By Stump Connolly

 

While the book world titters over Mary Trump’s “Too Much and Never Enough,” about her Uncle Donald, I’ve been spending my time in John Bolton’s memoir of his tenure as President Trump’s National Security Advisor.

Her account of the president’s dysfunctional family offers plenty of detail on how Trump became a megalomaniac, but in the end her conclusion is little more than what Ted Cruz told us four years ago. Donald Trump is an amoral, narcissistic, pathological liar (and a bully to boot).

Bolton’s book shows us how that played out in the White House. For 14 months, Bolton was in “The Room Where It Happened” when Trump made critical decisions about North Korea, Russia, Syria, Turkey, NATO, China, Cuba, Venezuela, Afghanistan, Iran, and Ukraine. A familiar figure in conservative circles for his commentaries on Fox News, he knew his way around the corridors of power – and most of the players he would be dealing with.

He was a foreign policy hawk. Everybody knew that. But they also knew he had a sharp mind and was a prodigious notetaker, a trait that works to the advantage and disadvantage of the reader in this 500-page memoir because he writes as if he is transcribing history for posterity – day by day, sometimes hour-by-hour.

But there’s enough meat in the detail to give us a fascinating look at how President Trump conducts the nation’s business. In a nutshell, Bolton concludes, “I am hard pressed to identify any significant Trump decision during my tenure that wasn’t driven by re-election calculations.”

“He second-guessed people’s motives, saw conspiracies behind rocks, and remained stunningly uninformed on how to run the White House, let along the huge federal government. He believed he could run the Executive Branch and establish national security policies on instinct, relying on personal relationships with foreign leaders, and with made-for-television showmanship always top of mind.”

First Crisis

When Bolton entered the White House in April 2018, his first crisis was already brewing. Over the weekend, Syria’s Bashar Assad had used chemical weapons on civilians in Douma, and the President immediately tweeted: “Many dead, including women and children, in mindless CHEMICAL attack in Syria . . . Russia and Iran are responsible for backing Animal Assad. Big price to pay.”

Bolton’s job on day one was to present the President with options for a response. Britain and France wanted a joint retaliatory attack, with targets ranging from (high risk) Syria’s five major military airfields and/or Assad’s palace to (low risk) the factories and labs where the U.S. suspected the weapons were being made.

The heads of the intelligence agencies, key cabinet members and the President gathered for a meeting of the National Security Council Principal’s Committee. “We had to consider not just the immediate response but what Syria, Russia and Iran might do next,” Bolton writes, but Trump’s presence wasn’t helpful. “He wasn’t clear about what he wanted, jumping randomly from one question to another, and generally frustrating efforts to have a coherent discussion about the consequences.”

By Thursday night, they had a plan. A limited attack on the chemical plants set for 5 PM Friday. The next morning, Bolton got a call from John Kelly, the President’s Chief of Staff. Trump wanted to go over the strike package again.

“I don’t love the targets,” Trump said. “It could be criticized as doing nothing.” What if he just tweeted out that we planned to attack, then didn’t? And let Assad know he was going to “keep my finger on the trigger.”

Bolton couldn’t believe that after working out all the logistics for times, munitions, launch bases, and targets for three nations Trump wanted to change the plan.

“We’re knocking out nothing,” the President went on, making the same point Bolton had argued (unsuccessfully) in the NSC meetings. Then he asked why Germany wasn’t contributing to the strike, and why was Germany building an oil pipeline to Russia. He rambled on, then relented.

“We’ll take that as a go order,” Kelly said, closing off any further detours. The attack went off without a hitch. When Bolton told Kelly the whole process seemed fruitless, he shrugged, “You’re going to be very frustrated in this job.”

A Chaotic Process

When Bolton worked for President George H.W. Bush, the National Security Council ran like clockwork. Every night, the staff would sift through intelligence reports from 17 difference agencies and put the most pressing into a Presidential Daily Briefing (PDB) that could run as long as 60 pages. (President Obama read it every morning.)

President Bush’s daily briefing would start promptly at 8 AM. The first 15 minutes consisted of the CIA director presenting the highlights, followed by a 30-minute discussion of the most pressing issues, then another 45-minute private meeting between Bush and his NSC advisor Brent Scowcroft.

President Trump, by contrast, likes to start his day with “Executive Time” in the residence until about 11 AM when he makes calls to friends and advisors and watches TV. He’s cut back his intelligence briefings to twice a week. And if you think he reads the PDF, you’re dreaming. He never reads it, or much of anything, including emails from top advisors.

McMaster tried to get around his aversion to reading by putting the most significant topics into a PowerPoint. (Trump particularly liked it when they had satellite spy cam footage.) Bolton tried switching out the presenter until he found a woman whose deference seemed to please Trump. But it really didn’t matter because, in most meetings, Trump liked to do all the talking.

Trump is a people person. He likes having “his guys” around, and he doesn’t really care whether they are in a room or on the phone. He’ll call them at all hours, either from the residence or a small dining room down the hall from the Oval Office, with a wide screen television on the wall opposite his chair, usually turned to Fox News.

“He spent a disproportionate share of his time watching his administration being covered in the press,” Bolton writes, and it didn’t make Bolton’s job any easier. “It is difficult beyond description to pursue a complex policy in a contentious part of the world when the policy is subject to instant modification based on the boss’s perception of how inaccurate and often-already-outdated information is reported by writers who don’t have the Administration’s best interests at heart. It was like making and executing policy inside a pinball machine.”

The Singapore Summit

When Bolton first interviewed for a job in the President-elect’s new administration, Trump asked him what he would do about North Korea. If he had his druthers, everyone in town knew Bolton would bomb them back into the Stone Age, and pave over the remains in hard concrete. But he was more measured with Trump. He explained how a preemptive strike against North Korea’s nuclear program might work; how conventional bombs might disable the artillery along the DMZ before they did significant damage to nearby Seoul; and why the only other alternatives were regime change or reunification with South Korea. But time to make the decision was running out.

“What do you think the chances of war with North Korea are? Trump asked. “50-50?”

It all depends on China, Bolton said. But 50-50 sounded right.

“Kelly agrees with you,” Trump said.

From his first days in office, Trump had been on the warpath against North Korea, at least in his Twitter feed. After Supreme Leader Kim Un Jong fired off a series of nuclear weapon tests, Trump promised they would be met with “Fire and Fury.” He called Kim “Rocketman” in a defiant speech at the UN, then, like a teenager, taunted Kim on Twitter that My Nuclear Button is bigger than Your Nuclear Button.

In February, inspired by North Korea’s first appearance at the 2018 Olympics in Seoul, Kim’s sister told the South Koreans hosts they’d welcome a chance to speak directly to the American President. Trump quickly accepted. “I’m a talker,” he’d say, “I like to talk.”

The summit was set for June 12 in Singapore. One of Bolton’s first jobs was to make it happen. His next job was to make it mean something. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was dispatched to Pyongyang to make preliminary arrangements. (By all rights, Bolton should have gone, but North Korea said his hawkish stance was not welcome.)

The official position of the United States was that the President would not attend unless the summit led to an agreement for “complete, verifiable and irreversible de-nuclearization” of the Korean peninsula. The North Koreans countered they would work toward de-nuclearization – without the complete, verifiable and irreversible part – in exchange for the U.S. lifting sanctions.

Pompeo was making no headway bridging the gap so, on May 24, Trump sent Kim a letter saying that the summit was off. The next day, it was back on.  A White House reporter called it “head-snapping diplomacy.” When Bolton asked Trump why he changed his mind, he said he didn’t want to “lose the momentum.”

“This is a big win here. If we make a deal it will be one of the greatest deals in history,” Trump said.

But Pompeo was making no headway on a formal agreement. So one morning, a frustrated Trump decided he would handle them himself. “Get the leader of the delegation on the phone,” he ordered. Soon enough he found himself speaking to a foreign service officer in Korea.

“I’m the one to sell this deal,” Trump told the startled aide, “You shouldn’t negotiate de-nuclearization, and you should tell them that.” But the North Koreans wouldn’t budge. There would be no agreement to sign at the summit. Trump wavered back and forth on whether to go, but finally made a decision. “I want to go. It will be great theater.”

Two days later, a North Korean diplomat delivered a “beautiful letter” from Kim to Trump at the White House. The President read it and passed it on to Bolton. “The letter was pure puffery, written probably by some clerk in North Korea’s agitprop bureau, but Trump loved it,” Bolton writes. The Singapore Summit was on.

 

Trump and Kim met for an hour. Trump told Kim that North Korea’s future was in foreign investment, not nuclear weapons. Watching video of recent ballistic missile tests, he said he saw a beautiful coastline that would make a great tourist resort. “Think of it from a real estate perspective,” he told Kim. “You could have the best hotels in the world right there.” And he capped off the meeting by showing the North Koreans a slick propaganda film that hinted if they became friends of America, North Korea could be the next Las Vegas.

After the one-on-one, their advisors joined them for lunch. The President and Kim jovially exchanged compliments and promises neither intended to keep.

“Kim congratulated himself for all that they had accomplished in just one hour, and Trump agreed that others couldn’t have done it. They both laughed,” Bolton writes. “Trump then pointed to Kim and said he was the only one that mattered. Kim agreed that he was doing things his way, and that he and Trump would get along.”

At one point, the comity was so thick Pompeo wrote something on a notepad and passed it over to Bolton. “He is so full of shit,” it read.

Knowing Trump wanted to sign something, Pompeo had drawn up a short statement for a signing ceremony, but the translators were having trouble resolving the language, so they had to wait. Trump handed out mints to the North Koreans (always selling). He gave Kim signed photos and news clips of the two of them. Trump and Kim then went for a walk in the hotel garden. This was the shot that played over and over again on television sets around the world. Great Theater.

On Air Force One, headed back home to America, Trump took to twitter to report in:

“Just landed––a long trip, but everybody can now feel much safer than the day I took office. There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea.”

Monopoly

Singapore was a prime example of Trump’s belief that, no matter what the situation, he could make a deal. To do that, he was ready to rattle sabers, call out the troops, threaten oil wells, exchange beautiful letters, dial sanctions up or down like a rheostat – “or, hell, just hand me the phone. I’ll call the guy myself.”

Trump approached world politics like every country was a piece of real estate on a Monopoly board. He knew all the best countries ­– China, Russia, India, Japan, Korea, some parts of Europe ­– but if you asked him how they came to be, he’d be hard pressed to give you their history. (And if he never heard of a country, well, it was probably a shithole anyway.)

He liked countries run by autocrats because then he could put a face on the place, or a nickname on its leader, and negotiate one on one, in private, relying on his grasp of the little things that get deals done. If Turkey’s Recep Erdogan wanted him to intervene in a New York case against its main financial institution, Halkbank, he’d see what he can do. If China’s Xi Jinping wanted to see criminal charges dropped against the CEO of its top telecom Huawei, he’d look into that. And if, conversely, he called the new president of Ukraine, he didn’t think it was out of line to ask him to “do me a favor” – investigate Joe Biden’s son.

In one discussion about Iran, he told Bolton that he was certain he could hammer out a new nuclear agreement if he could get President Hassan Rouhani alone in a room. That nuclear deal it took John Kerry nine months to negotiate? “I could get it done in a day,” he boasted.

The autocrat who fascinated Trump most was Vladimir Putin. He’d been trying to get to Putin for years. When he staged his Miss Universe contest in Moscow in 2013, he invited Putin to attend as a special guest. (Putin declined.) When he tried to build an apartment tower in Moscow in 2016, he offered Putin a $50 million apartment on the top floor to win his support.  Trump knew a slew of Russian oligarchs close to Putin. Many of them have purchased apartments in his Trump properties to launder money. Trump felt he knew Putin, he just hadn’t spent any private time with him.

But that was about to change.

NATO  

On July 9, Trump set out on a grueling week-long trip to the annual meeting of NATO in Brussels, then his first state visit to Britain, and finally, a summit with Putin in Helsinki. Bolton’s hoped-for scenario was that Trump would emerge from NATO unscathed, breeze through Britain, and who knew what would happen in Helsinki.

The President was on a roll when left, buoyed by good press over his new Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh – “The family is right out of central casting” – and loaded for bear. Without the burden of the “adults in the room” who kept Trump inside the guardrails of presidential propriety in his first year, he was determined to chart his own course. In this case, that meant threatening that the U.S. would pull out of NATO if other member nations didn’t pay their fair share.

His first meeting was a breakfast with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. But Stoltenberg couldn’t get a word in edgewise in the “tsunami of words” Trump dumped on him, Bolton writes. The President started out complaining that member contributions were a joke. The new $500 million NATO headquarters building was an extravagance. He was unhappy, very unhappy with the European Union. Its president Jean Claude Juncker was “a vicious man who hated the United States.”

In fact, everyone in NATO hates us, Trump went on. Our allies laugh behind our back when we’re not around. Ukraine is corrupt. Obama never should have let Russia take Crimea. And we’re supposed to start World War III over Macedonia, which doesn’t even pay its dues?

“This is getting pretty silly,” Mattis whispered to Bolton.

But Trump didn’t want any hard feelings, he said, so he concluded, “We’re with NATO one hundred percent.”

“Quite the breakfast. Could the day get worse? Bolton writes. “Yes.”

In his first bilateral, Angela Merkel asked Trump what he planned to say to Putin. He had no agenda, he replied. At his next meeting with Emmanuel Macron, the French president wanted to know what Trump’s endgame was in his trade wars with China and Europe. It didn’t matter, Trump answered. And on it went. The president was not in the mood to make friends.

The next morning, Bolton got a call from Trump. “Are you ready to play in the big leagues today?”

“This is what I want to say. We have great respect for NATO, but we’re being treated unfairly. By January 1, all nations must commit to two percent, and we will forgive arrears, or we will walk out, and not defend those who have not. So long as we are not getting along with Russia, we will not go into a NATO where NATO countries are paying billions to Russia. We’re out if they make the pipeline deal.”

Bolton hung up and tried to track down Pompeo and James Mattis, the Secretary of Defense. “He’s going to threaten to withdraw today,” Bolton said. They huddled to come up with a strategy to defuse the President. Maybe they could ward him off by reminding him that a NATO controversy now would be a distraction during the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings. Or get him to propose something more moderate, like a reduction in the U.S. contribution to the Common Fund from 22 to 15 percent, the same share as the Germans.

As the leaders gathered around the North Atlantic Council table, Trump motioned Bolton over. “Are we going to do it?” he asked. Bolton replied it was okay to castigate countries for not paying their fair share, but he shouldn’t threaten to walk out. “So, go up to the line, but don’t cross it,” Bolton warned.

That’s like taking a kid to the front door of Willie Wonka’s chocolate factory, then telling him not to go in. Since the President was winging it, Trump got all his thoughts out on the table in his usual jumble, but it was such a jumble that the other NATO leaders called an impromptu meeting afterwards to figure out what he meant. (And yes, he crossed the line.)

On Air Force One, Trump gave a positive spin to the day’s events in another tweet: “Great success at NATO! Billions of additional dollars paid by members since my election. Great spirit!”

London

This one should have been easy. A state dinner at Blenheim Palace, built to reward John Churchill, a distant relative of Winston, for his 1704 victory over France in the War of Spanish Succession; a visit to Sandhurst, Britain’s military academy, to review the troops; and an audience with the Queen at Windsor Castle.

But with Trump, there’s always a hitch. In Brussels, Trump had given an interview to a British tabloid basically trashing Theresa May’s Brexit strategy. When it appeared the next morning, the British press had their knickers in a twist.

Trump tamped down the uproar by telling them the U.S.-U.K. relationship was “the highest level of special” – whatever that is ­– and May graciously brushed it off. The ceremonies proceeded apace with a huge Baby Trump blimp hovering over his motorcade wherever he went. But Trump couldn’t go to the United Kingdom without stopping by his Turnberry golf resort in Scotland, so an extra day was added to the schedule for golf.

Helsinki

On the plane to Helsinki, Trump watched a soccer match on TV while Bolton tried to brief him on what he should say to Putin. The Mueller team had just indicted 12 Russian intelligence agents for meddling in the 2016 election, and many members of Congress wanted Trump to demand they be returned to stand trial in the United States.

Trump and Bolton both thought that was a bad idea, first because the U.S. and Russia didn’t have an extradition treaty, and second because the odds of it happening were infinitesimal.

Instead, Bolton suggested Trump say something like, “I’d love to have them come to the United States to prove their innocence.” Trump liked that but didn’t use it. Then Bolton came up with the idea Trump could hand Putin a piece of paper laying out all the U.S. objections to Russian interference so they wouldn’t have to talk about it. The White House counsel drew up the paper, but Trump didn’t use that either.

When Trump and Putin finally had their sit-down, they talked for almost two hours. Only the principals and interpreters were in the room. No one was allowed to take notes. But the U.S. interpreter later confirmed that Putin did 90 percent of the talking, “which was a switch,” Bolton writes.

Most of the conversation centered on Syria and Iran. Putin said he didn’t much care if the U.S. opted out of the Iran nuclear agreement, but Russia would stay in. He chided Trump that Americans weren’t doing enough business in Russia, and he praised Trump for his tough stance on Chinese trade issues. Finally, Trump raised the election meddling issue. But Putin had a curve ball ready.

Russia would put the intelligence agents on trial in Moscow, and Mueller investigators could participate. In return, Putin wanted the U.S. to extradite Bill Browder, an American businessman, to stand trial in Russia, also unlikely since Browder’s Russian attorney had already been arrested and murdered in prison.

At the press conference afterwards, Trump read a statement. Putin read a statement. Trump said he believed Russia didn’t have long range plans to control Syria. Putin admitted he wanted Trump to win the 2016 election “because he talked about bringing the U.S.-Russian relationship back to normal,” but he denied Russia tried to interfere in the election? They were almost out of the woods when an American reporter asked Trump whether he believed Putin’s denial.

“My people came to me–Dan Coats came to me and some others–they said they think it’s Russia,” Trump answered. “I have President Putin. He just said it’s not Russia. I will say this: I don’t see any reason why it would be, but I really do want to see the server. 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.”

Kelly and Bolton froze in their seats. This was going to require a little damage control. “Shock waves are rolling across Washington,” Dan Coats, the DNI director, told Bolton when he reached him by phone on Air Force One. He read Bolton a statement the intelligence community wanted to make defending its work. Bolton suggested some changes, but Coats insisted it be released as it, adding fuel to a fire Trump had been fanning for months. The Russia Investigation is a Hoax.

Immigration

About a month after he arrived in the White House, “Illegal immigration was a shambles,” Bolton writes. Trump’s vision of a “sea to shining sea” wall with Mexico remained unfunded. (Mexico did not step forward to pay for it.) All Trump had to show for his bluster was a small patch of land outside San Diego where eight prototype panels, each about 30 feet wide, baked in the desert sun.

Central American families fleeing gangs and poverty in the Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala were swelling the ranks of refugees at the southern border. Trump’s “zero tolerance” approach to enforcement required more detention facilities, and it wasn’t long before Homeland Security started separating children from adults, not keeping especially good records on who went where. Reporters, Congressional delegations, and immigration lawyers flocked to the border, filling the TV airwaves with unflattering images of kids in cages.

Bolton agreed to take a shot drafting a comprehensive immigration plan, but soon found out he wasn’t the only one Trump delegated. Son-in-law Jared Kushner was also on the case. When John Kelly left Homeland Security to become Trump’s chief of staff, he left the department in the hands of his assistant Kirstjen Nielsen, who Kushner believed was “not mentally able” to handle it.

Compounding the situation, just before the 2018 elections, Trump saw reports on Fox News that “caravans” of illegal aliens were approaching. In an Oval office meeting called to discuss the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, Kelly overheard Trump’s secretary say Kushner was calling to report on his conversation with the Mexican foreign minister.

“Why is Jared calling the Mexicans?” Kelly asked.

“Because I asked him to,” Trump replied. “How else are we going to stop the caravans?”

“Kirstjen is working on this,” Kelly bristled.

“None of you other geniuses have been able to stop the caravans,” Trump shot back. Kelly stared at him, then stormed out. The exchange was caught by news cameramen though an Oval Office window and reported as a shouting match.

“I’m out of here,” Kelly told Bolton outside the office. “I’ve commanded men in combat, and I’ve never had to put up with shit like that. What if we have a real crisis like 9/11 with the way he makes decisions?”

In the midst of the storm, Bolton handed Trump a single page summary of his immigration proposal. Trump read it, nodded his approval, then folded it and put it in his suit coat pocket. “And from my perspective, that’s where it stayed,” Bolton writes.

Ukraine

John Bolton took a lot of heat for not appearing before the House Impeachment Committee. He was, after all, in the room when Trump made the infamous telephone call to Ukraine’s new President Volodymyr Zelensky. He had the receipts. He knew Trump was holding back $250 million in military aid to Ukraine until Zelensky announced an investigation into Hunter Biden. They’d talked about it. He, Pompeo and Defense Secretary Mark Esper had tried “individually or collectively” at least eight times to get the money released.

But he didn’t want to appear before the committee because, in his mind, the politics of impeachment were so poisoned by partisanship his version of events wouldn’t have made a difference.

No House Republicans were likely vote for impeachment and, ultimately, it would take 67 Senators to impeach, at least 20 of them Republican. And he figured whatever insight he might be able to offer would have been swallowed up in the preening and posturing of Congressmen, Republican and Democrat, trying to take full advantage of their five minutes in the limelight. He was probably right.

So, in the briefest of briefs, this is what Bolton has to say in the book about Ukraine:

On March 25, 2019, President Trump called him to the Oval Office. “I found him in his small dining room with Rudy Giuliani and Jay Sekulow (another of his private attorneys), obviously enjoying discussing the reaction to Mueller’s report on his Russian investigation” he writes. Giuliani was there to report in on the latest news from Ukraine. The upstart TV comedian Zelensky had just topped the field in their presidential election and was headed to a resounding victory in the April 21 runoff.

Giuliani had somehow convinced himself that the Ukrainians, not the Russians, were the chief meddler in the American elections – on behalf of Hillary Clinton – and the evidence was on a hacked DNC server secreted away somewhere in the Ukraine.

Giuliani also thought it was pretty fishy that Hunter Biden, Joe Biden’s son, was getting $83,000 a month to sit on the board of the Ukrainian oil company Burisma, but he told Trump the U.S. ambassador Marie Yovanovitch was thwarting his efforts to find out more. “She’s been bad mouthing you,” Giuliani said, which was all Trump needed to hear.

Two days after Zelensky’s victory, Trump told Bolton he wanted Yovanovitch fired “no ifs, ands or buts.” (She was recalled May 7.) And he asked Bolton to get Giuliani a meeting with Zelensky. On June 25 – a month before the perfect phone call – Trump was talking with Bolton, who was in Israel at the time, and raised the idea he could withhold military aid until Giuliani got his meeting.

Giuliani was a pest in Bolton’s eyes, and a dangerous one, “a hand grenade who’s going to blow everybody up,” he told his assistant Fiona Hill.  By putting the unfounded idea in Trump’s head that Ukraine harbored secrets about his political opponent, Giuliani was now jeopardizing $250 million in military aid Congress had authorized for Ukraine to fight off Russian-back rebels in its eastern provinces. The money was earmarked for anti-tank weapons, sniper rifles, grenade launchers, night vision goggles, radar, electronic detection devices, and medical equipment. If the Trump administration didn’t spend it before September 30, the authorization would expire.

Trump didn’t particularly care. “I don’t want to have any fucking thing to do with Ukraine,” he told a delegation that had just returned from Zelensky’s inauguration. “They tried to fuck me. They’re corrupt. I’m not fucking with them.” Trump said he was willing to entertain Zelensky at the White House, but only if the new president told Trump how he planned to address Giuliani’s issues. “I want the fucking DNC server.”

The Trump-Zelensky call, Bolton says, was just another brick in the wall Giuliani was building to force an investigation into Biden. “The linkage of the military assistance with the Giuliani fantasies was already baked in,” Bolton writes.

On August 1, Bolton told Atty. Gen. William Barr his name had come up in the Trump-Zelensky phone call, and “someone had to rein Giuliani in before he got completely out of control.” Bolton also discussed how to get the Ukrainian aid released with Pompeo and acting Defense Secretary Mark Esper. “We could have confronted Trump directly, trying to refute the Giuliani theories and arguing that it was impermissible to leverage U.S governmental authorities for personal political gain,” he writes. “We could, and we almost certainly would have failed.”

Bolton had one more crack at resolving the Ukraine dilemma. He was scheduled to visit Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus, and Poland in late August to shore up their mutual defenses. The visit would end in Warsaw on September 1 at a ceremony commemorating the 80th anniversary of the German invasion of Poland, and both Trump and Zelensky were slated attend.

He flew to Kiev on August 26 to set the stage. Kurt Volker, the U.S. Ambassador to NATO greeted him with news Zelensky had no wish to get involved in U.S. politics. In meetings with other top advisors to Zelensky, Bolton soon realized they had their hands full with more pressing concerns like cleaning up their own internal corruption, reforming the military while in the midst of an armed conflict with Russia, and building a coalition in the new parliament.  Giuliani’s issues were the last thing on Zelensky’s mind. Trump would have to raise them in Warsaw.

Ukrainian military aid wasn’t the only foreign policy issue on Trump’s plate in August. While lower level budget officials were scurrying around Washington trying to get the military aid released despite White House objections, Pompeo had spent the last 10 months negotiating a treaty with the Taliban in Afghanistan that Trump wanted to sign at Camp David – the same week as 9/11.

Bolton called in from Warsaw to a National Security meeting on August 30 where the pact was being discussed. Pompeo argued for it, Bolton opposed it, and the debate got so intense that Trump was leaving the room before Bolton realized they hadn’t talked about Zelensky. “Wait, what about Ukraine?” Bolton yelled.

“I don’t give a shit about NATO,” Trump said. “I am ready to say, ‘If you don’t pay, we won’t defend them.” Trump suddenly wanted NATO to cough up the $250 million (“reflecting his continued lack of understanding what these funds were and how they came to be earmarked”) and argued that Ukraine is a wall between us and Russia, (“meaning, I think, a barrier to closer Moscow-Washington relations.”)

Because of Hurricane Dorian’s approach to Florida, Trump did not go to Warsaw, but sent Pence to in his stead. At a briefing in Warsaw, Bolton told Pence how impressed he was by Zelensky’s reform efforts, but he couldn’t stay for the Zelensky meeting. From reports later, Bolton heard that Zelensky “homed in on the security package. Pence danced around it, but the lack of a ‘yes, it’s definitely coming’ statement was impossible to hide.”

From Trump’s Doonbeg golf course in Ireland, where Pence stopped on his way back from Warsaw, he told Bolton he too was impressed by Zelensky. “Just between us girls,” Pence said, he thought Trump would authorize the aid package when he found the right news peg.

On Labor Day weekend, after press reports on the upcoming Camp David Taliban meet, Trump was forced to call off the  signing ceremony.  That Monday, he called Bolton to the Oval Office furious that press coverage of the cancellation made him look like a fool.

“A lot of people don’t like you,” Trump said. “They say you’re a leaker and not a team player.”

Bolton demurred. All Trump had to do, he said, was check his press notices to see he was not a press favorite.

“You have your own airplane!” Trump bellowed. “You’ve got all your own people down there,” he added, implying, as he often did, that Bolton’s staff was part of a “deep state” trying to sabotage him.

“If you want me to leave, I’ll leave,” Bolton responded.

“Let’s talk about it in the morning,” Trump said.

Bolton returned to his office. He pulled out a short resignation letter he’d written months ago, and asked his secretary put it on Trump’s desk. “And with that, I was a free man,” Bolton says.

The same day Bolton resigned, a complaint landed on the desk of House Intelligence Committee chairman Adam Schiff  from a White House whistleblower who charged that something was amiss in the Trump-Zelensky call. The next day, Trump released his hold on the Ukrainian military aid. He called the whistleblower letter “fake news.”

Trump De-Classified

There’s more in the book on Ukraine, China, Iran, the whole panoply of foreign affairs the United States conducts every day. For instance, I liked Bolton’s defense of the National Security Council’s early efforts to detect the Coronavirus in China. “The biosecurity team functioned exactly as it was supposed to. It was the chair behind the Resolute desk ­that was empty.” And I found it interesting that Trump thought it would be “cool” to invade Venezuela.

Tidbits of nuttiness lie in every corner of “The Room Where­ It Happened.” So it’s no wonder the Trump administration tried to stop its publication because it has classified material. “I consider every conversation with me, as president, classified,” Trump told reporters.  They’re not, but maybe they should be. The things that come out of Trump’s mouth are appalling, and in a world where your word is your bond, they make you realize this country is being held together right now by silly putty.

 


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