denying that Bolton was told to delay aid to Ukraine. Bolton is strategic, and it would be unlike him to make a bold claim without a plan to counter Trump’s denial. More likely, he will dole out the details and evidence methodically, thwarting his critics like steers in a cutting horse competition.

None of this means that Bolton will reverse the course of the impeachment, even if he testifies. The trial’s ultimate verdict is less in the balance than the ability of Republicans to continue to defend their president without self-abasement. But count on Bolton to know that the value (in all senses) of that testimony will decline after the impeachment trial, so he is doing everything he can to make his testimony necessary, and to deliver it while it is in highest demand.

When I profiled Bolton for this magazine last year, many of his acquaintances noted that the job of national security adviser was the last and highest one he was ever likely to hold, because past confirmation attempts were too acrimonious to be worth reprising. Now his options are, if anything, more open than they were three years ago. Bolton reopened his super PAC after leaving office. He has protected some of his Republican credibility by refusing to volunteer his testimony to the House, and by saying that he will testify before the Senate only if subpoenaed. He has positioned himself as a temporary ally to the Democrats, or at least as a bureaucrat who follows the law rather than kneeling before Trump. This change, along with changes in confirmation rules, makes it easier to imagine that Bolton would be a candidate someday for high office, perhaps secretary of state. In the event that Trump is removed or loses the election, Bolton will be a rare Republican who served the party competently both before and during the Trump era, and who is untainted enough to serve again.

Many of the politicians who have joined Trump’s administration have fantasized that when this is all over, they will be the last ones standing. Bolton is not immune to such fantasies. He is more likely than most others to be right.