In its broad contours, John Bolton’s exposé follows the same track as many similar episodes in the Trump era. High-ranking former Trump official leaves administration, and then warns the world that Trump is erratic, corrupt, inhumane, or comically uninformed. (In Bolton’s case, all of the above.) Trump and his supporters then scramble to discredit the account.
Bolton’s book is harder to dismiss, because he lacks the markers of untrustworthiness that have allowed Trumpists to dismiss so many who have run from the White House screaming in shock. Bolton is neither a suspiciously squishy globalist (Jim Comey, H.R. McMaster, John Kelly, James Mattis, Rex Tillerson, Gary Cohn, “Anonymous”) nor a flaky Trump hanger-on who would never have gotten a foot in the White House if not for Trump’s inability to attract A- and B-level talent (Michael Cohen, Anthony Scaramucci, Omarosa, Steve Bannon). Bolton has spent decades in service to the conservative movement, and his frequent disagreements with Trump often put him to the president’s right, not his left.
And so there is a unique scent of desperation wafting through the response to Bolton by Trump and his supporters. Last January, the Wall Street Journal editorial page proclaimed, “We’ve known Mr. Bolton long enough to doubt that he’d want to sandbag Republican Senators or the President he worked for,” and Bolton superfan and ardent Trump defender Hugh Hewitt was insisting Bolton would never turn on the boss.
As of this morning, the Journal editorial page has not seen fit to comment on Bolton’s allegations, and Hewitt’s coverage has been limited to extensively quoting a New York Times review critiquing Bolton’s prose style.
Fox News is focusing on the positive, which is that the book document’s Trump’s decision to call off air strikes against Iran as evidence of his prudence and humanitarian feeling for the Iranian people:
This would be more persuasive if (1) Fox News was not frequently demanding war on Iran, and (2) Bolton’s book did not quote Trump telling Xi Jinping he was absolutely correct to confine the Uighurs to concentration camps. If your takeaway from a book revealing that the president endorsed the construction of concentration camps is that it casts a positive light on his “humanity,” perhaps the bar has been set too low.
The responses from officials who are required to make comments have been more revealing. U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer proceeds in a few short sentences from categorically denying Bolton’s most damaging claim to saying he has no recollection of the event:
Trump himself has flung an array of wild and often contradictory charges.
1. Like Hewitt, he has focused on the critical reviews of Bolton’s narrative skills, excitedly quoting a critical Times review calling it “tedious.” Of course, in the old days, a book by the national security adviser depicting the president as endemically corrupt, easily manipulated by dictators, and unaware of such basic facts as Britain’s possession of nuclear weapons and Finland not being part of Russia would be inherently fascinating, regardless of the prose in which it was rendered. These revelations are boring only because the broader picture of Trump’s unfitness is so familiar.
Yawn, another top Trump official calls him dangerously unfit may not be the robust pushback Trump thinks it is.
2. As he usually does when criticized by former White House staff, Trump lashes out at Bolton as unqualified for the job he was given. ““He was a washed up guy, I gave him a chance,” he told Sean Hannity last night. Here was Trump, generously offering a burned-out, unemployable hack an opportunity to get off the streets and hold a regular job as the most powerful national security adviser to the leader of the free world.
But this defense, too, may not reflect well on Trump’s own judgment. Indeed, Trump adds to his indictment by recounting a story of Bolton bungling a key bilateral relationship early in his tenure. “That was early on, I should have fired him right then & there!” he tweets. He seems not to realize that by his own account, giving the most important national security job to a totally unqualified official and then failing to fire him when he predictably bungled is not a good story about Trump.
3. Bolton’s book is filled with lies, Trump insists. One problem with the response is that Bolton is famous for taking detailed, contemporaneous notes. A second problem is that, if Bolton were lying about Trump, Trump could sue him for libel, an action he is ordinarily very eager to threaten. He has strangely refrained.
And this defense conflicts with the fourth response:
4. Trump charges Bolton violated the law by publishing classified information. Indeed, his government is taking the extraordinary step of trying to block the publication of the book on national security grounds, even after its contents passed security clearance. (Trump had a political loyalist intervene to hold up Bolton’s book after a career official had already vetted it.)
To the extent Bolton is making things up, he is not exposing national secrets. It’s only a national security threat to leak information that’s true.
The White House is arguing that it’s possible Bolton’s book contains both national security secrets (which by definition are true) and false claims. Yet they haven’t bothered to delineate which Bolton claims are supposed to be false and which are supposed to be important national security secrets. Their dual strategy allows them to cast a blanket of denial over everything in the book while simultaneously abusing government power to prohibit the book from being sold.
For a man who’s obsessed with loyalty, Trump is weirdly unable to command any. He has spent more than three years surrounded by people who not only view him as unfit for office, but often come away so shell-shocked they feel compelled to warn the public about what they saw. Obviously, most of these people suffer from a variety of personal or ideological shortcoming, as you’d expect given that they decided to work for Trump in the first place. But at some point, the cumulative evidence of sheer testimony is so overwhelming that their flaws seem to be beside the point.