When Donald Trump came to power many conservatives weren’t sure what to do. Trump agreed with them on some things but not everything, and while conservatives fancy themselves as natural outsiders, they weren’t sure if putting a reality TV star into the White House was a good idea.
John Bolton, Trump’s former National Security Advisor for 16 months, has written a compelling book that explains why it doesn’t work and why he had to resign, although Trump insists that he fired him first. The President calls him “a disgruntled boring old fool who only wanted to go to war.” Rumour has it, he also never liked his moustache.
Who was right, Trump or Bolton? Bolton is certainly the superior intellect. He’s a controversial figure on the US Right – a foreign policy hawk – and when Trump hired him, there was alarm and confusion. Trump had famously denounced the Iraq War and promised to pull out of the Middle East; Bolton backed Iraq and wanted to confront Iran and North Korea.
But Bolton is, like Henry Kissinger, a hybrid of an intellectual and a public servant, and insists that he actually went out of his way to put his own views aside and to be his master’s voice. He was appointed, one suspects, not for his philosophy but the fact that after several months of trying simply to ignore the Washington bureaucracy, the administration had realised it needed to co-opt and reform it, and Bolton – with years of experience under Reagan and Bush – knew how to get things done.
The problem, implies Bolton, was not having a boss he disagreed with but that boss being so dysfunctional that it was impossible to pursue a coherent agenda. Trump could be very rude, with no respect for rank; meetings resembled “college food fights”. He had a basic ignorance of the world (he allegedly asked if Finland was part of Russia) and although treaties can take years to negotiate, Trump believed he could solve all problems in a face-to-face meeting in a single day.
Members of his family – unelected and totally unqualified – allegedly conducted diplomacy on the country’s behalf; Bolton even claims that Trump asked China to help him win the next election. But far worse, if true, than any constitutional faux pas is the accusation that he said China was right to build concentration camps, or his reported disregard for democratic Taiwan. According to Bolton, he would point to the tip of his pencil and say “This is Taiwan”, then point to his desk and say, “This is China”. The President is apparently obsessed with size.
The limits of the Trump style were apparent in Singapore, at the 2018 meeting between the President and Kim Jong-un, leader of North Korea. Bolton is clearly an avid diarist and has kept detailed notes, and his intricate accounts of these tense, historical moments are absolutely fascinating to read. By sitting down with Kim, Trump assumed he had not only got the ball rolling on denuclearisation but already won world peace; Kim, however, played the President beautifully, first, by praising him and, then, by asking Trump what he thought of Kim, forcing the President to praise him in return.
Bolton, who had seen it all before thought it clever but predictable; Trump, who was new to this game, genuinely seems to have believed Kim liked him. Under the table, says our narrator, the Secretary of State passed Bolton a note that read “he is so full of s___”. As the months went by, and the North Koreans continued to misbehave, this verdict seems to have been validated.
Trump partisans insist Bolton is lying; by publishing with such candour, and it’s a wonderfully warts-and-all account, Bolton is effectively saying “bring it on.” More liberal critics, on the other hand, will demand to know why he didn’t resign earlier if Trump was so terrible, and as the book weaves its devastating narrative, one increasingly thinks there is no reasonable partisan case for backing Trump again in 2020.
Except that sometimes Trump emerges sympathetically from Bolton’s account, even if Bolton intends the opposite. The President was obsessed with saving money and making allies pay their fair share towards Western defence; isn’t that exactly what the taxpayers want? He wanted to withdraw from Afghanistan, and isn’t that what he was elected to do? He wanted to secure the Mexico border, and yet his own officials came up with half-baked plans: there’s a case for saying that if Trump didn’t have a clue how to make things happen, he wasn’t helped by staff members who undermined his agenda through volition or incompetence.
Finally, one of the key events over which Bolton eventually quit was Trump’s refusal to countenance a military assault on Iran. The Iranians had shot down an unmanned drone; the military presented a plan to hit their bases, which might have resulted in dozens of casualties. Trump said no. “I don’t like it,” Bolton recalls him stating. “They didn’t kill any of our people.”
For Bolton this was an unforgivable sign of weakness: “the most irrational thing I ever witnessed any president do.” Some readers might admire it. For all his faults, Trump has pursued peace and avoided body bags. He is a very human president, perhaps too human – but sometimes he can be surprisingly humane.
The Room Where It Happened by John Bolton is published by Simon & Schuster, at £25. To order your copy call 0844 871 1514 or visit the Telegraph Bookshop