Hello friends. This post is a collection of quotes from the book - The Room Where It Happened by John Bolton. The Room Where It Happened is a White House memoir that is the most comprehensive and substantial account of the Trump Administration, and one of the few to date by a top-level official.
One attraction of being National Security Advisor is the sheer multiplicity and volume of challenges that confront you. If you don't like turmoil, uncertainty, and risk - all while being constantly overwhelmed with information, decisions to be made, and the sheer amount of work, and enlivened by international and domestic personality and ego conflicts beyond description - try something else. It is exhilarating, but it is nearly impossible to explain to outsiders how the pieces fit together, which they often don't in any coherent way.
Trump is Trump. I came to understand that 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. Now, instinct, personal relations, and showmanship are elements of any President's repertoire. But they are not all of it, by a long stretch. Analysis, planning, intellectual discipline and rigor, evaluation of results, course corrections, and the like are the blocking and tackling of presidential decision-making, the unglamorous side of the job. Appearance takes you only so far.
I congratulated Trump on withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement, [...] which I saw as an important victory against global governance. The Paris Agreement was a charade, for those truly concerned about climate change. As in many other cases, international agreements provided the semblance of addressing major issues, giving national politicians something to take credit for, but made no discernible real-world difference (in this case giving leeway to countries like China and India, which remained essentially unfettered).
I had long believed that Iran's nuclear threat, while not as advanced operationally as North Korea's, was as dangerous, potentially more so because of the revolutionary theological obsessions motivating its leaders. Tehran's nuclear program (as well as its chemical and biological weapons work) and its ballistic-missile capabilities made it both a regional and global threat.
I was a free trader, but I agreed with Trump that many international agreements reflected not true "free trade" but managed trade and were far from advantageous to the US. I particularly agreed that China had gamed the system. It pursued mercantilist policies in the supposedly free-trade World Trade Organization (WTO), all the while stealing US intellectual property and engaging in forced technology transfers that robbed us of incalculable capital and commerce over decades.
I was deeply skeptical of efforts to negotiate the North out of its nuclear-weapons program, which Pyongyang had already sold many times to the US and others in exchange for economic benefits. Despite breaching its commitments repeatedly, North Korea always cajoled a gullible America back to the negotiating table to make more concessions, ceding time to a proliferator, which invariably benefits from delay. Here we were, at it again, having learned nothing. Worse, we were legitimizing Kim Jong Un, commandant of the North Korean prison camp, by giving him a free meeting with Trump.
The G7 meetings and similar international gatherings had a rhyme and reason at one point in history, and at times do good work, but in many respects, they have simply become self-licking ice-cream cones. They're there because they're there.
Trump was not following any international grand strategy, or even a consistent trajectory. His thinking was like an archipelago of dots (like individual real estate deals), leaving the rest of us to discern - or create - policy. That had its pros and cons.
As a Cold War bulwark against Soviet expansionism, NATO represented history's most successful politico-military coalition.
The real bottom line was that the INF Treaty bound only two countries, and one of them was cheating. Only one country in the world was effectively precluded from developing intermediate-range missiles: the United States. It made no sense today, even if it did when adopted in the mid-1980s. Times change, as liberals like to say.
Experience taught me that without action-forcing deadlines, bureaucracies could resist change with incredible tenacity and success.
I often thought that if our bureaucrats struggled as hard against our foreign adversaries as they did against each other when "turf issues" were at stake, we could all rest a lot easier.
Trump seemed to think that criticizing the policies and actions of foreign governments made it harder for him to have good personal relations with their leaders. This was a reflection of his difficulty in separating personal from official relations. I'm not aware of any case where Russia or China refrained from criticizing the United States for fear of irritating our sensitive leaders.
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 in the first place. It was like making and executing policy inside a pinball machine, not the West Wing of the White House.
America would benefit from far more legal, controlled immigration, whereas illegal immigration was undermining the foundational sovereignty principle that the US decided who was allowed in, not the would-be immigrants.
Nothing ever goes as planned in revolutionary situations, and improvisation can sometimes make the difference between success and failure.
After joining the World Trade Organization, China did exactly the opposite of what was predicted. Instead of adhering to existing norms, China gamed the organization, successfully pursuing a mercantilist policy in a supposedly free-trade body. Internationally, China stole intellectual property; forced technology transfers from, and discriminated against, foreign investors and businesses; engaged in corrupt practices and "debt diplomacy" through instruments such as the "Belt and Road Initiative"; and continued managing its domestic economy in statist, authoritarian ways. America was the primary target of these "structural" aspects of China's policy, but so were Europe, Japan, and virtually all industrial democracies, plus others that are neither but were still victims.
Trump approached trade and trade deficits as if reading a corporate balance sheet: trade deficits meant we were losing, and trade surpluses meant we were winning. Tariffs would reduce imports and increase government revenues, which was better than the opposite.
There is little doubt that China delayed, withheld, fabricated, and distorted information about the origin, timing, spread, and extent of the disease; suppressed dissent from physicians and others; hindered outside efforts by the World Health Organization and others to get accurate information; and engaged in active disinformation campaigns, actually trying to argue that the virus (SARS-CoV-2) and the disease itself (COVID-19) did not originate in China.
The right way to impose sanctions is to do so swiftly and unexpectedly; make them broad and comprehensive, not piecemeal; and enforce them rigorously, using military assets to interdict illicit commerce if necessary.
Returning to government after a dozen years, I was surprised to see how large a policy role the Treasury Department now played in sanctions decisions. Rather than being simply an operational enforcement mechanism, Treasury now aspired to do foreign policy, which was, to my mind, inappropriate. It also raised the issue of whether, as with other Treasury law-enforcement functions earlier moved to Homeland Security, the sanctions-enforcement process should go somewhere else: Justice, Commerce, or even Defense.
That's the way bureaucracies operate, painfully slowly, and then blaming others when things go wrong.
From the very outset of proceedings in the House of Representatives, advocates for impeaching Trump on the Ukraine issue were committing impeachment malpractice. They seemed governed more by their own political imperatives to move swiftly to vote on articles of impeachment in order to avoid interfering with the Democratic presidential nomination schedule than in completing a comprehensive investigation. Such an approach was not serious constitutionally. If Trump deserved impeachment and conviction, the American public deserved a serious and thorough effort to justify the extraordinary punishment of removing an elected president from office. That did not happen.
I am hard-pressed to identify any significant Trump decision during my tenure that wasn't driven by reelection calculations.
Any number of commentators have observed that the government's pre-clearance review process is riddled with constitutional deficiencies; the potential for obstruction, censorship, and abuse; and harmful to timely debate on critical public policy issues. You can add my name to the list of critics, especially when the process is in the hands of a President so averse to criticism that the idea of banning books comes to him naturally and serenely.