Thursday, July 30, 2020

The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir - by John Bolton


One attraction of being National Security Advisor is the sheer multiplicity and volume of challenges that confront you. If you don’t like turmoil, uncertainty, and risk—all while being constantly overwhelmed with information, decisions to be made, and the sheer amount of work, and enlivened by international and domestic personality and ego conflicts beyond description—try something else. 

It is exhilarating, but it is nearly impossible to explain to outsiders how the pieces fit together, which they often don’t in any coherent way. I cannot offer a comprehensive theory of the Trump Administration’s transformation because none is possible. Washington’s conventional wisdom on Trump’s trajectory, however, is wrong. This received truth, attractive to the intellectually lazy, is that Trump was always bizarre, but in his first fifteen months, uncertain in his new place, and held in check by an “axis of adults,” he hesitated to act. As time passed, however, Trump became more certain of himself, the axis of adults departed, things fell apart, and Trump was surrounded only by “yes men.” 

Pieces of this hypothesis are true, but the overall picture is simplistic. The axis of adults in many respects caused enduring problems not because they successfully managed Trump, as the High-Minded (an apt description I picked up from the French for those who see themselves as our moral betters) have it, but because they did precisely the opposite. They didn’t do nearly enough to establish order, and what they did do was so transparently self-serving and so publicly dismissive of many of Trump’s very clear goals (whether worthy or unworthy) that they fed Trump’s already-suspicious mind-set, making it harder for those who came later to have legitimate policy exchanges with the President. 

I had long felt that the role of the National Security Advisor was to ensure that a President understood what options were open to him for any given decision he needed to make, and then to ensure that this decision was carried out by the pertinent bureaucracies. The National Security Council process was certain to be different for different Presidents, but these were the critical objectives the process should achieve.

Because, however, the axis of adults had served Trump so poorly, he second-guessed people’s motives, saw conspiracies behind rocks, and remained stunningly uninformed on how to run the White House, let alone the huge federal government. The axis of adults is not entirely responsible for this mind-set. Trump is Trump.

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If Donald Trump had not been president. In my opinion, John Bolton would never have written the book that he did. I knew little about Bolton...and I knew little about Trump--before they walked into the White House...

The thing is, until Bolton walked into The Room, I don't think he realized that it could have been...so...bad... There were rumors about Bolton, but I had little desire to do much research on him. What I saw in this book was a man who, though he may have had strong feelings about some issues, he had, probably, more experience and extensive knowledge than any other individual assembled in that room.  He read alot...worked hard...and took notes... This book is based upon those notes, now being shared across the world, including his personal thoughts and attempts to act...and his thoughts about that failure...

By the time I finished the book, I had no real personal feelings about Bolton. I already hated Trump if that at all responds to the excerpt above. What I did know about Bolton at the end of the book was that--on every single issue that was dealt with in the book, I knew enough about the issue to be able to evaluate Bolton's response. I was amazed! Not necessarily about his decisions about this issue or that...but that he had prepared to provide the President with the best possible information and options that were available. And, that he was not afraid to speak out to the president with disagreement--he was no "yes man."

The President assured me that Flynn’s successor would have a free hand in organizational and personnel matters, which I believed essential in running an effective NSC staff and inter- agency process. We covered the full range of world issues, a tour d’horizon, as the State Department loves to call it, and Trump interjected at one point, 
“This is so great. John sounds just like he does on television. I could just keep listening. I love it.”
Kushner asked, “How do you handle the point that you’re so controversial, that people either love you or hate you?” 
As I was opening my mouth to answer, Trump said, “Yeah, just like me! People either love me or hate me. John and I are exactly alike.”

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Bolton was dealing with both the reality of the situation, but he was also dealing with Trump and the other individuals surrounding him. What he saw was that each had an agenda which they were quite willing to share with Trump's ear only. Bolton soon realized that there were many personal opinions that had nothing to do with the "good of the United States..."

There is chapter after chapter that proceeds through the months during which Bolton served as National Security Adviser. But I think that the Ukraine incident is, perhaps, the most outstanding in pure debacle:
  • It was issue upon which impeachment occurred. Bolton's comments on that are in the last chapter.
  • Trump had a personal agenda with Guiliani, et. al., carrying on a separate investigation under Trump's direct supervision.
  • Trump was attempting to blackmail the new president of the Ukraine by seeking a formal investigation on the family of his 2020 presidential opponent.
  • Congress had earlier committed money for Ukraine as they were working to create their independence from Russia.
  • Trump attempted to hold off sending that money to Ukraine until he got what he wanted. He finally approved submission just hours before the budget director would have been unable to legally send it at end of year.
  • The president of Ukraine spoke of his relief that he was not required to investigate per Trump's demands.
The above word phrases are mine; Bolton presented it, as he does for his entire book, in a topical breakdown of issue(s), what was happening, the individuals involved, the options, and the result. This format allowed what was not earlier provided. The view/ear of what was happening inside that White House room, and elsewhere.  Here's just a little of the "riff(s)" in a routine meeting...

(Trump noted)...it was cheaper to rebuild the World Trade Center than to fight in Afghanistan, inconveniently ignoring the loss of life in the 9/11 attacks, not just the cost of rebuilding. It also ignored the reality that a Trump withdrawal, followed by a terrorist attack, would be devastating politically. Dunford pressed on, saying our military pressure kept the terrorists from reconstituting and was like an insurance policy. He had no precise timetable in mind, but the Pentagon would allow the diplomatic reconciliation process to set the timing. I thought we were approaching dangerous ground here, again opening the question of whether we should be in Afghanistan at all. 
The discussion meandered around for a while, with Trump asking me why we were fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan but not Venezuela, which at least showed everyone else in the room what he really wanted to do. Following more chatter, Shanahan turned to the cost reductions that maintaining the counter-terrorism capability would entail, but before he got too far, Trump broke in to complain about Congress’s refusal to fund the Mexico border wall. Then he was off: “Why can’t we just get out of Syria and Afghanistan? I never should have agreed to the other two hundred [in Syria], and it’s really four hundred anyway.” Dunford explained that other NATO countries would hopefully contribute to the multilateral observation force in Syria, and Trump responded, “We pay for NATO anyway,” which in turn produced another riff about Erdogan and what he was doing in Turkey. Then after literally forty-five seconds back on Afghanistan, Trump asked, “Why are we in Africa?” He soon made it clear he wanted out of Africa altogether, expounding for some time on our $22 trillion national debt, followed by the problems of our balance-of-trade deficits, followed by complaining, again, about how Nigeria received $1.5 billion annually in foreign aid, as he said the President of Nigeria had confirmed to him in an earlier visit...
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I was happy to have the opportunity to read Bolton's book. Although it is extremely complex and involved with all the issues facing the White House since Trump hired Bolton as National Security Adviser, it provides ample opportunity to "see the ending" of what was announced before it was even in the planning stage as Trump is prone to do. If you have an interest in knowing more of the picture, I consider this a must-read. And if you are still undecided about the November election, I consider this also a must-read. John Bolton has already announced that he will not be voting for Trump...


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JOHN BOLTON is the former National Security Advisor to President Donald Trump. He served as the United States Ambassador to the United Nations from 2005 to 2006. He has spent many years of his career in public service and held high-level positions in the Administrations of Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and George W. Bush. Ambassador Bolton is also an attorney, and was in private practice in Washington, DC, from 1974 to 2018, except when he was in government service. Ambassador Bolton was born in Baltimore in 1948. His first book was Surrender Is Not an Option. He graduated with a B.A., summa cum laude, from Yale College and received his J.D. from Yale Law School. He currently lives in Bethesda, Maryland.


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