Letters From an American

UPDATE: Can Trump Block Bolton’s Revelations? Judge Says No.

Can Trump block Bolton's Revelations?

2020's Must-Read Book

John Bolton by Gage Skidmore


June 20, 2020

U.S. judge declines to block release of book by former national security adviser John Bolton

June 17, 2020

The book by Trump’s former National Security Advisor John Bolton will not go on sale until June 23, but the material in it is already in the hands of the press. What its 592 pages say about the president is not exactly unexpected, but is damning nonetheless.

According to accounts by reporters who had access to the book early, Bolton shows a president who is so remarkably uninformed and impulsive that his own senior officials mock him. Bolton, who is famous for meticulous note taking, brings receipts. He details how Trump repeatedly sold out American interests in exchange for favors from foreign governments in the hope of getting reelected.

Bolton confirms that Trump directly connected the distribution of congressionally funded aid to Ukraine with the announcement of an investigation into presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and his son Hunter. This confirms the charge at the center of the House’s impeachment proceeding.

But, according to Bolton, Trump did not limit his bribery to Ukraine. The most dramatic leak about the book involves Trump’s request to Chinese leader Xi Jinping that China buy more American crops to help his chances of reelection in 2020. In exchange for a trade deal, Trump agreed with Xi that the way to handle the Muslim Uighur minority in western China was to concentrate more than a million of the Uighurs into camps, although American policy stood firmly against such repression. Trump told Xi that forcing them into camps was “exactly the right thing to do.” (Today, with Bolton’s book in the news and after Congress passed a bill imposing sanctions on China for its treatment of the Uighurs with only one “no” vote, Trump signed the bill).

Bolton wrote: “Trump commingled the personal and the national not just on trade questions but across the whole field of national security. I am hard-pressed to identify any significant Trump decision during my White House tenure that wasn’t driven by reelection calculations.”

Bolton goes on to attack House Democrats for mounting an incomplete and hasty impeachment of the president, saying that “These and innumerable other similar conversations with Trump formed a pattern of fundamentally unacceptable behavior that eroded the very legitimacy of the presidency. Had Democratic impeachment advocates not been so obsessed with their Ukraine blitzkrieg in 2019, had they taken the time to inquire more systematically about Trump’s behavior across his entire foreign policy, the impeachment outcome might well have been different.”

(Bolton, of course, did not testify before the House, saying he would not do so without a subpoena, but also that, even if subpoenaed, he would wait for a court to decide whether or not the House had a right to subpoena a presidential advisor. Foreseeing a long court battle, the House declined to pursue his testimony. He then offered to testify before the Senate, but Republican senators refused to hear any testimony against the president.)

So where does the Bolton book—at least the leaks we’ve seen so far—leave us?

It should surprise exactly no one that Trump would be willing to bribe a foreign official to help him get reelected: we had ample evidence that he did so with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky not a year ago. (As Ellen Weintraub, the head of the Federal Election Commission reiterated repeatedly in 2019: “It is illegal for any person to solicit, accept, or receive anything of value from a foreign national in connection with a U.S. election.”)

But Trump’s apparent desire to get along with Xi in hopes of a trade deal that would smooth the way for his reelection appears especially chilling in light of the fact that it might well have affected the administration’s response to the coronavirus that has now claimed at least 119,000 American lives—more than died in WWI.

In the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, on January 15, Trump and Xi inked a trade deal that, among other things, required China “to increase purchases of U.S. products by at least $200 billion over 2017 levels, split into two tranches: $76.7 billion in 2020 and $123.3 billion in 2021.”

At the same time, news of the coronavirus was spreading. Trump praised Xi’s handling of the virus and claimed it had been contained. On January 22, he tweeted: “One of the many great things about our just signed giant Trade Deal with China is that it will bring both the USA & China closer together in so many other ways. Terrific working with President Xi, a man who truly loves his country. Much more to come!” And on January 24, as the devastation of the novel coronavirus came clearer, he wrote: “China has been working very hard to contain the Coronavirus. The United States greatly appreciates their efforts and transparency. It will all work out well. In particular, on behalf of the American People, I want to thank President Xi!”

When the pandemic tanked the U.S. economy, the trade deal made less of a difference, and Trump’s close engagement with China just as the pandemic was breaking out suddenly became a liability that Biden was quick to hit. Trump turned on China, blaming it for the virus, and then took the US out of the World Health Organization, saying the WHO was responsible for the pandemic because it had been too willing to trust the Chinese.

But the trade deal remains, and for his part, U.S. Trade Representative Robert E. Lighthizer appeared before the House Ways and Means Committee today and said he expects China will, in fact, abide by it. He cited as evidence that China has recently bought $1 billion worth of U.S. cotton.

The White House is determined to stop Bolton’s information from getting to the public. The Department of Justice—which, according to its mission statement, is supposed to “enforce the law and defend the interests of the United States according to the law,” and to “ensure public safety against threats both foreign and domestic”—yesterday filed a civil lawsuit against Bolton that appeared to be designed to force Bolton to surrender whatever money he makes from the book. Although it has language that suggests he must try to stop the book from being published, the fact that language was directed at Bolton himself, rather than the publisher, who actually owns the book at this point, made it seem largely window dressing.

But tonight, the DOJ requested a temporary restraining order to stop the book from appearing, arguing that the book contains “classified information… that, if disclosed, reasonably could be expected to cause serious damage, or exceptionally grave damage, to the national security of the United States.” Bolton insists that there is nothing classified in the book, and that the White House held up the classification review for political reasons. To protect Trump from oversight, the administration has been expanding what it considers classified since the time of the Ukraine scandal. On Monday, Trump made classification universal: “every conversation with me as president [is] highly classified,” he said.

The attempt to silence Bolton is an extreme position, made worse by the fact that Trump loyalist John Ratcliffe, newly confirmed as the Director of National Intelligence, has signed on to the effort, along with other top intelligence and national security officials. The Supreme Court decided in favor of the First Amendment over alleged national security interests in 1971, allowing the New York Times to publish the Pentagon Papers that revealed the government’s deliberate misleading of the American people over the Vietnam War.

While Bolton’s book focuses on Trump, the—ahem– elephant in the room is the cadre of Republicans in the Senate who refused to convict the president of the charges on which the House impeached him in December 2019, insisting that his behavior did not rise to the level of “high crimes and misdemeanors.”

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Heather Cox Richardson

Heather Cox Richardson teaches American history at Boston College. She is the author of a number of books, most recently, How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America. She writes the popular nightly newsletter Letters from an American. Follow her on Twitter: @HC_Richardson.