John Bolton’s too-late book has produced a string of revelations that warrant headlines and outrage. President Donald Trump, in this account, encouraged Chinese President Xi Jinping to build concentration camps as part of China’s genocidal war on its Uighur population. Trump beseeched Xi to help him win reelection in 2020. He displayed brazen ignorance. (He didn’t know the United Kingdom is a nuclear power or that Finland is not part of Russia.) And he did indeed withhold military aid to pressure the Ukrainian president—for which he was impeached—to launch investigations to tar Joe Biden and promote a nutty conspiracy theory that holds that Ukraine, not Russia, hacked the 2016 presidential election. Receiving less attention than these made-for-Twitter disclosures is what Bolton says about Trump’s response to Vladimir Putin’s attack on that election. But this stuff is important, for here is yet another indication that Trump has no interest in thwarting a Kremlin assault on the current election.
According to Trump’s own top intelligence officials, Moscow is currently trying to intervene in the 2020 campaign. Both FBI Director Chris Wray and Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe have said so in congressional testimony, without providing details about the ongoing covert Russian efforts. So one obvious question is, what is Trump doing about this? The answer, per Bolton, is nothing.
In his book, Bolton does not go into great depth on this crucial matter. But Trump’s former national security adviser notes that Trump “willfully ignored or denied that Russia was meddling globally in US and many other elections.” This is the public posture Trump has taken since the 2016 election and through his years in the White House. He has downplayed or dismissed the Russian attack, even though the US intelligence community has concluded it occurred and was mounted by Vladimir Putin in part to help Trump win. (A recent Senate Intelligence Committee report cited an intelligence intercept of a communication from a Russian cyber-operative who described Election Night this way: “On November 9, 2016, a sleepless night was ahead of us. And when around 8 a.m. the most important result of our work arrived, we uncorked a tiny bottle of champagne…took one gulp each and looked into each other’s eyes…We uttered almost in unison: ‘We made America great.'”) Still, even in the privacy of the Oval Office, Trump would not discuss with his top national security aide the Russian intervention—or, worse, the prospect of a repeat performance.
“Trump believed that acknowledging Russia’s meddling in US politics, or in that of many other countries in Europe and elsewhere, would implicitly acknowledge that he had colluded with Russia in his 2016 campaign,” Bolton writes.
Trump has long yearned to remove the taint of Russian intervention—the asterisk—from his 2016 election. That is one reason that Trump, desperate to promote an alternative (and false) narrative, pushed the Ukrainians for that investigation—a blatant abuse of power that led to his impeachment. To clear this real stain, Trump has had to deny the basic reality: Putin mounted a successful campaign of information warfare against the United States.
Trump did this most famously during a joint press conference with Putin in Helsinki in July 2018. At this event, Trump appeared to back Putin’s we-didn’t-do-it disinformation and discount the findings of the US intelligence community. “I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today,” Trump said, adding that Putin “said it’s not Russia. I will say this. I don’t see any reason why it would be.”
This was a dramatic moment—a US president siding with a foreign adversary who had attacked the United States. In his book, Bolton recalls that he and John Kelly, then the White House chief of staff, “were almost frozen to our seats by Trump’s answer.” (Neither one quit over this.)
At this press conference, Trump rambled on about the conspiracy theory involving Ukraine, which held that Democratic Party computer servers had somehow been hidden in that country apparently to cover-up the real story that Ukraine or others had hacked the Democratic Party to somehow frame Russia and the Trump campaign. This bizarre, baseless Ukraine connection was an obsession of Trump. As Bolton notes, “It also became increasingly plain, not only to me but to others as well, including Fiona Hill, the NSC Senior Director for Europe and Russia, that Trump completely accepted [Rudy] Giuliani’s line that the ‘Russia collusion’ narrative…had been run through Ukraine. In other words, Trump was buying the idea that the Ukraine was actually responsible for carrying out Moscow’s efforts to hack US elections.”
That is, the president of the United States was delusional.
Prior to the Helsinki meeting, Bolton took a shot at nudging Trump to confront Putin’s aggression. He writes:
I gave Trump a paper I had asked the White House Counsel’s office to draft, laying out our objections to Russian election meddling. Trump made several changes to it, reflecting his general unease with the subject. It was precisely to deal with that unease that I asked for the paper. Trump could make the point of our intense opposition to election interference by handing Putin the paper, obviating the need for a long conversation. Ultimately, Trump decided not to use the document. He wanted me to raise election interference, which I said I would do in the scheduled working lunch, but obviously I wouldn’t be in the one-on-one with Putin he wanted so much.
Trump could not even hand Putin a piece of paper to defend the United States against Russia intervention. This was both a betrayal of the national interest and an abandonment of his obligations as commander in chief. Bolton confirms that Trump could not bring himself to challenge Putin: “Trump repeatedly objected to criticizing Russia and pressed us not to be so critical of Russia publicly.” And when the State Department did take steps, in accordance with legislation, to increase sanctions on Russia, Trump, Bolton says, wanted to rescind them.
There is much in Bolton’s book that is disturbing. This is information about the president that Bolton should have shared with the House impeachment investigators at the time of their probe. But he did not. And Republicans blocked him from testifying during the impeachment trial. Would all the Senate Republicans—except Mitt Romney—have been able to stand by Trump had Bolton testified that Trump did pressure Ukraine to initiate investigations to help his reelection, that Trump had given a green light to genocide in China, and that Trump had requested Chinese assistance for his 2020 campaign?
Overall, the book illuminates Trump’s foremost sin: He has repeatedly placed his own personal interests ahead of the national security of the United States. Bolton could not even have an honest and straightforward conversation with Trump about this. In one chilling passage, Bolton recounts that he not once spoke candidly with Trump regarding Putin: “He never offered an opinion [of Putin], at least in front of me. I never asked what Trump’s view was, perhaps afraid of what I might hear.”
When the national security adviser to the president cannot talk to the commander in chief about a paramount threat to the country, it is a sign that neither one of them should continue in their jobs.