What is John Bolton thinking?
The former national security adviser has indicated that he would testify in the Senate impeachment trial of President Trump if subpoenaed. Leaked passages from the manuscript of his forthcoming book indicate that, contrary to assertions by Mr. Trump and his defenders, the president unequivocally conditioned the release of foreign assistance to Ukraine on whether its government would investigate Democrats, including Joe and Hunter Biden, and furnish politically damaging information about them.
The revelations have bolstered the Democrats’ heretofore flagging case for calling witnesses in the trial — Mr. Bolton in particular — and produced fissures between the White House and congressional Republicans.
Mr. Bolton, an often vituperative and very hawkish conservative Republican, is ostensibly a political ally of Mr. Trump’s. It’s complicated, of course: Mr. Trump fired Mr. Bolton, reportedly because of the latter’s overly aggressive views regarding Iran; then again, Mr. Trump ordered the killing of Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani of Iran, a move that Mr. Bolton presumably supported. So Mr. Bolton’s motives for potentially undermining the president position may, at first blush, seem confusing. But there may be a method to the madness — four of them, in fact.
The first is patriotism. Although Mr. Bolton does hold extreme views about the use of American power, there is little doubt about his basic fealty to the United States constitutional system and to established American institutions. Having come of political age during the Cold War, he is a strong supporter of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and an opponent of Russia’s revanchism under President Vladimir Putin.
When Mr. Trump mused about withdrawing the United States from the NATO alliance in 2018, Mr. Bolton was reportedly distressed and rallied to keep it from happening. And, in questioning fellow Republican Jon Huntsman’s decision to serve as ambassador to China in President Barack Obama’s administration in 2011, Mr. Bolton said, “There is no patriotic obligation to help advance the career of a politician who is otherwise pursuing interests that are fundamentally antithetical to your values.” In other words, Mr. Trump’s frequent demeaning of the Atlantic alliance, his obtuse bromance with Putin, and his apparent acquiescence in Russian interference with the American electoral process may have persuaded Mr. Bolton to desert the president on principle.
Then there are his professional principles. Mr. Bolton, unlike Mr. Trump and some of the fiercest members of his inner circle, is a seasoned government professional with an informed respect for the institutional architecture and ethos of American foreign policy. Before becoming Mr. Trump’s national security adviser, Mr. Bolton served as acting ambassador to the United Nations, undersecretary of state, assistant secretary of state and assistant attorney general.
Mr. Bolton reportedly characterized Mr. Trump’s meddling with aid to Ukraine as a “drug deal” — a crude metaphor for actions that violate his sense of foreign policy professionalism. He also disdained the president’s circumvention of normal diplomatic channels by informally enlisting Rudolph Giuliani, his personal lawyer, whom Mr. Bolton called a “hand grenade who’s going to blow everybody up.” Separate from his sense of patriotic duty, Mr. Bolton may have felt that Mr. Trump had so demeaned the integrity of the foreign policy structure that something radical had to be done.
Well, maybe. Another explanation is personal indignation and greed. Mr. Bolton spent much of his career dreaming of the national security adviser job, and reportedly lobbied the president for it for years. And, of course, his book is due to come out March 17, and these revelations are sure to make it an instant best seller (a fact not lost on the president: Mr. Trump’s backers have predictably cast him as a “disgruntled” former employee, and Mr. Trump himself has accused him of merely trying to sell books).
Let’s not judge John Bolton too harshly, though. He lasted almost a year and a half in a job under a famously mercurial president, and toward the end was reportedly unhappy in it. And his book, for which he received a reported $2 million advance, didn’t need this revelation to make it a hot item or line his pockets. So while I’m sure Mr. Bolton doesn’t mind a taste of revenge and higher book sales, in all likelihood the two more honorable factors feature more heavily in Mr. Bolton’s decision-making.
But there’s one more motive: personal ambition. This is not a man known for his humility. Don’t forget that Mr. Bolton harbors presidential dreams; he came close to a run in 2015, and he maintains a political action committee, through which he doles out money to Republican politicians. And even if Mr. Bolton has let that particular dream die, it’s unlikely that he has hung up his government spurs — instead, he may judge that the Trump ship is sinking and figure that Mr. Bolton might as well accelerate the process and try to position himself for a post in the next administration.
That short-term calculation of Mr. Trump’s political fortunes may not be sound, and Mr. Bolton may be a ruthless pragmatist. But if he does end up further exposing Mr. Trump’s duplicity, in the fullness of time Mr. Bolton will end up, however fortuitously, on the right side of history. That’s a better legacy than he might have secured merely as the third of Mr. Trump’s four (and counting) embattled national security advisers. If nothing else, this week’s revelations show Mr. Bolton, even after being unceremoniously fired by his president, is still one of the cagiest political fighters in town.
Jonathan Stevenson is a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies and managing editor of Survival. He was the National Security Council director for political-military affairs, Middle East and North Africa, from 2011 to 2013.