I didn’t enjoy my weekend with John Bolton. His new book, The Room Where It Happened, is blunt, partisan, thorough, and unpleasant — much like the man. Bolton’s righteous arrogance oozes in nearly ever sentence. His contempt for anyone who doesn’t share his reactionary world view is profound and on full display.
Though the average reader’s eyes will glaze over at his exact and, at times, excruciatingly detailed recounting of this or that summit, historians and foreign policy wonks will certainly welcome the pulling back of the White House drapes. Bolton memorably reveals not so much a team of rivals, but a nest of snakes, with, news flash, a completely unfit president who is bumbling, dangerously erratic and willfully ignorant.
Bolton’s scorn for Trump is so intense and visceral, that it’s hard to understand how he lasted even 17 months in the administration. The former National Security Advisor writes that Trump’s mind followed “no constant trajectory” and was like “an archipelago of dots.” This epiphany came to Bolton in 2018, but you didn’t have to work in the White House to have such a blazing insight. When Bolton joined the team, Trump’s lack of focus and erratic behavior were no mystery, anyone on the outside had ample opportunity to see all his flaws. So why did Bolton sign up?
The short answer is power. For Bolton, the position of National Security Advisor was a means to his end and he says as much. “America faced a very dangerous international environment and I thought I knew what needed to be done.” Bolton always knows what needs to be done. He’s such a monstrous stuffed shirt with a love of making life-and-death decisions. At no point in the course of 494 pages does he pause to express a moment of self-doubt or reflection. He’s always right and the smartest guy in the room — according to him, anyway.
Bolton, a paleoconservative hawk, was a protégé of the racist Sen. Jesse Helms; during the Reagan/Bush/Bush years, he was one of leading proponents of expanding the American empire. (See the Iraq War for how his grand ideas work out and continue to haunt the country.) Bolton was America First back when Trump was opening his first failed casino. But their brands of nationalism could not be more different. Bolton is an elitist Swamp creature, Trump a populist demagogue. Incidentally, both dodged service in Vietnam.
There’s a telling passage midway through the book. In 2018, Trump was growing increasingly angry about Americas endless war in Afghanistan. “It’s a horror show. At some point, we’ve got to get out,” the president says to Gen. Mattis, Chief of staff John Kelly, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Bolton and others in the Oval office. “People are angry. The base wants out.” The cabinet pushes back with Pompeo talking about not achieving “victory.” Trump answers, “That’s Vietnam…We don’t want this to be our war. Even if we did win, we get nothing.”
That Trump is a wildly unfit-for-office narcissist is obvious, and it was obvious long before Bolton graced us with his tome. But it never even seems to occur to Bolton that, when it comes to discussing our forever wars, Trump has a point. Then again, decades of war is what Bolton signed up for and decades of war and body bags are what he will have. For America to maintain its pride of place, we apparently have to agree to be an occupying power all over the world in perpetuity. Any evidence or argument — or hundreds of thousands of deaths to the contrary — be damned.
Trump goes against foreign policy orthodoxy — sometimes at random, often for personal gain, and occasionally with tragic results. (That was especially the case of the post-Bolton Syria withdrawal that led to massacres of the Kurds by Turkish forces.) According to Bolton, Trump mostly views foreign policy through one lens: How will this help him get reelected. In this, Bolton is almost certainly correct. But while reading, you begin to wonder what the hell are these career political operatives doing serving in this administration for even a day?
The chaos and failures of the last four years has much to do with this lunatic and ill-matched alliance of the Republican establishment with the marauding outsider Trump. The GOP apparatchiks seeing in the president a vessel for their ambitions, yet sooner or later, all these people become irradiated by their proximity to Trump — either they debase themselves to appease the man or run afoul of his corrupt nature and penchant to try and bend reality to his suit his ego. Trump is as toxic a figure as we have ever seen in American politics.
Bolton’s book has all the juicy stories that have been broadcast to the world already but to spend time with the man’s thoughts is a truly miserable experience, even when you try to give him the benefit of the doubt. He spends a lot of time settling scores and recounting failures of others. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and Kushner are both dismissed as “Democrats;” General Mattis has a “high opinion of his own opinion.” (Bolton should really look in the mirror.) His ideological ally and frequent rival Pompeo, “didn’t care anymore, or never had;” and Nikki Haley is memorably as ambitious as “a free electron.” Bolton’s confidence in his infallibility is one of the things that led this reader to hurl the book across the floor, shout an expletive, and look for matches. Bolton would almost certainly be pleased by the result.
As he writes about his often-contentious relationship with the press. “I had put up with so much from the media over the years that I really didn’t care what their reaction was: by this point my scar tissue had scars. As the Duke of Wellington once said (perhaps apocryphally), my attitude was ‘Print and be damned.’” Indeed, since Bolton refused to reveal any of Trump’s malfeasance during the impeachment trial, for partisan reasons and books sales, history will likely damn him for his actions before, during, and after the Trump presidency.