John Bolton Tries to Recover His Dignity

In his new memoir, the former national security adviser assesses and defends his time in the Trump administration.

John Bolton
Mark Peterson / Redux

Thirteen years ago, I spoke with a former senior official in the George W. Bush administration about the problem of overclassification—the tendency of executive-branch officials to hide information from the public on national-security grounds, even when disclosure of that information could not possibly endanger national security. The official said that classification is a prerogative of the president, and peanut-gallery complaints (from private people, but also from legislators) could be safely ignored. But he acknowledged that the classification system is unwieldy. “If there is anyone who fully understands our ‘system’ for protecting classified information,” he told me through a generously proportioned mustache, “I have yet to meet him.”

That senior official was John Bolton. Bolton’s new memoir of his 15 months as Donald Trump’s national security adviser comes out tomorrow, over the objections of an administration alleging that the book is riddled with classified material that Bolton has broken his contract with the United States, and possibly also the law, by disclosing. On Saturday, U.S. District Court Judge Royce Lamberth seemed to agree with the government. Bolton “has exposed his country to harm and himself to civil (and potentially criminal) liability,” Lamberth wrote, in one of those judicial memoranda that make a potential defendant slump in his chair and develop a nail-biting habit.

Having now read every word of Bolton’s memoir, I find it hard to believe that it doesn’t contain classified material. Whether it contains properly classified material is another story. It is not uncommon to discover that totally unremarkable and well known statements of fact are, in fact, considered classified. In one case, the government demanded that the authors of a CIA memoir redact a mention of the distance between the cities of Kabul and Ghazni. (They’re 80 miles apart. Tell no one.) Bolton’s book is thicketed with information considerably more relevant to national security than this, and it would be a miracle if the executive branch, which by the way hates Bolton’s guts, were so generous that it would let this memoir go public without a fight.

Moreover, even properly classified information can lurk in seemingly harmless disclosures. “If you say that on June 13, we knew Vladimir Putin had eggs Benedict for breakfast, you might be revealing how we knew something, and when we knew it,” J. William Leonard, the guardian of classified information under George W. Bush, told me. But you could also divulge classified information if you were to reveal that the United States was ignorant of Putin’s breakfast order, because you would reveal what we didn’t know, and when we didn’t know it. Late in his memoir, Bolton spends a paragraph describing an instance when senior officials did not know, and were trying to “get the facts” about, the location of the Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. If Zarif didn’t previously know that he could wander around Europe, his location a mystery to U.S. senior officials for hours at a time, he does now.

Or he will on Tuesday, when the book is available everywhere. Close observers of Washington and geopolitics will find much in it to savor (and a substantial number of iffy disclosures such as the one above, to challenge in print or in court). It will nevertheless disappoint many in the general reading public, because it has little of the salacious backbiting that made Stormy Daniels’s book or Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury such hits—nor will it, of course, bring down the Trump presidency.

Instead, The Room Where It Happened resembles the political memoirs of previous eras: by Robert Gates, Colin Powell, Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger (whom Bolton quotes or invokes reverently at least half a dozen times), and John Bolton himself (Surrender Is Not an Option, published in 2007). To read it searching for the juicy bits, in which Trump says “fuck” or recommends the construction of literal concentration camps, is a fine and worthy exercise. But the memoir should also be read as a member of this larger class of books by serious people, assessing and defending their own mixed records against the tribunal of history. Before they hold office, politicians write books about how wonderful they are, and how no one could imagine otherwise. Afterward, they write books about how wonderful they are—but now defending themselves against an implicit prosecutorial voice.

The contrast between this standard form of White House memoir and Bolton’s bizarro-world memoir is striking. Like the others, Bolton gives the narrative version of a diary, a day-by-day recounting of the important events in his term in office. Normally that suffices: the record of one man’s service, rendered in his own words, and in the name of completeness, erring on the tedious side. But Bolton’s memoir is different: It is an attempt to set down an orderly record of a White House that was, and is, disordered in every sense.

Bolton once told me that he paid inordinate attention to “process”—gov-speak for every form of rule, formatting, and interagency vetting that you can imagine—because if you get process right, then those who try to stop you but get the process wrong can be sent back to process-land while you zoom forward with your own plans. Much of his memoir recounts the life of a man devoted to process in a White House where neither process nor flagrant offenses against normal function count for anything. Bolton calls these offenses “process fouls.” If the White House were a supermarket in the midst of being looted, Bolton would be the man clutching his groceries in the express lane, counting whether the thieves hurdling past him had more than 12 items in their baskets.

Some of the offenders against process have simply perverted what had heretofore been normal government behavior, violating rules and norms that resulted from decades spent trying to figure out how a government works best. Steven Mnuchin, the treasury secretary, is an example of such an offender. Bolton notes, disapprovingly, that Mnuchin is often in California for no particular reason, and that his department seems to be running its own foreign policy, rather than executing the financial elements of foreign policy planned by the State Department. Bolton’s take on Nikki Haley, Trump’s first UN ambassador, is similarly incredulous, not because he considers her corrupt but because she seemed to have little knowledge of the nature of her job (which was Bolton’s job from 2005 to 2006), and occasionally inserted herself in discussions in which the UN ambassador had no role, or made dopey comments. (Discussing whether to attack Bashar al-Assad in retaliation for using chemical weapons, Bolton claims, “Haley explained that her husband was in the National Guard, so we should try to avoid military casualties.”)

But for others, most notably Trump himself, the perversion of process is more sinister. News stories about Bolton’s book have already captured the darkest bits relating to Trump—the concentration camps; the weaponizing of the government against personal enemies; the abasement of U.S. interests and spurning of advice in favor of a foreign policy that nakedly advances Trump’s own electoral prospects; and the jettisoning of all concerns other than his own image and that of his family, such as his daughter and senior adviser, Ivanka. When the press began roasting Ivanka for conducting government business over personal email—the mother of all process fouls, after Hillary Clinton’s trouble for similar behavior—Trump addressed the press about Saudi Arabia’s murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the other hot topic of the day, and told Bolton that that would “divert from Ivanka.”

Bolton is smart, and he knows how fruitless being what passes as a normal government official is under these circumstances. He notes that he had to give a urine sample as part of the onboarding formalities when appointed to his position. I took that wry observation to be Bolton’s foreshadowing an incongruity—that normal White House procedures still existed pro forma, but that the disarray within the Oval Office made them ultimately pointless. Drug tests are administered at the door, but once you are inside, you may as well be high as a weather balloon every day you report for duty, because nothing you say matters anyway. He develops phrases to deflect his own responsibility for some of the more cretinous or preposterous tasks that Trump assigns to him. Trump tells him to ask friendly Arab governments to pay the United States “cost plus fifty percent” for American troops in the region—a request ridiculous and insulting on its face. “I made it clear,” Bolton writes, “the idea came directly from the President.”

James Fallows once said that being Jimmy Carter’s speechwriter was like being Franklin D. Roosevelt’s tap-dancing teacher. To be Trump’s national security adviser must be similarly absurd. “A fluttering leaf could have turned him 180 degrees,” Bolton writes. “Getting [Elton John’s Rocket Man] CD to Kim Jong Un remained a high priority for several months.” Orders and musings from his boss were met with sarcastic thoughts, inserted regularly in the memoir. “What fun.” “Wonderful.” “How encouraging.” “More grand strategy from Trump.” As Bolton’s tenure progressed and Trump continued to pursue foreign policy with the attention span of an adolescent howler monkey, Bolton was soon “past caring” and wondering why he bothered to report to work at all.

The Trump White House sounds, in Bolton’s telling, like a collection of soulless incompetents, perhaps graced by the presence of an exceedingly rare competent such as Bolton himself (also soulless). One of the few moments of heart in the book comes from John Kelly, Trump’s chief of staff and a source of productive order in the administration. Kelly, a former Marine general whose son was killed in Afghanistan in 2010, considered resigning, and Bolton asked whether the country would be better or worse off in a real, 9/11-style crisis if Kelly were to leave. Kelly “answered, ‘I’m going out to Arlington,’ presumably to visit his son’s grave, which he did at serious times,” Bolton writes. “We knew this because it happened so often.”

Kelly was not “past caring,” and I don’t think Bolton really is either. He has faced accusations to the contrary—that he is a nihilist who hid his revelations when they would have mattered, during impeachment and the Senate trial, the better to sell copies of his memoir later. Bolton contends that his testimony wouldn’t have made any difference earlier, and whatever you think of Bolton, he is clearly right on this point. The verdict in the trial was preordained, because the Senate simply refused to perform its duty and hear witnesses, including Bolton himself when he offered to testify. If he had spoken up then, the impact would have been dulled by the Senate’s failure to convict, and forgotten altogether by now. Nearer to the election is the more useful time to tell his story—and Bolton desperately wants Trump gone, for reasons that vary from patriotic to vengeful to greedy. He cares about his place in history and would be mortified to be remembered as an enabler of a man who fired and humiliated him, and whom he clearly considers a half-wit.

So far, that embarrassment is the fate history has allotted for him. Judging by his tone and viewpoint, he would prefer to be writing his own version of Kissinger’s White House Years, a self-serving record of statesmanship and power, to cap a long career in a normal White House, serving a normal president. But only Kissinger is Kissinger—and Nixon, for all his faults, was a crafty son of a bitch who knew (unlike Trump, Bolton says) that Finland is not part of Russia. To be remembered for statesmanship in this league requires dignity, and there can be only so much dignity in a memoir that is ultimately about scooping the excrement out of the corners of the monkey house.