Despise Bolton, but Read His Book Anyway

Americans need not validate or vindicate the former national security adviser. But they should acknowledge that his story is worth hearing.

An illustration of a book with John Bolton's face on the cover.
Getty / The Atlantic

Former National Security Adviser John Bolton—or, as he once insisted on calling himself on Twitter, #JohnBolton—has a book coming out.

According to his publisher, the memoir will be the “most comprehensive and substantial account of the Trump Administration,” a chronicle of a “President addicted to chaos, who embraced our enemies and spurned our friends, and was deeply suspicious of his own government.” Bolton will apparently argue that Donald Trump committed not one but many impeachable offenses. As Mike Allen and Jonathan Swan report at Axios, Bolton “will go beyond Ukraine” and make the case that Trump engaged in similar wrongdoing across the scope of his foreign policy.

Now he tells us?

The book, slated for publication on June 23, will come out to a hostile audience—or, perhaps we should say, several hostile audiences. The White House announced it believes that the manuscript contains classified information and needs to be revised—and this after the book’s publication date had already been pushed back twice because of government review. Bolton’s lawyer responded in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, arguing that the administration is turning the review process into “a pretext to censor Mr. Bolton.”

And Bolton doesn’t have many friends outside the White House, either. He seems to be doing his best to present himself as a principled whistleblower going head-to-head with a White House trampling his rights. But his welcome within anti-Trump circles has been decidedly frosty. Democratic Representative Mike Quigley, who serves on the House Intelligence Committee, suggested to Politico that anyone who wants to see what Bolton has to say should borrow his book from the library, rather than give the former national security adviser any money. Clicking on any of #JohnBolton’s recent tweets, meanwhile, reveals a cascade of replies calling him a coward and accusing him of selling out his country for book profits.

Trump critics have a lot of reasons to be skeptical, even dismissive, of Bolton. The most important is that the longtime conservative foreign-policy analyst missed the moment when people actually wanted to hear from him on the subject of Donald Trump and his leadership. It wasn’t that long ago—late last year and early this year—that many people were desperate to hear from Bolton. The impeachment was under way, and he had relevant information about the president’s engagements with the Ukrainian government. It was he, remember, who famously called the attempts to get Ukraine to announce investigations of the Bidens a “drug deal.” And multiple members of Bolton’s staff testified before the House impeachment inquiry.

But Bolton declined to testify before the House, ostensibly in deference to the executive branch’s confidentialities. The House impeachment investigators decided to proceed without hearing from him.

Bolton apparently had a change of heart, however, when the matter came to trial in the Senate. Then he announced that he would appear if called as a witness—only to discover that the Senate Republicans didn’t want to hear from him. How exactly those sacred confidentialities of executive privilege melted away, he never quite explained.

In any event, they appear to have completely evaporated before Bolton’s desire to tell his story in the form of a nearly 600-page book, which now promises to deliver a “precise rendering of his days in and around the Oval Office,” one based on his “almost daily access to the President.”

Many people believe that Bolton’s change of tune is all about selling books. The lawyer and prominent Trump critic George Conway, by contrast, argues plausibly that Bolton wanted to be forced to testify and grossly overestimated the desire of Senate Republicans to hold a fair trial. Whatever the explanation, his conduct has not shrouded him in glory.

As another anti-Trump conservative, Bill Kristol—who, for many years before the Trump administration, had been an ally of Bolton’s in advocating a hawkish foreign policy—put it in a recent conversation, Bolton “had people who worked directly for him who testified … utterly honestly and honorably … before the Congress during the impeachment ... And not only did he not testify himself, he didn’t even defend them when Trump smeared them.” This behavior, in Kristol’s view, was “dishonorable.”

It’s hard not to share such disdain for Bolton’s conduct. And with the disdain necessarily comes cynicism. How can the man who only last year refused to appear to tell a mere piece of this story before a formal congressional proceeding now spill his guts on a wide range of issues? The hashtag #BoycottBolton has been making the rounds on Twitter. As Norm Eisen—who served as counsel on the House Judiciary Committee during the impeachment—tweeted, “John, we begged you to testify in impeachment. We tried everything, right up until the very last minute of the trial. You persistently refused. Now you want us to feel sorry for you & buy your book? Forget it.”

But there is another side of Bolton—one that should prevent people from being too dismissive of what he might have to offer. Among other things, Bolton is a very smart man who had direct access to the president for a long time. He is certainly the most senior official of the Trump administration to come forward with what appears to be an extremely detailed story about it. Of course, he’s not alone among former senior officials in condemning the president, to be sure—most notably, former Defense Secretary James Mattis recently issued his public judgment about Trump over the president’s response to protesters demonstrating against the police killing of George Floyd. Yet although Mattis’s statement was powerful, it was also short and conclusory. He did not tell the story of his service under Trump. Bolton here is, by contrast, promising to describe what happened over the more than 450 days of his service in the White House, at a level of detail that will take up hundreds of pages.

There is also a difference between Bolton’s account and those of former officials such as Jim Comey, which have been extremely detailed but described interactions with the president that were limited in number and took place over a short period. “Anonymous,” who published first an op-ed in The New York Times and then a book warning of Trump’s dangerous leadership, characterized the president but—presumably to protect his or her own identity—did not provide narrative details. Still other officials who have told tales have been less senior and have not purported to delve into the weightiest matters of state.

Objectively, 600 pages of Bolton’s account of his tenure is an interesting proposition—interesting because of the information he had access to, interesting because of the portfolio of issues he dealt with, and interesting because of his close-up view of the president over more than a year.

So how should one approach Bolton’s book?

The best answer is to treat the book—and its author—bloodlessly, as a source of information that needs to be evaluated with due consideration for the source but without an instinct to either valorize or condemn. Bolton has a story to tell. It is very likely a story worth hearing. To absorb it implies no heroism or redemption for the man. It is not an embrace. It is possible to hear his story while maintaining one’s disdain for his behavior. The relationship is transactional.

Bolton has information the public should have gotten months ago. Yes, there’s something a bit satisfying about watching the master of political maneuvering box himself in by mishandling his opportunity to speak before Congress and thus giving the White House the chance to shut him up. But if what he has to say is true, and it’s damning, there is no exclusionary rule under which Bolton’s behavior should shield Trump from accountability. Bolton may also have a role to play in talking to conservative audiences wavering in their support for Trump about the president he served—particularly if he can discuss the book on Fox News.

And what does Bolton get in this transaction? We actually don’t know. Maybe he’s motivated by the money. Maybe he just wants to tell his story. Maybe he craves the attention. (This is a guy, after all, who tried to create a hashtag out of his own name.) That’s really his business. He’s getting something, or he presumably wouldn’t have written the book. The point is that hearing his story need not mean validating or vindicating him.

In this sense, Bolton’s book may be a kind of test run for the months ahead. If Trump continues to sink in the polls and those who were once happy to work for him begin to see him as a losing bet, more former officials may decide to speak out.

Their doing so at this late stage isn’t exactly brave or patriotic. But it can be useful.