What Does John Bolton Know, and When Will We Know It? Why the Former National Security Advisor May Hold Trump’s Fate in His Hands

Posted in: Politics

With the conclusion of the House Intelligence Committee’s schedule of public impeachment hearings on November 21, President Trump’s opponents have reason for optimism going into the Thanksgiving holiday. Witness after witness has served up testimony putting meat on the bones of a story that has been emerging for months: President Trump withheld aid and support from Ukraine in an effort to push that country to launch investigations of his political opponents, especially former Vice President Joe Biden.

The hearings, guided by Chairman Adam Schiff (D-CA) and committee counsel Daniel Goldman, have methodically chewed through House Republicans’ various attempted defenses of the President’s conduct: that there was no quid pro quo linking aid to investigations, that there may have been a link but that the Ukrainians were unaware of it, that the President was genuinely persuing a generic anticorruption crusade, that the linkage to Biden may have been misguided but was not a serious offense, that there may have been crimes but the President was not personally involved, and finally, that the whole plot was ultimately unsuccessful and therefore could not be a crime. These defenses –and many others offered by the GOP—deserve credit for creativity, but little else. With few exculpatory facts, and thinner legal arguments, even pounding the table appeared to exhaust the inventiveness of the Republican members of the Committee.

So, is it all over? Not by a long shot. “The good news for Republicans is the only ones they need to convince are themselves,” as Vox’s Mathew Yglesias pointed out, “so it doesn’t matter that their case makes no sense.” In the short term, this is certainly true. Even if House Republicans barely believe their own arguments, they will still feel safer staying in a misguided herd than straying out alone in search of the right path, thus averting a bipartisan stampede against Trump. Since conviction requires a two-thirds vote in the Senate, Trump’s acquittal—and survival in office—will be secured if only 34 of 53 GOP senators can accept any of these defenses, with or without a straight face. In the long run, of course, this approach could backfire. The voters may offer a scathing review a year from now. But Trump would stand or fall on the same ballot, rendering impeachment moot.

The Intelligence Committee’s portrait of the Ukraine scandal now seems fairly fixed and complete. The most likely scenario is still impeachment on partisan lines by the House, a lively trial in the Senate (but with perhaps only a half-dozen or so votes in play), followed by a contentious but numerically comfortable acquittal. Could anything in the Ukraine scandal change this calculus?

New testimony from an insider close to Trump might. But the most prominent potential witnesses, such as Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, and Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, have strong legal and prudential reasons to avoid testifying. Each of them could be personally implicated in the plot. Each is likely to conclude that a loyal silence is the best way to stay close to power (and/or out of jail) for as long as possible. And each is still subject to the administration’s sweeping claims of immunity and privilege.

The Bull and the China Shop

Among high administration officials, however, one name stands out: that of former National Security Advisor John Bolton. Abruptly fired by a Trump tweet on September 10, Bolton has been exiled from power and may have ample grounds to resent it. Just as importantly, according to the testimony of several witnesses, Bolton vocally dissented from the attempt to squeeze Ukraine for President Trump’s political benefit and directed his subordinates to report his concerns to the White House Counsel’s office.

The principal impeachment witnesses so far (including Ambassador Bill Taylor, Ambassador Gordon Sondland, Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, Dr. Fiona Hill, and Counselor David Holmes) may be well go down in history, but none of them were household names before the hearings. They were little-known outside of diplomatic or foreign-policy circles, and did not throw around any partisan weight within the GOP.

John Bolton is an entirely different kettle of fish. In contrast to the non-partisan foreign policy professionals who have provided most of the testimony so far, Bolton is an unapologetic and outspoken Republican loyalist. No GOP foreign-policy figure over the past four decades has been more consistently belligerent and assertive. No one has done more to tear down the architecture of multilateralism and to substitute raw American power—at least until President Trump. And Bolton is no faceless functionary, either. His distinctive mop of hair and bushy moustache is the closest thing you’ll get in the foreign-policy community to a personal brand.

Iraq Hawk Down

Bolton forged his reputation as a hard-nosed archconservative in a variety of posts in the Justice and State Departments under President Reagan and the first President Bush. During the 2000 Florida recount saga, Bolton was one of former Secretary of State James A. Baker’s key lieutenants in his self-declared “street fight” for the presidency. “I’m with the Bush-Cheney team,” Bolton famously declared to one set of poll workers, “and I’m here to stop the count.”

The arrested recount left George W. Bush victorious in the Sunshine State. Bolton was rewarded with the position of Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security. This appointment may have been meant ironically, as Bolton opposed virtually every arms-control treaty existing at the time. Bolton’s contributions toward international security during his tenure included strong advocacy for the Iraq War—which he still defends—as well as a broadening of Bush’s original “Axis of Evil” (Iraq, Iran, and North Korea) to include Cuba, Libya, and Syria. His fearsome attitude toward external adversaries was matched by a reputation for ruthless bureaucratic jujitsu against internal foes.

Bush was sufficiently emboldened by his 2004 re-election to use Bolton to raise another middle figure to his critics. He nominated Bolton to serve as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations– as if the fox did not already have enough henhouses under his care. Here, however, Bolton’s rise hit a glass ceiling of his own construction. Bolton had a well-documented history of contempt for the UN—including a past statement that “the [UN] Secretariat Building in New York has 38 stories. If you lost ten stories today, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.” After 9/11, this quote acquired a more malevolent, if unintended, connotation.

In any event, the preternaturally blunt Bolton seemed an unlikely diplomat. He was also accused of manipulating intelligence to serve the administration’s political goals and (verbally) abusing subordinates. The nomination united Democrats in opposition and stirred just enough unease among GOP moderates to stall in committee. Undeterred, Bush waited for the Senate’s next recess and sent Bolton to New York anyway. The recess appointment, never confirmed by the Senate despite Bush’s repeated efforts, would be temporary. Bolton served only 16 months in the job. But the title “Ambassador” would thereafter be affixed as permanently as the moustache.

The Obama years saw the Ambassador marking time with a mix of law practice, think tanking, political consulting, and Fox News punditry, while twice flirting with a presidential run of his own. When Donald Trump was elected, Bolton’s name surfaced on his short list for Secretary of State and other key foreign-policy positions. The pugnacious unilateralist might have seemed a perfect fit, a sort of Trumpist avant-la-lettre. But when the administration’s starting lineup took the field, Bolton was left on the bench. The problem? Trump was reportedly turned off by Bolton’s iconic facial hair and concluded that he simply did not “look the part.”

To his credit, Bolton did not immediately run to his shaving kit. He stayed on the sidelines, defending the administration’s chaotic foreign policy on Fox and biding his time while Trump churned through staff. When Trump began searching for his third national security advisor in March 2018, Bolton had finally clawed himself to the top of the list, moustache intact.

The Warrior and the Wolf

Bolton’s old foes greeted his appointment with alarm. Some predicted that the combination of Trump’s over-the-top rhetoric and Bolton’s contempt for multilateral diplomacy would quickly turn manageable problems into raging conflagrations. At the same time, others suspected that Bolton’s hard-line attitudes would at least counteract some of the naivete that characterized Trump’s approach to hostile dictatorships like Russia and North Korea.

Perhaps surprisingly, the latter scenario proved far closer to the truth. Bolton’s seventeen months in the White House were accompanied by no new wars. Against Bolton’s advice, Trump backed off on launching attacks on Iran in response to the downing of an American drone in June 2019. He continued to pursue an unlikely (and largely unrequited) bromance with North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, despite Bolton’s conviction that the pursuit was futile. When Trump took an abrupt detour to visit Kim on the North Korean side of the DMZ in June 2019, Bolton decided to keep a prior engagement in Mongolia instead of accompanying him.

While careful never to dissent publicly, Bolton developed a revealing tell when defending the administration’s policies. If Bolton prefaced an answer with, “Well, the President believes that…” you could be pretty sure that Bolton did not believe it. It was a formula he would have to use frequently, particularly on North Korea. Like the persistence of the moustache, it was emblematic of Bolton’s willingness to show deference to the president’s whims, but not to mortgage his entire dignity.

On September 10, 2019, Trump abruptly sacked his national security advisor. In a tweet, the President claimed he had told Bolton the previous night that “his services were no longer required,” explaining that “I disagreed strongly with many of his suggestions, as did others in the Administration.” Bolton immediately disputed Trump’s account, stating that he had offered his own resignation (for reasons he did not explain) the previous evening, and that the president did not accept but instead replied, “Let’s talk about it tomorrow.”

Not My Circus, Not My Monkeys

Since his dismissal, Bolton has said little in public. For many weeks it was assumed that the break between the two men arose over Korea or Afghanistan or Iran or some other hotspot where Bolton’s bellicose instincts clashed with Trump’s desire for a photo-friendly deal at any cost. Bolton gave a public speech mildly criticizing Trump’s Korea policy in late September. In a private speech in early November, Bolton was blunter, reportedly questioning the role of the Trump family in setting policy, and speculating whether Trump’s personal financial interests influenced his policy toward Turkey.

In the meantime, of course, the Ukraine scandal exploded. Whether related or not, Bolton’s dismissal took him conveniently out of the line of fire. While Bolton himself remained silent, his National Security Council subordinates Fiona Hill and Tim Morrison painted a portrait of their boss as a careful institutionalist that must have surprised many of his longtime critics. According to their testimony, Bolton not only opposed the conditioning of aid to Ukraine on political favors to the President, he appears to have deployed his bureaucratic skills to stop the policy—or at least insulate himself from it. Morrison described a private meeting between Trump and Bolton in August, in which the national security advisor was apparently unable to persuade Trump to release aid to Ukraine. Bolton abruptly ended a meeting where Sondland began describing the politically useful “deliverables” the administration wanted from Ukraine. He described Giuliani as “a hand grenade who is going to blow everybody up.” Bolton instructed Hill to go to the White House counsel’s office and tell them, “I am not part of whatever drug deal Sondland and Mulvaney are cooking up.”

The “drug deal” quote shows that Bolton understood the Ukraine gambit to be transactional, illicit, and even a bit depraved. A graduate of Yale Law and a veteran of four administrations, Bolton knew that he was not merely registering a policy dissent, but throwing a hand grenade of his own into the hands of the White House counsel. Once such a statement is part of the bureaucratic record, it cannot be made to disappear, but can only be hurled into someone else’s foxhole.

As the Ukraine picture becomes clearer, the timing of Bolton’s departure seems increasingly significant. On September 9, when Bolton says he offered to resign, Trump was also in communication with Sondland, denying the existence of a “quid pro quo” (which Sondland relayed to Taylor in a key text). The existence of a whistleblower complaint, originally filed on August 12, was becoming known in Washington and led to the announcement of a House investigation on September 9. The next day, as Trump announced Bolton’s dismissal/resignation via tweet, Rep. Schiff demanded disclosure of the whistleblower complaint to Congress. Is it possible that Bolton’s departure was not driven primarily by policy disagreements over North Korea or Afghanistan, but by the embattled President’s mounting sense of crisis over Ukraine?

The Silence of the ‘Stache

The public has yet to hear the answer from Bolton himself. He failed to appear for his scheduled closed-door interview with the House Intelligence Committee on Nov. 7, but so far has not been subpoenaed. His attorney, Charles Cooper, appeared to dangle the possibility of juicy testimony, writing to the House that Bolton “was personally involved in many of the events, meetings, and conversations about which you have already received testimony, as well as many relevant meetings and conversations that have not yet been discussed in the testimonies thus far.” (Emphasis added.) But perhaps Cooper was simply hyping Bolton’s centrality to close a $2 million book deal. Instead of testifying, Bolton joined the lawsuit of his former NSC deputy, Charles Kupperman, also represented by Cooper. Kupperman resisted a House subpoena on the novel grounds of “constitutional immunity”. This idea goes beyond the established doctrine of “executive privilege” (i.e., that certain questions may be out of bounds because of the president’s need to obtain confidential advice from advisors in order to perform his Article II duties). Rather, it claims that presidential advisors simply cannot be required to testify before Congress at all, and need not show up in response to a subpoena. If such an argument prevails, of course, it would seriously hobble Congressional oversight of the Executive Branch, perhaps irreparably.

Despite a chance to carve themselves a place in future constitutional law casebooks, Schiff and the House Democrats beat a hasty retreat, withdrawing Kupperman’s subpoena and seeking to render the case moot. (The judge, however, has not yet decided whether to dismiss the suit.) According to Schiff, the voluntary testimony of Kupperman and Bolton would be welcome, but Democrats will not “wait months and months while the administration plays a game of rope-a-dope in an effort to try to stall.” By passing on the subpoenas, House Democrats could show confidence in the case they have already made, while avoiding reliance on witnesses whose testimony they may not be able to compel and whose content remains a wild card. They may also have wished to avoid stepping on a similar dispute between the House Judiciary Committee and former White House counsel Don McGahn, which was procedurally more advanced—and pending before a potentially more sympathetic judge. If so, their strategy appears to have paid off. On November 25, DC District Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s decision roundly rejected the Department of Justice’s version of the “constitutional immunity” argument and ordered McGahn to comply with his subpoena. But Cooper quickly claimed that the ruling did not apply to Bolton, because his national security role gave the immunity argument more weight. Clearly, even if Bolton has some secret desire to testify, he wants to be perceived as being highly reluctant to do so.

Meanwhile, the longer Bolton has remained silent, the more aces have accumulated in his hand. If the indignity of his dismissal left any mark on Bolton, Trump has plenty of reason to expect to be repaid in kind. Bolton certainly seems like the type to serve his revenge directly from the deep freezer. More importantly, whatever his initial ideological sympathies with Trumpism, Bolton may have seen enough from the inside to sense real danger from this President. Trump’s deep authoritarian affinities, at home and abroad, may be a mere curiosity to Bolton, but the ease with which America’s adversaries can manipulate the President through his personal interests must surely alarm him. The question is, will he do anything to stop it?

To this point, Bolton has been one of the few well-known officials to escape from service in the Trump administration with his reputation largely intact—or even enhanced. But his coyness about testifying has begun to wear thin. As Dr. Hill said in her testimony, “I believe that those who have information that the Congress deems relevant have a legal and moral obligation to provide it.” Surely that applies to her former boss as well. The idea that Bolton could hide his conversations with Trump behind a vague assertion of privilege in an impeachment proceeding and then peddle them on a book tour a few months later has begun to draw some well-deserved scorn.

Over the weekend, Bolton ostentatiously returned to Twitter, claiming to have liberated a personal account that the White House had denied him access to “[o]ut of fear of what I may say?” “To those who speculated I went into hiding,” Bolton added, “I’m sorry to disappoint.” So, did he plan to disappoint those people anytime soon, and with what? The answer came a few hours later: with a Bolton-controlled political action committee, designed to “identify and support Senate and House candidates committed to policies promoting a strong America.” It was a reminder that Bolton’s idea of saving the country might differ markedly from Trump’s opponents’.

What Can We Expect if Bolton Testifies?

One thing should be clear: Bolton has no reason to lie under oath to protect Trump. And he seems to have taken no part in any conspiracy to squeeze the Ukrainians, so he has no need to lie to protect himself. That being said, even if a witness is inclined to tell the truth, he can select from a wide latitude of attitudes: eager or reluctant, helpful or guarded, precise or vague, definitive or hazy. A Bolton determined to do maximum damage to Trump could have one set of recollections or interpretations, while a Bolton inclined to avoid confrontation might have very different ones. Both could, in a technical sense, be true.

Of course, it is possible that Bolton has little to add to what is already in the public record. But not likely. Unlike other witnesses so far (except Sondland), the Ambassador had one-on-one conversations with Trump on Ukraine. And (unlike Sondland), he is reported to have kept meticulous notes. At a minimum, Bolton could tie up several loose ends from the hearings. Why did he shut down Sondland’s discussion about demanding political investigations from Ukraine? Did he really ask Sondland for Giuliani’s contact information? Why? Did he call Giuliani, and if so, what did they discuss? Why did he characterize the Ukraine squeeze as a “drug deal”? Why did he direct subordinates to report those words to the White House counsel’s office? Most of all, what did Bolton say to Trump in their private meeting on Ukraine in August? And did they discuss Ukraine again the day before his dismissal?

It is easy to imagine a worst-case scenario for Trump. What if Bolton squarely confronted the President in August with the facts of the Ukraine scheme and gave him an opportunity to disavow and stop it? What if Trump refused? And what if Bolton told him that the plan was not only unwise but illegal, and likely to culminate in his impeachment if discovered?

The question is not so much whether Bolton can substantively prove Trump’s culpability—that has already been done many times over—but whether he could deal the kind of psychological shock that would snap a critical mass of GOP lawmakers out of their pro-Trump trance. To be the man who finally broke Donald Trump’s grip on power, and thereby saved the United States and the Republican Party, would be worthy of the history books.

If anyone could do it, it would be an alpha Republican badass like John Bolton. But Trump’s road to the 2016 nomination was littered with the political corpses of GOP heavyweights who tried to stop him. Since then almost all his key intraparty opponents have died, been driven into retirement, or have adopted a slavish loyalty to him. Bolton may be a big dog, but can he really take down the leader of the pack? Does he even want to?

What John Bolton Wants

It’s hard to imagine exactly what is going on behind that Whisker Curtain right now, but Bolton’s career trajectory might provide some clues.

First, and most obviously, Bolton is not in this to do the Democratic Party any favors. At most, Trump has been his enemy for the past few months. There may be a score to settle with the President and others around him who may have urged Bolton’s ouster. But Bolton has been battling the Democrats for decades. He won’t want to win a battle with Trump if it means losing the whole war to the Democrats. If Trump can somehow be pushed aside, however, and a “true” conservative can pick up in the banner in his place, that might look like a better path to ultimate victory.

Second, we should not assume that Bolton’s own ambitions are sated. In an earlier age, a wealthy 71-year-old former National Security Advisor at the “twilight of his career” could presumably “do the right thing” without fear of any consequences. In 2019, however, Bolton is notably younger than three leading candidates for the presidency (Trump, Bernie Sanders, and Joe Biden) and barely older than a fourth (Elizabeth Warren). Bolton may well see himself as a future GOP candidate who could rescue Trump’s assertive American nationalism from its corrupt and incompetent manifestation in the current administration. In the near future, having a little distance between himself and Trump could be quite helpful. He might even wish to see Trump’s downfall sooner rather than later. But delivering the coup de grâce directly to Trump in public testimony? That would look like an unforgivable stab in the back to Trump’s formidable bloc of voters.

Third, even if Bolton’s future ambitions are less grandiose, he needs to remain in good standing with the conservative establishment if he is to hope for another government appointment. And if the currency of a GOP elder statesman’s realm is a feathered nest at a think tank, lucrative speeches, and Fox News hits, then Bolton stands to make serious mint as long as he lives. All of this could be gone if he crosses Trump too hard. Even if Bolton could become a world-historical figure by bringing down Trump, he may prefer the lesser, but more comfortable, fame of having tried but failed to guide a wayward President to the light.

Party loyalty and personal stakes both suggest that Bolton will continue to resist testifying in the impeachment inquiry. And if his testimony is compelled by public or legal pressure, he will jab at Trump on policy, but pull his punches on the real issues—corruption and abuse of power. Yet perhaps, even after all these years, we do not really know John Bolton. There is still a role in this story for a fearless patriot who puts country above party and personal ambition, if only someone can be persuaded to take it.

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