Like a fool, I took on the errand of reading John Bolton’s controversial book, The Room Where It Happened, about his time in the Trump White House. I readily admit that I dislike Bolton and his strident approach to foreign policy, particularly for liberally advocating the use of the American war machine, and his continued insistence that somehow the Iraq War was just and correct, even after the rest of the war-supporting world has backed away from this disaster. Likewise I may vomit if I read more about the US interfering in other countries’ politics. The US should stop attempting force regime change in South America. It’s been a long, painful and resounding disaster every time — and the latest Venezuela nightmare, as Bolton recounts it, is no exception; it doesn’t matter if the regime is “illegitimate”, as Bolton claims. It’s not up to the US to make this decision and take action on it. Unfortunately this kind of action has marked US foreign and “defense” (if you could call it that) policy since the beginning.
An exercise in revealing the cognitive dissonance not just of one man but of the entire political process. About 100 pages in, Bolton criticizes Trump for taking Kim Jong-un at face value, highlighting Kim’s “ploy” of stating he had domestic hardliners to contend with… as if Bolton and so many Americans aren’t hardliners in the exact same mold, thinking they are “right and will prove it with might”.
What makes these deluded war criminals with long records of human rights abuses so sure they are right – and somehow the other is wrong? They are both players in the same destructive game. What is inherently morally superior about American military insanity? Sure, Kim Jong-un embodies lunacy – but Trump equals it and continues to get worse. Is the US and its leadership any safer or better, especially when, as Bolton himself argues, there is no one at all at any level of government who can rein in Trump’s most dangerous impulses? No – we have seen time and again that the system of checks and balances everyone relied upon to keep Trump (and previous leaders) in line is weak and elastic. A corrupt lunatic with the will to behave recklessly can (and does) manipulate these so-called checks and balances without consequence.
In this rambling, boastful, 500+-page “cover-my-ass tell-all” diary, in which Bolton attempts to take Trump to task and frame the US as “the good guys”, he does little more than paint himself and the revolving door of Trump appointees as accomplices who, at best, wanted to contribute to “righting the ship” but instead helped to cover up criminal malfeasance and foreign ties by veiling Trump’s activities as incompetence and delusion rather than the dangerous and self-serving profiteering they really are.
Furthermore, his rambling elevates the opinions (all in reported speech, so we don’t really know what was said, but much of it is used to praise himself) of people like Jared Kushner who have no qualifications whatsoever. Do we care if Kushner supposedly told Bolton, early on in Trump’s presidency, that he would have been so much better at running State than Rex Tillerson? Still, throughout the book, Bolton confirms multiple times what the American public has learned, watching helplessly from the sidelines: profoundly unqualified Kushner is doing a lot of stuff (staffing decisions of key personnel and cabinet-level positions, Middle East peace, the immigration debacle, China trade, coronavirus research and response, etc.) he has not been elected or appointed to do, and it’s been a disaster each time. Ivanka has also been extensively involved; Bolton cites Trump’s Tweets proclaiming that “Ivanka would be a great UN ambassador” — which would have been like jumping from frying pan (Nikki Haley) into fire (Ivanka).
It’s repetitive: on some pages he refers more than once to doing the same thing, e.g., “I was focused on Iran”. Yeah, we get it, buddy, you’re fucking obsessed with Iran. Where’s your editor?
It normalizes the aberrant: Despite highlighting the abnormality of everything about the administration, Bolton’s “revelations” are afterthoughts. During and even before his tenure, he witnessed and recognized the circus-ring environment he was entering. Bolton was either arrogant enough to think he could fix things or somehow wanted to take part in a grander-scale cover up to, for example, push through his own agenda hidden behind the constant stream of Trump scandal. He would not be the only one to mistakenly believe he could tame the deluded Trump puppet; many have misjudged Trump’s depth of depravity, his infantile behavior and toddler-like temper and attention span. But he’s also the worst kind of dogmatic political operator, who has opted to profit from sales of his book rather than comply with a House subpoena to testify in Trump’s impeachment hearings. (He has claimed he would have testified, if compelled, before the Senate. But that’s kind of stacking the deck, isn’t it?)
It attempts to write a biased and blindly hypocritical version of history: Bolton parrots the idea that Trump was “vindicated” on the charges of collusion, which is, in effect, untrue and a rewrite of history. Trump may not have been removed from office, but he was convicted of obstruction of justice and abuse of power and impeached. The lack of a smoking gun on collusion does not equal “vindication”. He may be perfectly correct that the impeachment was rushed and plagued by flaws that ultimately made it a failure. But Bolton’s own book outlines different charges that he should have, as a self-proclaimed “patriot” supposedly looking out for the nation’s best interests, disclosed and testified to. But what can one expect from a man whose book reads like someone alternating between sour grapes and a strange need for praise; Bolton reports repeatedly that he was ‘delighted’ when Trump listened to his advice; in a normal administration, this would be… normal. Not a moment of head patting and tail wagging.
In a section on China, which has its own bombshells, I marveled, shaking my head in disbelief at how Bolton could seriously write passages like the following without gagging on the hypocrisy: “We also spread awareness of how treacherous China’s Belt and Road Initiative was, based on “debt diplomacy,” luring countries with seemingly advantageous credit terms, then getting them hooked financially, from which Third World nations especially couldn’t extract themselves”
It raises questions; sometimes not the ones Bolton would want. Many times he refers to being sent classified documents to his home. Maybe these were sent and secured properly, but after the firestorm about Hillary Clinton’s emails and private servers raged (and continues to be reignited as a diversionary tactic), we’ve seen many members of the Trump administration flagrantly violating these security policies (Bolton himself refers to an Ivanka-related unsecured email issue) – and no one cares. (Let’s not even think about the secret and secure info people like Ivanka and Jared have access to without having been vetted properly or failing to be granted appropriate security clearances.) The chaos Bolton is careful to describe sets the backdrop for exactly the kind of conditions in which security is compromised without a second thought, whether or not he himself engaged in insecure communications.
It’s all a trumped-up dick-measuring and ass-kissing contest. Most of politics between would-be/wanna-be strongmen is about dick measuring and posturing. Bolton’s descriptions of and participation in these games says very little about the Trump administration and a whole lot about the unsophisticated nature of geopolitics. Leveling the term “peacenik” at as wide a swathe of people as Rand Paul and Ilhan Omar, there are very few things Bolton seems to disrespect more than people who prefer peace, or who simply aren’t warmongers first and foremost.
It’s also a portrait of the thankless job of shoveling elephant shit at a three-ring circus. Bolton and everyone else in the White House seems to have worked mostly toward chasing a rampaging elephant, cleaning up after the unabating daily messes the elephant makes.
If you’ve been paying attention at all, and haven’t drunk from the poisoned Trump Kool Aid well, no one reading Bolton’s book will be surprised by any of the “revelations” about things Trump has said or done. Bolton comes across as contemptuous, as one would, of Trump and his “policies” (which amount to little more than backroom deals and schemes that will work in his personal favor). We know this already. Instead, you have to question the gutless wonder of a man who chronicles the shitshow for fun, self-aggrandizement and profit. I come away from this wondering: If Bolton knew it was so dysfunctional before he worked in the administration, why did he join? If it was so terrible and impossible from the inside, why stay? He repeats his relief about moments when the infamously short presidential attention span prevents him from having to speak or voice his opinion (“a second bullet dodged”). If he was so essential and important – and Trump supposedly listened to him (that’s what the media – falsely? – reported about Bolton), why does he hide behind these moments of reprieve? And then why continue to protect this criminal administration, outright stating that “obstruction of justice appeared to be a way of life” for Trump, accusing the Congress of having too narrow an impeachment focus while having in hand — and concealing — damning evidence unless he sought a ringside seat to carry out his own quasi-treasonous act of self-importance at the expense of the entire country?