In June 2019, two men sat in the Oval Office and talked of war. One was the bloated embodiment of American evil, a smug and fatuous egomaniac whose power and arrogance posed an existential threat to millions of the planet's inhabitants.
The other was Donald Trump.
This conversation was reported by John Bolton, the extremist martinet who briefly served as Trump’s National Security Advisor. Jennifer Szalai recounts the story as it occurs in Bolton’s as yet unreleased book:
You can sense Bolton’s excitement when he describes going home “at about 5:30” for a change of clothes because he expected to be at the White House “all night.” It’s therefore an awful shock when Trump decided to call off the strikes at the very last minute, after learning they would kill as many as 150 people. “Too many body bags,” Trump told him. “Not proportionate.”
The most striking thing about this anecdote, if Bolton is to be believed, is that Trump is overriding his advisor for a more measured and humane approach. He may have done so for purely political reasons, but the contrast between the two is still striking. Equally striking is the fact that Bolton seems to think this anecdote reflects well on him and poorly on the president. The opposite is true. Anybody who lacks the requisite bloodthirstiness to meet with John Bolton’s approval has something going for him, whatever other sins he may have committed.
Only an irrational hatred of Donald Trump could persuade anyone to turn to John Bolton.
The Hero That Wasn’t
Democrats had hoped that Bolton’s testimony on Trump and Ukraine would prove decisive in their impeachment inquiries. Early reports suggest that his book doesn’t provide the ammunition they had hoped for. Bolton does, however, charge that Trump asked Chinese leader Xi Jinping to help him win re-election. There are only two ways to interpret that: One is that Bolton concealed an impeachable deed until it was too late to do anything about it. The other is that he’s lying, as he’s done so many times before.
That’s your would-be hero?
Bolton’s bombshells probably won’t affect world history much. But failure should not be an unfamiliar experience to Bolton, a blundering war planner who is as incompetent as he is immoral. Bolton is Leslie Nielsen in Airplane! but with nuclear weapons. He’s failed at every military objective he’s ever pursued. But he’s succeeded in one way: Together with fellow war criminal George W. Bush, Bolton’s racked up a body count that exceeds one million lives. Trump can’t come close to matching that.
And yet, in their eagerness to nail Trump for impeachable offenses – and to do so exclusively on national security grounds – Congressional Democrats were willing to turn the bloodthirsty Bolton into a star witness, a process that would have meant investing him with credibility.
Bolton’s comments, as recounted by Hill, were already making him something of a liberal idol. A typical comment, from Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass): “When he calls Giuliani a ‘live hand grenade,’ that says something. He speaks from experience. He's someone who should know.”
Bolton’s liberal apotheosis was at hand. Instead, he chose to decline the honor.
Morally dubious figures like James Clapper, Gen. Michael Hayden, and James Comey had already taken star turns as #Resistance heroes. Even George W. Bush, who lied the country into a devastating war and oversaw systematic torture, became a popular figure among liberal Democrats simply by signaling genteel disapproval of Trump’s personal style.
These people deserve criticism, not praise. But liberal hatred of Donald Trump can be irrational. It’s irrational to make heroes out of Trump’s national security critics, most of whom seem more bloodthirsty than he is. It’s irrational to invest someone like John Bolton with credibility, when Bolton lied and deceived us into war. And it’s irrational to support militaristic policies just because Trump opposes them (or says he does).
And yet, liberals in politics and media are still elevating these characters – as long as they engage in the pleasing exercise of criticizing Trump. This MSNBC clip is a textbook example of the genre. Chuck Todd cites four former Trump advisors turned apostates: Bolton, Gen. James Mattis, Gen. John Kelly and former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. How do they stack up, credibility-wise?
“I think we need to look harder at who we elect,” Gen. Kelly says in the clip, adding that we need to look at a candidate’s “character” and “ethics.” Well, the country got a glimpse of Kelly’s own character when he spoke glowingly of the Confederates who fought to defend slavery and claimed that the Civil War was caused by “the lack of an ability to compromise.” And Kelly’s ethics were on display when he failed to disclose his relationships with several defense contractors on ethics forms.
Tillerson, who was CEO of Exxon Mobil, sneeringly observes that Trump “doesn’t like to read.” Since he's such a literacy advocate, Tillerson undoubtedly read his company’s internal reports on the relationship between fossil fuels and climate change – reports that it concealed from the public for 40 years, while publicly casting doubt on that relationship.
Mattis’ record lacks the publicly-documented dishonesty of the others. But he didn’t publicly reveal what he knew about the war in Afghanistan, even though (per the Washington Post):
“…senior U.S. officials failed to tell the truth about the war in Afghanistan throughout the 18-year campaign, making rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and hiding unmistakable evidence the war had become unwinnable.”
Instead, Mattis consistently put his career above the public interest.
“These are as big as it gets,” Todd says of this mendacious menagerie. The biggest liars, maybe.
Despite his record, MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell called Bolton “credible.” The reasons she offered for this assessment (besides the fact that he is “a Yale lawyer”; I kid you not) included the assertion that Bolton “understands intelligence, as a consumer of intelligence.”
Contrast that with the judgement of Robert Hutchings, who was Chair of the National Intelligence Council under George W. Bush. “Anyone who is so cavalier not just with intelligence, but with facts, and so ideologically driven, is unfit to be national security adviser,” Hutchings said of Bolton.
That quote comes from a ProPublica article headlined, “John Bolton Skewed Intelligence, Say People Who Worked With Him.” Another article, from the New Yorker, documents Bolton’s attempts to intimidate and threaten the intelligence analysts and diplomats whose conclusions undermined his call to war.
Bolton is a manipulator of intelligence, not a consumer of it.
That doesn’t mean Bolton lies about everything. Many of the anecdotes in his book are likely to be true. It’s highly plausible, for example, that Trump thought journalists should be executed. But Bolton’s hardly an unimpeachable impeachment witness.
It also needs to be said that by many accounts, including Bolton’s, Trump has taken a more measured approach to war and peace than Bolton or many other members of Washington’s national security establishment. Only someone with an irrational hatred of Donald Trump – or a desire to bolster the bipartisan military consensus – could turn to the likes of John Bolton.
All You Need is Hate
That’s not to say there aren’t rational reasons to hate Trump. He’s clearly corrupt in a variety of ways, both personal and professional. That makes it even harder to understand why the Democrats’ chose to base their impeachment efforts solely on Russia and Ukraine. What happened, for example, to Trump’s support for Saudi Arabia and the potential conflicts of interest there (which we reported on for The Intercept)? What about the emoluments clause and the many signs of corrupt profiteering? Or the potential campaign law violations around the Stormy Daniels payoff?
After the book’s publication, Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) called Bolton “the darling of the liberal left.” That’s not true. But it could have been, if Bolton had been willing to testify. Instead, Dems’ anger at his refusal is based on an escapist fantasy. Had they been able to call him to the Hill, it probably wouldn’t have accomplished much. It’s likely that Bolton would have tried to pull off the same trick he attempts in the book: being vague enough about his Ukraine accusations to skirt impeachability, while attempting to preserve his right-wing credibility.
Meanwhile, Democrats would have been burnishing the reputation of a bona fide war criminal – one who’s written books with titles like “Surrender is Not an Option” and “How Barack Obama is Endangering Our National Sovereignty.” Bolton would undoubtedly have used his new liberal credibility to do what he’s always done: push for needless wars around the globe while giving aid and comfort to right-wing dictators like Bolsonaro and Duterte.
For his part, all Trump would have had to do to cast doubt on Bolton’s credibility was tell the truth about Bolton’s Iraq record. That would also have given Trump another chance to position himself to the Democrats’ left on military policy. It worked for him in 2016, and it could work for him again.
The liberals who looked to Bolton for rescue, the ones who have elevated figures like Kelly and Tillerson, have overlooked a fundamental principle: The enemy of my enemy is not my friend. To believe otherwise is … well, irrational.