I sense we’re about to hear anti-Trumpers screech in unison: “WHY DIDN’T BOLTON TESTIFY TO ALL OF THIS IN NOVEMBER WHEN THE HOUSE IMPEACHMENT TEAM ASKED HIM TO?”
Not me, though. Nothing would have changed if Bolton had testified. The Senate’s acquittal would have been even more embarrassing than it was, sure. But no one would have voted differently. Public opinion wouldn’t have moved much, if at all.
This is who Trump is. There are many things that can be said about the details from Bolton’s book published this afternoon at the NYT and WaPo, and about the longer excerpt on Trump and China from his book published at the WSJ, but none of it is surprising.
I’ll quote a few bits but there’s no way to reprint all the newsworthy details here while remaining within the bounds of fair use. Read all three pieces, starting with the WSJ excerpt. There, Bolton describes how Trump’s pursuit of a trade deal with Beijing was motivated by the same thing as all of his other foreign-policy moves, which is simply getting reelected in 2020. “Trump commingled the personal and the national not just on trade questions but across the whole field of national security,” writes Bolton in an observation highly germane to the money-for-Biden-dirt quid pro quo that ended up getting Trump impeached. “I am hard-pressed to identify any significant Trump decision during my White House tenure that wasn’t driven by reelection calculations.” With respect to China, that meant trying to undo some of the more painful aspects of the trade war he’d launched, especially the economic consequences to plains states as Chinese demand for U.S. agricultural products dried up. According to Bolton, Trump was frank with Xi Jinping about the political consequences of that to him personally:
Trump said approvingly that there was great hostility to China among the Democrats. Trump then, stunningly, turned the conversation to the coming U.S. presidential election, alluding to China’s economic capability and pleading with Xi to ensure he’d win. He stressed the importance of farmers and increased Chinese purchases of soybeans and wheat in the electoral outcome. I would print Trump’s exact words, but the government’s prepublication review process has decided otherwise.
Trump naturally sought to woo Xi in other ways in order to make the trade deal happen, which he thought would boost the economy, which he in turn thought would ensure his reelection. In one case, says Bolton, that involved reversing penalties on the Chinese firm ZTE, in another case offering to intervene to ensure that Huawei wasn’t prosecuted even though the behavior of both firms implicates U.S. national security. (“These and innumerable other similar conversations with Trump formed a pattern of fundamentally unacceptable behavior that eroded the very legitimacy of the presidency.”) Sometimes Trump’s courtship of China involved symbolic gestures, like declining to mark the anniversary of Tiananmen Square or signaling privately that he wouldn’t defend Taiwan if conflict with China erupted.
But here’s the passage that’ll get the most attention from the media:
At the opening dinner of the Osaka G-20 meeting in June 2019, with only interpreters present, Xi had explained to Trump why he was basically building concentration camps in Xinjiang. According to our interpreter, Trump said that Xi should go ahead with building the camps, which Trump thought was exactly the right thing to do. The National Security Council’s top Asia staffer, Matthew Pottinger, told me that Trump said something very similar during his November 2017 trip to China.
Can he prove that Trump said that? No. Is it believable that the president might say? Oh, sure. But the things Trump says and the things his administration does aren’t always the same. Russia’s a good example. Despite his interest in detente with Putin and the disgusting display at their joint press conference in Helsinki, he did in fact end up sending military aid to Russia’s enemies in Ukraine under pressure from his aides. Same with China and its concentration camps: The feds have blacklisted multiple Chinese companies for human-rights violations against Uighurs in Xinjiang, whatever Trump may think of them personally. Whether the president supported that move or just didn’t care enough to resist it is unknown, but this strange duality between words and deeds has been a recurring theme of his presidency. When you pair a nationalist isolationist president with a fondness for dictators with a Republican bureaucracy composed mainly of hawks, neoconservatives, and internationalists, weird policy contradictions can result. Look no further than the fact that Trump chose Bolton, one of the most oustpoken hawks in the GOP, as his NSA.
Here’s Marco Rubio reminding us of the disjunction in a statement released this afternoon, no doubt in response to the Bolton excerpt:
Sounds like Rubio is pretty satisfied with Trump's performance on Uyghur Human Rights, based on this just out statement pic.twitter.com/HIUZBi7y67
— Benjy Sarlin (@BenjySarlin) June 17, 2020
Maybe all sides can settle on the proposition that what his administration does publicly is more important than what Trump says privately.
Strange policy contradictions can inhabit the person of Trump himself, not just his administration. WaPo notes in its story that Bolton claims Trump said at one point “I want to get out of everything,” referring to all U.S. deployments abroad. But on another occasion he supposedly said “invading Venezuela would be ‘cool’ and that the South American nation was ‘really part of the United States.’” Bolton describes him as being so prone to being charmed by sleazebags like Putin and Erdogan in phone calls that he had a meeting with Bill Barr about it, with Barr supposedly agreeing that the appearances were worrisome:
In one May 2019 phone call, for example, Russian President Vladimir Putin compared Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó to 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, part of what Bolton terms a “brilliant display of Soviet style proganda” to shore up support for Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro. Putin’s claims, Bolton writes, “largely persuaded Trump.”
In May 2018, Bolton says, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan handed Trump a memo claiming innocence for a Turkish firm under investigation by the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York for violating Iranian sanctions.
“Trump then told Erdogan he would take care of things, explaining that the Southern District prosecutors were not his people, but were Obama people, a problem that would be fixed when they were replaced by his people,” Bolton writes.
He also claims that Trump was interested in his summit with Kim Jong Un as a glorified publicity stunt, not meaningful diplomatic outreach, and that he somehow got bogged down in the fate of an Elton John “Rocket Man” CD which he had autographed for Kim and wanted Mike Pompeo to deliver personally. (That’s my favorite detail from today’s stories, with the president reportedly ranting privately about Pearl Harbor after his advisors started talking about our alliance with Japan a close second.) “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,” Bolton writes at one point.
And there’s this:
He also describes a summer 2019 meeting in New Jersey where Trump says journalists should be jailed so they have to divulge their sources: “These people should be executed. They are scumbags,” Trump said, according to Bolton’s account.
The most interesting detail of the Times’s account is how much contempt Bolton had for the House’s impeachment inquiry, which he thought wasn’t nearly searching enough given how many dubious things he had witnessed Trump do while conducting foreign policy. Why’d they stick to Ukraine when they could have explored his conversations with China, Russia, Turkey and so on, Bolton wonders? “The pattern looked like obstruction of justice as a way of life, which we couldn’t accept,” he says of Trump’s habit of doing “favors” for dictators by trying to get the DOJ and Commerce Department to back off of investigations. Which actually does make me want to screech, WHY DIDN’T BOLTON TESTIFY TO ALL OF THIS IN NOVEMBER WHEN THE HOUSE IMPEACHMENT TEAM ASKED HIM TO?
Granted, it wouldn’t have changed the outcome of the trial. But it would have put the Ukraine quid pro quo into a broader context that would have made Trump’s motives clearer.
Exit question: Were these really “favors” he was doing for the likes of Xi and Erdogan or were they “favors” in return for other “favors,” i.e. quid pro quos? “Favor” was the word Trump used when broaching the Burisma matter with Ukraine’s president in the transcript of their famous phone call. What did he get in return for his generosity towards the world’s strongmen?