Report

Beyond Ukraine Scandal, Bolton Says Trump Sought China’s Help for Reelection

The incident that led to the president’s impeachment was only part of a larger pattern, former national security advisor writes.

Then-National Security Adviser John Bolton listens to President Donald Trump speak at the White House.
National Security Advisor John Bolton listens to U.S. President Donald Trump at the White House in Washington on April 9, 2019. Alex Wong/Getty Images

The Ukraine scandal that sparked a political firestorm and monthslong impeachment investigation may not have been a one-off aberration but part of a larger pattern by which U.S. President Donald Trump adjusted foreign policy to help his reelection bid, according to new bombshell allegations from his previous national security advisor, John Bolton.

In a new tell-all book on his time serving in the Trump White House, Bolton alleges that the president asked his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, for his help in securing Trump’s reelection and supporting American farmers in swing states with favorable trade deals. 

This is among a raft of damaging allegations that Bolton has leveled against the president in a new Wall Street Journal op-ed and other reports based on advance copies of his forthcoming memoir, The Room Where It Happened, with Bolton coming out swinging against his former boss following a pitched legal battle with the White House over whether his book could be published in its current form. 

Bolton reportedly spends much of the 592-page book focused on his former boss’s perceived foreign-policy misdeeds. He said malfeasance in the White House included Trump’s willingness to cut short investigations into Turkey’s state-owned bank, Halkbank, and into China’s ZTE corporation to get into Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s and Xi’s good graces, according to early reviews of the book. According to Bolton, these moves were centered on securing his reelection. “I am hard-pressed to identify any significant Trump decision during my White House tenure that wasn’t driven by re-election calculations,” Bolton writes in the Journal op-ed. The former national security advisor’s level of alarm with Trump’s practices eventually caused him to seek a meeting with Attorney General Bill Barr, according to a copy of the book obtained by the New York Times

Some presidential historians suggested that Trump’s flagrant blending of U.S. policy with his personal political interests is without precedent in American history. “There have been corrupt presidents,” said Joseph Ellis, a historian who has won both a National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize for his work. “The Republicans tend to be corrupt about money, and the Democrats tend to be corrupt about sex. But Trump is unprecedented in the brazenness of his behavior.”  

In Bolton’s account, Trump pledged to help intervene in a federal court proceeding in New York to stop a probe into a state-owned Turkish bank accused of violating U.S. sanctions against Iran. “Trump then told Erdogan he would take care of things, explaining that the Southern District prosecutors were not his people, but were Obama people, a problem that would be fixed when they were replaced by his people,” Bolton wrote, according to the Washington Post.

Trump directly sought Xi’s help in winning reelection at a June 2019 meeting of the two leaders in Osaka, Japan, Bolton wrote in the Wall Street Journal op-ed. “Trump then, stunningly, turned the conversation to the coming U.S. presidential election, alluding to China’s economic capability and pleading with Xi to ensure he’d win,” said the former Trump national security advisor and veteran of three other Republican administrations. “He stressed the importance of farmers and increased Chinese purchases of soybeans and wheat in the electoral outcome. I would print Trump’s exact words, but the government’s prepublication review process has decided otherwise.” 

According to Bolton, Trump also allegedly endorsed Xi’s sweeping crackdown on ethnic Uighur minorities in the country’s Xinjiang province under the guise of a counterterrorism campaign. Over 1 million Uighurs are reportedly detained in concentration camps in a campaign that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has called “the stain of the century.”

“[W]ith only interpreters present, Xi had explained to Trump why he was basically building concentration camps in Xinjiang. According to our interpreter, Trump said that Xi should go ahead with building the camps, which Trump thought was exactly the right thing to do,” Bolton wrote in his Wall Street Journal piece, recounting an incident at the G-20 meeting in Osaka.

Trump had used the beginning of the meeting to make the case that there was “great hostility” toward China among Democrats, Bolton said. But Trump has also asked China to help him politically in public—calling on Beijing to investigate the family of his presidential reelection rival, former Vice President Joe Biden, during an October 2019 press conference on the White House’s South Lawn, based on business deals Biden’s son had struck in China. Trump’s earlier effort to pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky into investigating the Bidens by allegedly withholding U.S. aid formed the basis for his impeachment late last year. He was acquitted in February.  

In the book, Bolton is scornful of the House Democrats who impeached Trump over his behavior toward Ukraine, but he suggests that this is because they limited their inquiry to that controversy alone and tried to move too quickly for political reasons, according to an account in the New York Times. Bolton writes that the Democrats committed “impeachment malpractice” in part because they failed to look into other offenses such as Trump’s alleged effort to intervene in the probe into Turkey’s Halkbank and China’s ZTE.  

The revelations could give a fresh batch of political ammunition to Biden, Trump’s 2020 Democratic rival, whose surrogates have castigated the president as reckless and dangerous to American democracy. But it’s unclear if Bolton’s tell-all would turn more Republican allies or Trump’s die-hard base of fans against him, given their unwavering support for the president through past scandals.

Trump has zeroed in on China during his presidential campaign, portraying himself as the best leader to stand up to Beijing amid the coronavirus pandemic that originated in the Chinese city of Wuhan. “One nation deserves the blame: China,” a recent Trump campaign ad said. “They lied about it, covered it up.” The pro-Trump America First Action PAC has released a slew of ads targeting the Democratic candidate as “Beijing Biden” after making a $10 million ad buy in the hotly contested states of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, all of which Trump won in 2016.  

The White House has tried to block the publication of Bolton’s book, saying it includes classified information that should not be disclosed publicly. “This book is full of classified information, which is inexcusable. Former National Security Advisor John Bolton should know all too well that it’s unacceptable to have highly classified information from the government of the United States in a book that will be published,” White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany told reporters on Wednesday.

Bolton’s lawyers and publishers have shot back, saying such claims are unfounded and detailing multiple rounds of clearance reviews Bolton went through with the White House to scrub classified information. They argue that Trump is using the excuse simply to block the publication of an unflattering book. The new revelations set up a new phase in the legal battle between the former national security advisor and White House; Trump has said Bolton should face “criminal problems” for disclosing classified information, and he asserted that “any conversation with me is classified.”

Bolton is the latest in a string of former senior Trump officials who have spoken out against the president. “Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people—does not even pretend to try. Instead, he tries to divide us,” former Defense Secretary James Mattis said in a statement to Foreign Policy and other news outlets. 

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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