The Journey of John Bolton: From Right-Wing Zealot to Rock of the Republic

Trump’s former national security advisor could be a key to proving the impeachment case against the president.

Former U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton
Former U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton speaks at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington on Sept. 30, 2019. Win McNamee/Getty Images

“Yes, John Bolton Really Is That Dangerous.” So read the headline of a New York Times editorial in March 2018, shortly after Bolton was named U.S. President Donald Trump’s national security advisor. The editorial took stock of the extreme views publicly advocated by the “fiery” Bolton  over the years, from urging preemptive strikes on Iran and North Korea to zealously insisting that “the United States can do what it wants without regard to international law.”

It may be a measure of how far off the scale of sanity Washington has gone that a man who was long demonized by both Democrats and mainstream Republicans as a right-wing zealot is today seen by some as a rock of integrity, one who could quite possibly save the republic.

What is most interesting, perhaps, is that Bolton himself hasn’t really changed. But under Trump, much of Washington has been altered beyond recognition, lurching into a never-never land of ethics where extorting dirt on political rivals from foreign leaders in exchange for security assistance is apparently accepted as a new normal, at least by the Republican Party.

Bolton is simply saying it is not a new normal, in his book. Literally in his book, since it was this revelation in the former national security advisor’s forthcoming book, The Room Where It Happened—as leaked to the Times over the weekend—that threw a giant wrench into Trump’s impeachment trial on Monday. 

After the newspaper revealed that Bolton has undercut one of the central planks of the president’s defense—writing in his book that Trump did indeed make military aid to Ukraine dependent on a commitment by that country to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden—the mood among Republicans shifted from ebullience over their sense that Democrats had failed to make their case to a new sobriety: Trump’s acquittal may not happen so swiftly after all.    

On Monday, Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, one of Capitol Hill’s last remaining Republican moderates, opened the door to a much longer and more politically damaging impeachment trial for Trump, telling reporters it’s “increasingly likely” that enough Republican senators will now join Democratic demands for calling witnesses. His fellow Republican Sen. Susan Collins suggested something similar, saying that “reports about John Bolton’s book strengthen the case for witnesses and have prompted a number of conversations among my colleagues.” Sen. Angus King, an independent from Maine, later told National Public Radio that he now expected that five to 10 Republican senators would vote in favor of hearing from Bolton and other witnesses.

The trial, which resumed Monday with the president’s lawyers making their case for acquittal, had been expected to conclude as soon as this week, but that is looking far less likely now. 

To those who know Bolton well, it’s little surprise that he is playing the role of truth-teller. “I have not known John to lie. In my experience, he is tenacious but not mendacious,” said Reuel Marc Gerecht, a conservative former CIA officer and senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies who has known Bolton for many years. In an email to Foreign Policy, Gerecht noted the “wry” irony that “not that long ago, John would have been properly classified as on the ‘nationalist’ side of the foreign-policy establishment of the Republican Party—he was never a neo-con since he really didn’t care all that much about whether foreigners lived under tyranny or democracy; now, with Trump at the helm of the Republican Party, he is positively cosmopolitan.”

He added: “It is also wry that American liberals who would have, and did, casually damn John for a whole list of sins (most amusingly, and errantly, for being a neo-con), now praise him. I am certain John is enjoying this. He can appreciate irony and schadenfreude.” 

What Bolton may be enjoying less is that, in a consummate irony, he now finds himself lumped with the so-called deep state—the permanent government bureaucracy—he spent so much of his career as a militant libertarian opposing and ferociously deriding. Among his new enemies is Lou Dobbs, a Fox News host and Trump minion, who in a tweet called him a “Rejected Neocon” and described the revelation in Bolton’s book as the “Deep State’s Last Desperate Act.” 

Numerous witnesses in the impeachment trial, including former close aides to Bolton such as Fiona Hill, have testified that Bolton was appalled by Trump’s Ukraine policy, calling it a “drug deal.” 

What Bolton reportedly wrote in his book “actually makes sense in a way,” said Mark Lagon, a former official with the George W. Bush administration who worked with Bolton on United Nations issues. “Because however much of a bureaucratic fighter Bolton was, no matter how conservative his policy positions were, he is kind of someone who stands on principle,” 

Because of that stand, Bolton now finds himself the latest victim of the ongoing revilement of Trump witnesses by the White House and its allies. The president himself tweeted Monday that he “NEVER told John Bolton that the aid to Ukraine was tied to investigations into Democrats, including the Bidens. In fact, he never complained about this at the time of his very public termination. If John Bolton said this, it was only to sell a book.” 

But the Bolton revelations put the president’s defense lawyers in a sticky place. As they opened their arguments on Saturday, following three days of presentations of evidence by Democratic House managers, Trump’s lawyers said that one of the keystones of their defense would be that there is no direct evidence that Trump ever made explicit a link between withholding security assistance to Ukraine and a demand for an investigation into Biden.

Bolton may have somewhat changed that calculus. As the trial resumed on Monday, Trump’s attorney Jay Sekulow appeared to shift the focus from those earlier points to the issue of whether Trump was acting within his “constitutional authority, legal authority, and the national interest” to pressure on Ukraine over the issue of corruption. The Trump lawyers spent most of the rest of the day arguing that he was, and that nothing Trump did, whether it was an abuse of power or not, came close to rising to the level of an impeachable offense.

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh

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