The Room Where it Happened is the most important White House memoir yet to emerge from the Trump administration, in no small part because John Bolton is the most consequential conservative yet to leave the administration on bad terms. It will be challenging reading for Trump supporters, and not just the many who have rarely disagreed with Bolton about anything. It is a story of two good Americans who proved almost perfectly incompatible as teammates, each overly sensitive to the other’s flaws, and blind to his virtues.
Bolton served as national-security adviser to President Trump from April 2018 to September 2019, 17 tumultuous months that had him on the verge of resigning almost from the start. Bolton describes a White House in which the president “was not following any international grand strategy, or even a consistent trajectory. His thinking was like an archipelago of dots, . . . leaving the rest of us to discern — or create — policy.” It was, Bolton recounts, “like making and executing policy inside a pinball machine.”
The charge that Bolton has most consistently leveled against Trump in media appearances since the book’s controversial publication is that Trump makes foreign-policy decisions mostly on the basis of personal political considerations. But this misses the reasons that Trump supporters admire him — namely his patriotism and his convictions, the strength of which fuels both his inordinate self-confidence and his mistrust of the establishment. Presidential hubris may lead to a confusion of personal and national interests, with tragic results, but that is not the same as purposely abusing power for personal gain.
The criticism also misses the inherent vulnerability of democratic foreign policy, which is that elected officials are necessarily focused on the next election. With frequent changes in administration, democracies are prone to the “wild policy swings” Bolton accuses Trump of, and have trouble maintaining any sort of strategy. To overcome this weakness, it is vital to ensure some continuity of policy through institutions and processes such as the National Security Council system, which is designed precisely to help the president weigh the risks of various courses of action.
What Bolton should perhaps have stressed more in his media appearances — especially given the substance of the book — is not the excess of politics under Trump but the lack of strategy, without which it is almost impossible to have either a unified team of advisers or a coherent policy process. It is not a knock on Trump to point out that a president with no prior government experience and no background in history will be particularly dependent on the National Security Council, but Trump often seems to find the NSC more chafing than helpful.
One reason Trump’s base loves him is that he talks like a “real” person and not some staid establishment politician. But that entails a lot of off-the-cuff statements (or tweets) that are imprecise and ill considered. Those are easy enough to gloss over at a campaign rally, but in a diplomatic setting they are a recipe for disaster.
That was the tale of the Helsinki press conference with Russian president Vladimir Putin on July 16, 2018. Like Trump, Putin extemporized extensively. But Putin has spent his whole adult life in the national-security establishment of a country that has been both an autocracy and a world power since the days of Peter the Great and that has consistently produced diplomats of the highest caliber. “Putin struck me as totally in control, calm, self-confident,” writes Bolton. “He was totally knowledgeable on Moscow’s national-security priorities. I was not looking forward to leaving him alone in a room with Trump.”
The press conference went well enough until the end, when Trump answered a question about Russian meddling in American elections by assuming an almost impartial position between Russia and his own intelligence community: “I have confidence in both parties. . . . So I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.”
Bolton writes that he and then–chief of staff John Kelly, “sitting next to each other in the audience, were almost frozen to our seats by Trump’s answer,” adding: “It was obvious that major corrective action would be needed because of this self-inflicted wound, but what exactly that would be was far from evident.” Bolton often seems as if he was trying to guide an angry and largely heedless bull through a china shop without breaking anything really valuable, never sure whether he was making any difference.
But it emerges quite clearly in Bolton’s account that what Trump resorts to in the place of strategy is not so much personal political interests as instincts, particularly the strong convictions he has long held on certain issues. Perhaps at some level those convictions add up to a philosophy of foreign policy, but they unfortunately don’t form an integrated strategy.
The results can be harrowing. Bolton recounts how administration officials struggled with the
often conflicting array of Trump’s Syria priorities (withdraw, crush ISIS, protect the Kurds, decide how to handle At Tanf, don’t release the prisoners, keep the pressure on Iran). These were presidential outbursts, off-the-cuff comments, knee-jerk reactions, not a coherent, straight-line strategy, but bits and pieces we needed to thread our way through to get to a satisfactory outcome.
In the age of Trump, all the sacred cows of American foreign policy are subject to interrogation. What good is NATO? Why are we having these expensive military exercises with South Korea? Why are we still in the Middle East?
Bolton doesn’t claim many successes in this memoir. He usually seems delighted every time a disaster is avoided. But there have been important successes, such as getting NATO to take burden-sharing more seriously, and though Trump came perilously close to withdrawing from the alliance in a fit of pique, he ultimately reaffirmed America’s commitment to NATO.
Bolton was thankful that the North Korea talks did not end in disaster. Many believed that Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign had compelled North Korea to assume a more congenial disposition. Alas, what was more likely motivating North Korea was the opportunity it saw in Trump’s apparent ambivalence towards the U.S. alliance with South Korea, particularly his open hostility to joint military exercises. Kim Jong-un’s “love letters” to Trump, Bolton writes, seemed to have been “written by Pavlovians who knew exactly how to touch the nerves enhancing Trump’s self-esteem.” Bolton was aghast when Trump agreed to cancel the exercises temporarily in exchange for nothing on the nuclear front. But Trump eventually concluded that North Korea wasn’t serious after all, and — unlike Bill Clinton and George W. Bush — made no lasting concessions.
The Middle East is another area where major mistakes have been avoided and where Trump has managed to advance key U.S. interests. It is also where Trump’s lack of strategic perspective has been most troubling, and here Bolton has to face some difficult questions, too.
Automatic hostility to received wisdom can be counterproductive, particularly when the policy in question is both sound and a matter of long-standing bipartisan consensus. But sometimes the policy is terrible, as for example the establishment’s unshakable belief that if the U.S. moved its embassy to Jerusalem, the Arab world would explode, the Palestinians would launch another intifada, and the peace process would be doomed forever. Trump didn’t believe that, or didn’t care. And when we moved the embassy and nothing happened, Trump saw it as further evidence that he is always right, even when everyone disagrees with him.
As Bolton appreciates all too well, the most important set of problems the U.S. faces in the Middle East revolves around Iran. The killing of Qasem Soleimani, Iran’s most dangerous senior general, was rightly celebrated. But because it was not connected to any strategy of containment and deterrence, the one targeted strike was largely inconsequential. This is a prime example of where Trump’s strong convictions filled in for strategic thinking. Trump was provoked to retaliate by Iranian-orchestrated attacks against U.S. installations in Iraq that left Americans dead. A good strategist would think first to increase deterrence of further attacks on the installations by exacting a painful penalty, but Trump thought first to avenge those Americans who were killed.
On the other hand, attacks against our allies in the region, and even attacks against American military drones, the deterrence of which should be a strategic priority, produced no response. Now the Iranians know they can attack U.S. allies and military assets with impunity as long as they don’t kill Americans. A dangerous deterioration in American deterrence is now inevitable in the region, and not just there. China has reason to wonder whether it might not be able to shoot down U.S. military satellites with impunity.
As with the killing of Soleimani, Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal was largely applauded by conservatives, but the strategic benefits are likewise open to doubt. The deal was an unmitigated disaster, but withdrawing from it could not fully reverse its impacts, because Obama had given away so much up front. And once we restored sanctions, we naturally tied their removal to maximal demands that the mullahs would never agree to. In strategic effect, the basic demand of U.S. sanctions is now regime change.
Hence, withdrawing from the deal sets Iran and the United States on the course to military confrontation over Iran’s nuclear-weapons program. But is the United States committed to winning any such confrontation? Is Trump? If the answer is “No” or even “Don’t know,” then the net result of withdrawing from the deal could be to bring forward by several years the date of Iran’s emergence as a nuclear-weapons state.
I have long argued (in these pages and elsewhere) that stopping Iran’s nuclear program requires military action inside Iran, not just against nuclear facilities, and the sooner, the better. Bolton must be at least somewhat sympathetic to that position, but how many Americans agree with us? Our preferred foreign policy may come back in fashion one day, but it’s not exactly trendy now.
Bolton has carried the torch for conservative internationalism, at times almost alone among prominent Republicans. But as Colin Dueck has shown in several books over the last decade, the Republican foreign-policy mainstream now has a conservative nationalist orientation aligned much more with Trump’s convictions. That approach — the foreign policy of the Second Amendment voter — mixes support for robust defense with a high degree of ambivalence to foreign commitments. Can a grand strategy be formed out of this approach? Maybe, but none has been, and it’s not entirely clear that Bolton ever tried.
One of Bolton’s longest-held principles is democratic control of foreign policy. He has devoted a good part of his career to helping the presidents he served wrest control of foreign policy from the dug-in bureaucracies of the national-security establishment, particularly the State Department. Yet here we find Bolton in the midst of the North Korea negotiations, trying desperately to fend off a catastrophic mistake on Trump’s part, hoping that “we could prevent a total collapse of both our nuclear nonproliferation strategy and our conventional deterrence strategy.”
But who is “we” in that sentence? Time and again, Bolton describes his efforts to defend “our interests,” “our policy,” “our strategy” from potential presidential mistakes, but whom does “our” refer to? Isn’t this exactly what he has always slammed the foreign-policy establishment for doing?
These questions have plausible answers. The nation has objectively vital interests. Many of them — such as defending freedom of the seas, preventing nuclear proliferation, and maintaining “structures of deterrence” through regional alliances — are enshrined in our institutions and our laws. Others are more controversial and malleable, and here is where advisers can be tempted to substitute their own preferences for the president’s.
The key question is whether those advisers are trying to convince the president to see things their way or are actively thwarting him. Bolton pursued the former course and avoided the latter one, until he felt he could no longer serve the president loyally, and then he resigned. That was the honorable thing to do, in keeping with a long career of exemplary public service.
Some of what Bolton reveals about Trump is very troubling. Trump’s willingness to quash major U.S. criminal investigations into certain Chinese and Turkish companies, as a favor to those countries’ leaders, shows Trump at his most careless, veering dangerously close to both obstruction of justice and confusion of personal and national interests. But such examples of “policy by personal whim and impulse” are less evidence of corrupt intent than of Trump’s supreme confidence in his own judgment, including his ethical judgment, and insufficient confidence in that of his advisers.
Trump is at his best when he trusts his administration — its people and its processes. Domestic policy, for example, has been far more carefully coordinated — and successful. His speeches in formal settings, such as the recent speech at Mount Rushmore, are the products of a formal process and have been consistently superlative. Bolton’s book is ultimately a lament that Trump didn’t trust his national-security team more.
Some have accused Bolton of betraying the president by publishing this book while Trump is still in office. The Room Where It Happened is quite similar in this and other respects to Robert Gates’s memoir Duty, which was released shortly after Gates left his post as Obama’s first secretary of defense. Gates was also very critical of the president he served, and conservatives were thankful.
Far more than Gates, Bolton reveals comments critical of the president made to him in confidence by other Trump officials, some of whom are still in the administration. The quotes are presented as verbatim, but Bolton has denied that he took notes, and any such notes would be government property in any case, so the quotes must be presumed to be approximations. These are often gratuitous and seem calculated less to inform the reader than to cause conflict between Trump and those officials he is still on passably good terms with. They detract further from a book already tinged with vindictive purpose, however fascinating and illuminating it might be.
Bolton has said that he will not vote for Trump in the next election; nor will he vote for a Democrat. But his memoir will make the election of a Democrat at least slightly more likely. On the other hand, what can a president expect who habitually insults his own cabinet officials on their way out the door? Trump makes it needlessly difficult for his supporters to defend him. Now there’s at least one thing he and John Bolton have in common.
This article appears as “A Bad Match” in the July 27, 2020, print edition of National Review.
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