Former White House national security adviser John Bolton defended his scathing critique of President Donald Trump as an “erratic” leader, willing to undercut American security to improve his reelection prospects, during a VOA interview on Wednesday.
“I think the way he makes decisions is dangerous,” Bolton told Greta Van Susteren, host of "Plugged in," a Voice of America television program that examines U.S. and foreign policy issues.
Compilation of lies
Bolton is promoting his new, highly controversial memoir, The Room Where It Happened, about his time in the Trump administration. In the book, Bolton, a longtime foreign policy hawk who left the White House in September after nearly 18 months as national security adviser, makes sweeping allegations of presidential misconduct and foreign policy failures.
The charges have drawn sharp rejoinders from the president and his top aides, who suggest that Bolton is bitter because the president rejected his hard-line policy recommendations. President Trump has called the book a “compilation of lies and made up stories,” while at the same time accusing Bolton of breaking the law by disclosing highly classified information.
In the interview, Bolton portrayed Trump as impulsive, incompetent, and too willing to make concessions to American adversaries, like Iran and North Korea, in order to boost his political standing.
“He is constantly on the verge of succumbing to the temptation to sit down with the ayatollahs, just as he wanted to sit down with Kim Jong Un,” he said, in referring to administration dealings with Iran and North Korea.
Bolton recounts disturbing conversations he said he witnessed, in which Trump asked Chinese President Xi Jinping's help to win reelection, expressed a willingness to halt criminal investigations to give "personal favors to dictators he liked,” and shifted from thinking it would be “cool” to invade Venezuela to praising Venezuela’s authoritarian leader Nicolas Maduro as “smart” and “tough.”
He also said he witnessed Trump pressure the president of Ukraine for damaging information on his political rivals at home, a charge that led to Trump’s impeachment trial earlier this year.
Many of the same allegations appear in Bolton’s book, which the Trump administration tried to prevent from being published. Last week a U.S. district court judge denied the administration’s request for an injunction, but the judge also stated that “Bolton's unilateral conduct raises grave national security concerns.”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in a statement, denounced Bolton as a “traitor” for spreading “fully-spun half-truths, and outright falsehoods” and “violating his sacred trust” with the American people.
In his book, Bolton claims Trump explicitly asked Chinese President Xi Jinping to help with his reelection effort by increasing Chinese imports of American agricultural products. He also said Trump condoned Xi’s plans to build prison camps for more than 1 million Uighurs and members of other largely Muslim minorities.
Peter Navarro, a chief White House trade negotiator, disputes Bolton’s assertion that Trump is soft on Xi and defends the president for imposing tariffs on China for unfair trade and human rights abuses in Hong Kong.
This month the Trump administration-imposed sanctions on selected Chinese officials for human rights violations associated with the mass incarceration of Chinese Uighurs.
Bolton also concurred with the charges at the heart of Trump’s impeachment trial earlier this year, that the president improperly sought help from Ukraine to boost his chances of reelection.
“The focus on the Ukraine had everything to do with damaging Trump's political opponents, both Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden. It had nothing to do with the issue of corruption in the Ukraine,” he said in the interview.
Trump was accused of withholding military aid to Ukraine in order to pressure the leadership in Kiev to dig up damaging information on his Democratic political rivals. The Republican majority Senate cleared Trump of the charges. Bolton defended his refusal to testify earlier, saying it would not have made a difference as the trial had become a highly partisan affair.
Underlying his criticism of Trump’s foreign policy shortcomings is Bolton’s uncompromising position that only intense economic pressure and military deterrence will force authoritarian leaders in countries like Iran, North Korea and Venezuela to change. But many in the foreign policy community disagree with this hard-line world view.
“John Bolton has been largely wrong throughout his career,” said Michael O'Hanlon, a foreign policy senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, adding that extremist regimes that are really forced into a corner do not usually completely capitulate.
Bolton opposed President Trump’s decision to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at the Singapore Summit in 2018. He also said Trump’s entire national security team was caught off guard when the president announced the U.S. would unilaterally halt joint military exercises with South Korea, in light of the North’s suspension of nuclear and missile tests.
In Singapore the two leaders reached a historic agreement on the eventual denuclearization of Korea. However, follow-up negotiations later became deadlocked and a second summit in Hanoi last year ended abruptly over Washington’s refusal to ease tough economic sanctions in exchange for Pyongyang’s promise to later make deep cuts to its nuclear program and stockpile.
On Iran, Bolton opposed a possible meeting between Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani that he said was under consideration in the White House, along with a proposal to ease Iranian sanctions to jump-start negotiations.
Bolton also argued against withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan after reaching a peace deal with the Taliban, and helped scuttle a high-level Taliban meeting with Trump at Camp David outside of Washington.
Too willing to compromise
While all American presidents use foreign policy achievements to shore up domestic political support, Bolton’s expressed concern is that Trump seems too willing to compromise on long-term national security priorities to be able claim a breakthrough diplomatic achievement.
Mark Simakovsky, a national security analyst at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, shares this concern.
“I think what sets President Trump apart from his predecessors is many of the decisions that he makes are not only driven by his own personal political interests, but they're emphatically stated in his interactions with leaders,” he said.
Bolton departed the White House last September, shortly after disagreeing with Trump’s decision to call off a planned airstrike on Iran in retaliation for the downing of an American surveillance drone. While Bolton said he resigned, Trump insists he was fired.
Bolton later endorsed Trump’s order in January to launch a drone strike that killed top Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, after attacks by Iranian-backed groups in Iraq killed a U.S. contractor and wounded four U.S. service members.