The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir
Welcome to the “Rashomon effect” in politics inside the Beltway! Akira Kurosawa’s 1951 film reveals the complexities of human nature as four people recount different versions of a man's murder and the rape of his wife.
As in Rashomon, we can now view the Trump presidency from many perspectives. The first is President Donald Trump’s evolving and often contradictory depiction of himself and his policies on Twitter, at rallies, and in press conferences.
Second, we have the observations of journalists who have interviewed Trump appointees and seen some of what happens inside the White House. Thus, we get a portrait of chaos in Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House by Martin Wolff and the far more adulatory Inside Trump’s White House: The Real Story of His Presidency by Doug Wead. Two other journalists have parsed Trump’s statements to produce A Very Stable Genius: Donald J. Trump's Testing of America by Philip Rucker and Carol D. Leonnig.
Until Bolton’s book, the closest we get to a tell-all by a high ranking insider is Holding the Line: Inside Trump's Pentagon With Secretary Mattis by Guy M. Snodgrass, an aide to Jim Mattis when he served as Secretary of Defense. Mattis himself was against publishing what you experience in office. His own book, Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead, stops just before he became Defense Secretary.
But now we have a tell-nearly-all book by John Bolton who worked in the West Wing as National Security Advisor from April 9, 2018, to September 10, 2019. Of course, each approach illustrates facets of the big picture, but none gives a definitive image of what really happened. Relying on any one of these approaches would leave you with a set of incomplete impressions. Indeed, a rounded history of any presidency requires waiting decades until many memoirs and declassified documents become available. One such memoir by Trump’s niece, Mary Trump, is Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World's Most Dangerous Man, is to be published by Simon & Schuster in late July.
Granted that Bolton’s account is self-serving and fragmentary, his memoir is valuable. Bolton shows the reader how one highly intelligent and experienced adviser to the president viewed hot spots around the globe—from China, Russia, and Iran to Venezuela. His description of debates within the administration gives clues as to how other officials saw these critical areas. In these respects, Bolton’s book performs a service for concerned citizens and policy analysts parallel to that of No Higher Honor: A Memoir of My Years in Washington by Condoleezza Rice.
Here are a few of the book’s revelations:
The president stooped to asking Chinese president Xi Jinping to buy U.S. crops so that American farmers would vote for Trump. The US president “stressed the importance of farmers and increased Chinese purchases of soybeans and wheat in the electoral outcome." When Xi said he wanted to work with Trump for six more years, Trump replied that people were saying that the two-term constitutional limit on presidents should be repealed for him, Xi said the US had too many elections, because he didn't want to switch away from Trump, who nodded approvingly.
Trump also told Xi that building internment camps for Uighurs was the “right thing to do.” This June 2020, however, Trump changed course and authorized sanctions against Chinese officials involved in the mass incarceration, prompting an angry response from China.
Trump pandered to other dictators besides Xi. For example, Trump offered help to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2018 in a US investigation into a Turkish bank over potential violations of Iranian sanctions. Trump agreed to "take care of things" and said the prosecutors involved were "Obama people." (Indeed, he tried in late June to fire the New York prosecutor, Geoffrey Berman, a long-time Republican, responsible for the Turkish investigation.)
Bolton opines that Democrats should have gone further with impeachment efforts. He backs up Democrats' allegations that President Trump wanted to withhold military aid to Ukraine to pressure its government into investigating his rival Joe Biden; however, Bolton says the Democrats committed "impeachment malpractice" by focusing on Ukraine. Had they broadened the investigation, more Americans would have been persuaded that Trump had committed "high crimes and misdemeanors." He gives a smarmy justification for not testifying to the House, which could have broadened the Democrats’ case, and the Senate wanted no witnesses.
Bolton says that intelligence briefings were not "terribly useful" since during most of them "Trump spoke at greater length than the briefers, often on matters completely unrelated to the subjects at hand.”
Trump seriously considered quitting NATO. He said the United States would not defend those who were not paying their fair share
Upset about President Nicolás Maduro, he suggested that invading Venezuela would be “cool.” Venezuela, he said, is ”really part of the United States.” Vladimir Putin deepened Trump’s dislike for Venezuela by comparing opposition-leader Juan Guaidó to 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. In an interview with ABC News, Bolton said “Putin thinks he can play him [Trump] like a fiddle."
Bolton's book contains several examples of White House officials mocking President Trump. Even Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is said have written a note to Bolton describing the president as “so full of shit.”
Bolton’s book casts a dark light on himself as well as on the president. Bolton reveals himself as an egotistical opportunist, one who is now breaking his pledge to keep quiet about what he observed or heard inside the White House. But the book suggests still another line of criticism—one targeted at the Republican Party. Granted that thoughtful moderates such as Mitt Romney and Condoleezza Rice exist in the top ranks of the GOP, the get-tough hard-liners within the party have often backed one crazy after another to shape US policies to the detriment of the country and the world. These self-styled realists include John Foster and Allen Dulles, Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, Michael Flynn, and John Bolton. Most of them were self-aggrandizers who adapted their personal self-seeking to US foreign policy. None had a constructive as well as realist outlook as did many Democrats from Dean Acheson to John Kerry.
While most of the hardline Republican leaders were well-read and knowledgeable about world affairs, Trump is not. Bolton’s book reveals that the president did not know that the United Kingdom possesses nuclear weapons. He asked if Finland is a “kind of satellite” of Russia. A president with little knowledge and no internal guide except his own whims could never be an effective leader of a world aspiring to be free. That a Republican base continues to back Trump even as he labors to free his former aides Flynn, Roger Stone, and Paul Manafort from prison is a terrifying commentary on America’s political culture.