White House, GOP on Bolton: "John the Backstabber" a disgruntled profiteer, or something

Thank goodness that Republicans and the White House have chosen to adopt a nuanced approach to John Bolton. As leaks from his upcoming memoir continue to reverberate politically, Bolton has become a political target for those seeking to pre-empt any damage from his potential upcoming testimony. They might have chosen to suggest that Bolton might be misremembering or that second-hand information might have confused him, but instead they’re going with the “John the Backstabber wants to profit off us” approach.

The nickname comes from Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s lead personal attorney and his Ukraine fixer, the Washington Post reports:

Rudolph W. Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, in a text message to The Washington Post said he regretted pushing Bolton for the position of national security adviser and said the president was always skeptical of Bolton. He said that Bolton “never once raised any objection to what I was doing in defending” the president, and accused him of acting cowardly.

“I never thought of him as not having the courage to deal with people man to man,” Giuliani said. “So I put him in the category of John the Backstabber.”

To be fair, Bolton apparently called Giuliani’s Ukraine machinations akin to a “drug deal,” but at least he did so privately. Bolton hasn’t said anything about the RNC — at least not so far — but they went on the attack yesterday as well. In an official statement, the RNC accused Bolton of putting profit above the truth in an attempt to wreak revenge over his abrupt termination last autumn:

The Republican National Committee blasted out talking points attacking Bolton — who has served in Republican administrations dating back to Ronald Reagan — in an email titled “That’s one way to boost book sales.”

“How convenient that this leaked info happened to be released at the same time preorders were made available for the book on Amazon,” read the Republican committee email. “What a joke.”

Remember, this is all necessary because of the strategic decision Trump made to deny that he had any personal interest in the Burisma probe from the beginning. Had Trump said, yes, Burisma was part of this pressure on aid but stuck to the argument that there wasn’t any crime involved in it, Bolton would be a footnote to this story. Andrew McCarthy’s argument on the failure of strategic thinking on denials applies here, too. There would be no necessity for trashing Bolton at this point, although they might have done so anyway for other reasons, as it’s all but certain that the book will paint Trump in an unfavorable light in other ways as well.

One has to wonder whether this might end up backfiring on Trump with some of his allies. Bolton has worked in Republican administrations going back to Reagan, as the Post notes, and has built up a lot of respect on the Right for his forthright-going-on-pugnacious attitude on foreign policy. He’s not an establishment hack, in current parlance; Bolton has spent most of the last four decades pushing back on a largely appeasement-oriented foreign policy establishment. He and Trump might have been a poor match on interventionism, but the two saw nearly eye to eye on the need to respond with force to provocations, and both hated Barack Obama’s Iran deal. Having built up a long reputation for fortitude and to some extent for honesty, many Republicans will have a serious problem playing along with a “John the Backstabber” narrative.

Or at least they should.

At any rate, who knows if Bolton engineered the leak at all? Politico calls this question the latest “whodunit frenzy” in Washington, with no one quite clear who leaked it. A better bet is that Bolton’s publisher leaked it rather than Bolton himself, or perhaps even the National Security Council:

“I take Bolton and his staff at their word that they did not leak the manuscript to the New York Times,” his former NSC chief of staff, Fred Fleitz, wrote in an op-ed published on “But I believe they are still responsible for this leak since Bolton’s explosive book was sent to the leak-prone National Security Council for a security review in December 2019 so the book could be published in the spring of 2020. It also is inexplicable how such a sensitive manuscript could be sent to the NSC in the middle of the impeachment process. Under such circumstances, a leak of the manuscript was all but certain.”

Others said Bolton was leery of getting crosswise with the GOP base, which has steadfastly backed Trump throughout the Ukraine scandal.

“It’s hard to imagine that he wants to assert himself at this moment in a controversial way,” said one person close to Bolton. “He still sees himself as this leader in the party, he wants to be a speaker and a player and it doesn’t seem like he wants to go to war with Trump and the entire base of the Republican Party. It doesn’t seem like that would make sense for him.”

That’s a bit of a reach too, though. Bolton had already asserted himself by volunteering to testify to the Senate ahead of the book’s release and proclaiming himself suddenly uninterested in executive privilege. One could theorize that Bolton engineered the leak when it became clear that the Senate GOP would oppose his testimony. In that sense, the leak was either amazingly coincidental or highly strategic.

That’s probably why the White House and GOP have decided on all-out PR war on Bolton. They’re not buying the coincidence argument. It’s still a risk, however, as Bolton’s standing in the party is still substantial — more so than Giuliani’s at the moment, anyway.

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