Are Americans supposed to be thankful to John Bolton, Donald Trump’s former belligerent national security adviser? It is tempting to say yes, because he files a memoir on the election year that provides a veritable arsenal of ammunition to the Democrats to launch the president between November 3 and November 3.
As the title suggests, The Room Where It Happened provides first-hand confirmation that everything Trump’s enemies have said about him is true, from the trivial to the grave. Trump is comically ignorant. At one point, he asked his chief of staff if Finland was part of Russia and, at a Checkers meeting with Theresa May, said he was surprised to learn that the United Kingdom is a nuclear power. The Trump Bolton described is useless and incompetent, directing a dysfunctional White House: a chapter is entitled “Chaos as a way of life”.
He is also disturbed. Trump has become obsessed with giving Elton John a Rocket Man CD to Kim Jong-un, even if it meant breaking US sanctions against North Korea. He thought “it would be” cool “to invade Venezuela”. He told staff that journalists who refused to reveal their sources should be imprisoned or executed.
The president’s fiercest critics are often accused of hyperbole or hysteria, accused of “Trump disturbance syndrome”. But this story, written not by an NPR liberal but by a Fox News hawk, confirms that we are right to talk about the wickedness of Donald Trump. Perhaps the most overwhelming of all of Bolton’s revelations is the President’s blessing on a truly appalling and continuing atrocity. At a G20 meeting in Osaka, Chinese Xi Jinping explained to Trump why his country “was essentially building concentration camps” in Xinjiang province for the internment of a million or more members of the Uighur minority largely Muslim. Bolton writes, “Trump said Xi should go ahead with building the camps, which he thought was exactly the right thing to do. “
Thanks to Bolton, we now have even more evidence that the impeachment trial against Trump earlier this year was solid – that he indeed, as the first impeachment article claims, abused his power for political ends. Bolton confirms the consideration that should have seen Trump removed from office, by which Trump refused to release $ 391 million in congressional security assistance for Ukraine unless and until the President’s this country promises to dig up or make dirt on Joe Biden.
In addition, Bolton makes it clear that Ukraine was not punctual. Urging foreign powers, including hostile ones, to intervene in U.S. domestic politics is a Trump habit. Bolton remembers how the president began “begging Xi to make sure he won” in November, urging China to buy more American soybeans and wheat to boost Trump in the major agricultural states. In return, Trump would lower trade prices on Chinese products.
Bolton has provided evidence that if Trump can pose as a strong man, he is a coward when faced with those he deems stronger. Bolton knew that Trump would not have the steel to confront Vladimir Putin in the face of Russian attempts to overthrow the US elections, so he set it out on a piece of paper: that way, Trump would only have to hand over Putin’s paper to record American objections. But Trump wouldn’t even do that.
Likewise, Bolton reveals that the President has promised to end the criminal proceedings against two companies, one Chinese and one Turkish, to appease Xi and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. It was “an obstruction of justice as a way of life,” writes Bolton, born of Trump’s penchant for “giving personal favors to the dictators he loved.”
Campaign announcements for Biden, currently leading Trump by 50% to 38% in battlefield states, almost write themselves. Some Democrats will be grateful. And yet to read Bolton’s book is to feel more and more furious – not against Trump, whose baseness and venality have been visible from the start, but at Bolton’s. If he knew all this, if he had seen it all up close, why had he not spoken earlier, when it could have made a difference?
The question is more acute in the context of impeachment. The Democrat-controlled House of Representatives asked Bolton, who had already left the White House at the time, to testify, but he refused. He wanted to be dragged to the witness table, forced to speak by a subpoena. It would have taken months of legal wrangling, the time that the Democrats calculated that they did not have (probably rightly so, as it turned out, given the coronavirus pandemic).
And so, without Bolton, the Democrats had to rely on second-hand witnesses, allowing Republicans to pretend that the dismissal case was based on hearsay. He said he would testify in the Senate if he voted to call him, but the Republican majority on this body would never let that happen. Bolton therefore kept his secrets, revealing them instead for a $ 2 million publishing contract.
Incredibly, Bolton’s cheek is critical of the Democrats for their mismanagement of impeachment, for failing to expose the broader picture of Trump’s corrupt behavior. Well, whose fault is it? He knew the extent of the problem better than anyone, but he did not speak up. Bolton complains that the firefighters never put out the fire next door when he refused to call 911.
In this, Bolton has good company. He stands alongside those senators who would not give up his testimony and all those Republicans who acted as Trump’s facilitators from day one. They pose and smooth like patriots, with the flag on their lapels and their constant invocations of national security, and yet, when the republic was faced with a danger unlike any in its history, they did not does their duty. John Bolton does not deserve the thanks of the Americans. He deserves their contempt.
• Jonathan Freedland is a Guardian columnist