"It was all hot air": John Bolton's new book focuses largely on his own relevance — or lack thereof

The contents speak volumes about the author: Bolton dismisses media focus on palace intrigue while diving into it

By Igor Derysh

Managing Editor

Published June 29, 2020 5:00AM (EDT)

National Security Advisor John Bolton (R) listens to U.S. President Donald Trump talk to reporters during a meeting of his cabinet in the Cabinet Room at the White House (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
National Security Advisor John Bolton (R) listens to U.S. President Donald Trump talk to reporters during a meeting of his cabinet in the Cabinet Room at the White House (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had little faith in presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner's ability to negotiate Middle East peace before his plan was shot down by the Palestinians, according to former national security adviser John Bolton's new book.

Kushner ran point on the Middle East peace negotiations with a White House team led by a recent college graduate whose previous job was fetching his coffee. Kushner's heavily pro-Israel plan would have created a demilitarized Palestinian state while allowing Israel to take over Jerusalem and keep its settlements in the West Bank, which the international community largely considers to be illegal.

The plan was immediately rejected by the Palestinians, who were not even involved in negotiations. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas vowed to cut all ties with the U.S. and Israel in response to the proposal.

Though Netanyahu publicly praised the plan, he had little optimism that Kushner would succeed, according to Bolton's "The Room Where It Happened." Netanyahu, a longtime friend of Kushner's family who has known Jared since he was a child, expressed to Bolton that he was "dubious about assigning the task of bringing an end to the Israel-Palestinian conflict to Kushner." However, he kept quiet, because he did not want to anger the administration.

"He was enough of a politician not to oppose the idea publicly, but like much of the world, he wondered why Kushner thought he would succeed where the likes of [former Secretary of State Henry] Kissinger had failed," Bolton wrote.

Despite obvious questions over the 39-year-old real estate developer's ability to get big policy changes done, Trump has tasked Kushner with an ever-growing portfolio which also includes: overseeing the construction of his border wall, overhauling the Department of Veterans Affairs, leading trade talks with China and Mexico and ending the opioid crisis. Trump even suggested that Kushner "take over the immigration portfolio," though he demurred over his belief that the problems were "unfixable," Bolton added. 

Later in the book, Bolton wrote that Kushner and Ivanka Trump were behind efforts to replace Vice President Mike Pence with former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley on Trump's 2020 ticket. This was "not idle speculation," Bolton, who once held the same diplomatic position, said. 

Bolton also wrote that Trump issued a statement defending Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman after the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi to distract from Ivanka's personal email scandal.

The former national security adviser told ABC News last week that he viewed Kushner as the second most powerful person in the administration, behind only the president.

Many of the major revelations in the book have been extensively reported. In spite of refusing to testify in Trump's impeachment proceedings, Bolton wrote that Trump pressured Ukraine to help with his re-election and directly asked Chinese President Xi Jinping to help, too. Bolton also suggested that Democrats should have probed Trump's interference in cases related to China and Turkey in the course of their investigation.

Bolton's book does include a wide variety of insights about the chaos within the administration ,which would have shocked Washington had news outlets not been reporting on these incidents for years. The president has continued to dismiss negative coverage of his administration as "fake news" fed by "fake sources."

But, to paraphrase Bolton's repeated utterances in the book, the contents speak volumes about their writer. Bolton dismisses the media as too focused on palace intrigue while at the same time diving deep into palace intrigue himself, writing about the frequent comings and goings of new faces and their relationships. He repeatedly bashes the media while simultaneously obsessing over its coverage of him throughout the book.

Bolton clearly took copious notes during his time at the White House. Many of the chapters read like chronological diary entries, though much of it is focused on his own proximity to the decision-making process. He largely focuses on his own relevance or lack thereof, frequently complaining about instances in which he was left out while repeatedly quoting news coverage and tweets about himself.

After joining the administration, Bolton describes the rampant dysfunction surrounding Trump, backing many previous news reports.

"The differences between this presidency and previous ones I had served were stunning," he wrote. "What happened on one day on a particular issue often had little resemblance to what happened the next day, or the day after. Few seemed to realize it, care about it or have any interest in fixing it."

At intelligence briefings, Trump often "spoke at greater length than the briefers, often on matters completely unrelated to the subjects at hand."

Top aides constantly debated resigning rather than showing up to work another day.

"You can't imagine how desperate I am to get out of here," Bolton quoted then-White House chief of staff John Kelly as saying. "This is a bad place to work."

Kelly, who lost a son in Afghanistan, later grew emotional over Trump's rhetoric about the military. "Trump doesn't care what happens to these guys," Kelly said, according to Bolton. "He says it would be 'cool' to invade Venezuela."

Bolton described Trump railing about "how much he disliked" then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson after a contentious dinner the two had with Haley.

In Trump's retelling, Tillerson told Haley after an argument: "Don't ever talk to me that way again." Before Haley had a chance to respond, he said: "You're nothing but a c*nt, and don't ever forget it."

"In most administrations, that would have gotten Tillerson fired, so I wondered if he ever actually said it," Bolton wrote. "And if he hadn't, why did Trump tell me he had?"

Bolton was no fan of Haley himself, describing her as more focused on advancing her own presidential ambitions in her role over pursuing sought after policies by the administration.

Trump also had it out for then-Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, whom he apparently believed had undermined his policies and leaked information to the press.

"He's a liberal Democrat, you know that, don't you?" Trump asked Bolton about Mattis.

Bolton also described Trump playing world leaders like he does the media, blatantly making "incredulous" and "inaccurate" statements on calls to leaders such as Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

The president also frequently brought up the idea of armed conflict with Iran to his former adviser. 

"You tell Bibi that if he uses force, I will back him," Trump told Bolton, unprompted.

During another episode, "Trump asked Kelly if Finland was part of Russia," Bolton wrote.

He describes Trump's Russia policy as disjointed, frenetic and littered inexplicable decisions.  At one point, Bolton pressed the issue of election interference issue ahead of a meeting with the Russians. "He wanted me to raise election interference" with the Russians rather than bring it up himself, Bolton said.

The meeting was a disaster — Russian President Vladimir Putin told Trump what he wanted to hear. Putin fed Trump's conspiracy theories, claiming that longtime Russia foe Bill Browder had given former Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton's campaign and foundation "some $400 million that he had basically stolen from Russia," Bolton wrote.

"It was all hot air, but Trump was very excited about it," he added. "This seemed like a trap if there ever was one."

Bolton later described administration officials' stunned reaction to the "catastrophic" Helsinki meeting, where Trump backed Putin's claim about meddling over his own intelligence community. But, as in other cases, Trump's internal response mirrored his public statements.

"Surprised at the negative reaction," Trump claimed that he "had reviewed the press-conference transcript and decided that he had misspoken." He insisted that he had meant to say, "I don't see any reason why it would not be Russia" that did the meddling instead of "I don't see any reason why it would be Russia."

"Of course, that change alone did not eliminate the problem of his other statements accepting moral equivalence between Putin's view and our own intelligence community's view," Bolton wrote. "But for the press office people, Trump's making any kind of corrective statement was progress . . . This was hardly the way to do relations with Russia, and Putin had to be laughing uproariously at what he had gotten away with in Helsinki."

Trump later "objected to having any sanctions at all" in response to the chemical attack against a former Russian spy and his daughter in the U.K. and "wanted to rescind them" when they were announced. He later told Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to tell the Russians that "some bureaucrat" had published the sanctions — "a call that may or may not have ever taken place."

Trump also "stopped an anodyne statement criticizing Russia on the tenth anniversary its invasion of Georgia, a completely unforced error," Bolton wrote. However, his book noted that the statement would have had little effect: "Russia would have ignored it, but the Europeans noticed its absence."

Bolton does not delve deeply into Trump's motivations for his bizarre decisions related to Russia.

"Trump seemed to think that criticizing the policies and actions of foreign governments made it harder for him to have good personal relationships with their leaders," Bolton wrote. "This was a reflection of his difficulty in separating the personal from official reasons."

But Bolton grew conspiratorial over Trump's desire to push back on Russian sanctions.

"I wondered if this entire crisis was caused by Rand Paul's recent visit to Moscow . . . where the Russians doubtless stressed that they were very unhappy about the sanctions," Bolton wrote.

"This was ironic, with libertarian politicians like Paul so worried about the Kremlin's tender sensibilities," Bolton said in one of several passages targeting his archnemesis from Kentucky.

Bolton repeatedly took aim at Paul, who criticized his hiring as "the worst f*cking decision" Trump has made, according to the book.

In Bolton's telling, Trump's desire was to make him the secretary of state. However, the president told him he feared "that son of a b*tch Rand Paul will vote against you."

By Igor Derysh

Igor Derysh is Salon's managing editor. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald and Baltimore Sun.

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