DURHAM, N.C.—John Bolton has been called many things over his long career, plenty of them unflattering, but he has seldom been accused of being bashful about stating his opinions.
Yet in an interview at Duke University on Monday, his first public remarks since the impeachment inquiry into President Trump began, the former national security adviser tried something new: saying as little as possible. The effect was peculiar, as even Bolton’s most determined attempts to deliver nonanswers seemed like answers, and his most anodyne statements were taken as scathing attacks.
Each time the moderator, Peter Feaver, a professor at Duke, pressed him to speak on anything newsy about the president, Bolton demurred, citing the national-security prepublication review of the book. Bolton blasted the Trump administration’s attempts to hold up the book as “censorship,” but he refused to do anything that might fall afoul of the process.
Does he, like Trump, believe the July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was “perfect”?
“You’ll love Chapter 14.”
Did he discuss his differences of opinion with Trump on North Korea policy before taking the job?
“Well, I’d be happy to answer that question, except part of this is now involved in the prepublication review of my book.”
What was it like to staff the president’s disastrous July 2018 Helsinki meeting with Vladimir Putin?
“I could read a chapter from my book here and give you the answer to that question.”
He could, but he didn’t. Was it true, as Trump had tweeted, that he was more aggressive on Venezuela policy than Bolton?
“The tweet’s out there. I say things in the manuscript about what he said to me. I hope they become public someday,” Bolton lamented. “He tweets, but I can’t talk about it. How fair is that?”
Feaver tried to coax him to open up. “You can talk about it right now,” he said. “This is a safe space!” The line drew chortles from the audience, but no disclosures from Bolton. Each new deflection elicited groans and departures from the sold-out crowd.
Bolton’s transition from war hawk to hawking books has been unashamed, and his few statements in recent weeks have tended to be dismissed as promotional efforts on behalf of his book. (If so, it’s worked: The book has sold well on Amazon, even though it might theoretically never be released.) Bolton hardly tried to dispel such claims, even winkingly plugging his first, now out-of-print, book.
But the act of promoting the book in its absence means that every time Bolton declines to answer a question and refers to the book, it seems like a deliberate suggestion of some juicy revelation still to come—whether or not it’s actually in the manuscript. And even when Bolton tried to avoid saying anything interesting, he occasionally failed.
When, during a discussion of coronavirus, Bolton noted in passing that “the American president has to be honest with his own people,” it scanned like a subtweet of the prolifically dishonest Trump. “See? Another controversial statement!” Bolton quipped. Was he winking at the audience again? Or was it just a bland truism that, in an atmosphere of expectation and paranoia, seemed momentous?
It’s not that Bolton was unwilling to criticize Trump. It’s just that he confined his critiques to areas where his differences with the president are well known—especially on North Korea and Iran. Bolton said that policy toward Pyongyang had produced a “wasted two years,” and that while previous administrations hadn’t been effective, Trump’s one-on-one diplomacy with Kim Jong Un was a mistake: “That’s failed, too, and it was perfectly evident it was going to fail.” Though Bolton endorsed the Trump administration’s decision to kill Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, he had nothing good to say about the Iran policy overall. “I think it’s failing because we don’t live up to the bumper-sticker slogan of maximum pressure,” he said.
None of this is news to anyone, though. And on the topic that everyone wanted to hear about, the impeachment inquiry, Bolton was reticent. He defended his statement, indicating he would have appeared before the Senate if subpoenaed, noting that the House never issued him a subpoena in the impeachment inquiry. Yet when Feaver asked whether he’d honor a House subpoena now, which is rumored to be near, he wouldn’t answer. “I’m not going to get into speculation about what they may or may not do,” he said, even though that wasn’t the question.
As my colleague Graeme Wood noted last March, Bolton’s career has been driven by an incredible focus on “his great passions in life, which are outmaneuvering his adversaries, foreign and domestic, and getting America out of treaties.”
The closest Bolton came to an overarching statement on his work in the Trump administration touched on his attempt to further those passions.
“In my view, to pursue the right polices for America, I was willing to put up with a lot. I’m not asking for martyrdom because of that,” he said. “I knew—think I knew what I was getting into. I did it for 17 months. I did the best I could. You can judge the results by what the policies are.”
Bolton was clearly far more eager to talk about these policies than about the Ukraine affair, even as he was happy to use the Ukraine affair to sell books. It was as though he wanted to have his cake and eat it too—though he used a different confectionary metaphor.
“I view [Ukraine] like the sprinkles on the ice-cream sundae in terms of what’s in the book,” Bolton said. But an ice-cream sundae without toppings isn’t a sundae at all—it’s just a big, dull bowl of vanilla.