“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?
Graeme Wood: John Bolton knows what he’s doing
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.