John Bolton has got to be the worst National Security Advisor in U.S. history.
During Bolton’s tenure, which ended in Sept. 2019, not one but two conversations with foreign heads of state leaked out of the National Security Council that he led. The first was President Donald Trump’s July 29, 2019 conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that led to Trump’s impeachment by the House and then acquittal by the U.S. Senate earlier this year.
In that trial, Bolton was begging to testify, and now we know why. Because he wanted to discuss what he knew about the talks with Zelensky, and perhaps even to leak another conversation by Trump with a foreign head of state, this time Trump’s June 29, 2019 high level trade talks with Chinese President Xi Zinping.
In a column in the Wall Street Journal publishing excerpts of his new book — that has not been cleared by the Justice Department because it contains classified information — Bolton alleges, “In their meeting in Osaka on June 29,  Xi told Trump that the U.S.-China relationship was the most important in the world. He said that some (unnamed) American political figures were making erroneous judgments by calling for a new cold war with China… Trump then, stunningly, turned the conversation to the coming U.S. presidential election, alluding to China’s economic capability and pleading with Xi to ensure he’d win. He stressed the importance of farmers and increased Chinese purchases of soybeans and wheat in the electoral outcome. I would print Trump’s exact words, but the government’s prepublication review process has decided otherwise.”
Even if this is true — U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer says it “never happened” and he was in the room — this is a nothing burger. Here, Trump is alleged to have noted that China’s moves against U.S. farmers by halting purchases of soybeans in fact has domestic political implications. So what?
The context Bolton leaves out is that China was taking out 4-page ads in the Des Moines Register in Iowa in 2018 to try and turn farm states that tend to vote Republican against President Trump in its bid to beat the U.S. in the trade negotiations. China was clearly using the trade conflict to interfere in U.S. elections and domestic politics. Here, Trump is responding to it.
On the same day the talks occurred, June 29, 2019, Trump at a press conference in Osaka noted the progress of the trade talks and advocating on behalf of farmers and U.S. agricultural interests, mentioning “farmers” and “farms” no less than 20 times.
Publicly, Trump said, “I think our farmers are going to end up being the great beneficiary. And what I did with the farmers — because they did lose a certain amount of money — I went to Sonny Perdue, who is our Secretary of Agriculture. I said, ‘Sonny, how much money — in the best year — did China spend on our farms, in our farms, buying?’ He said, ‘The best year, about $16 billion.’ I said, ‘Okay, well, we’re taking in much more than that now every year in tariffs.’ And I took $16 billion out of those tariffs, and — essentially out of those tariffs — and we’re distributing it among farmers who have been hurt because they have been used as a pawn so that China could get a good deal.”
Trump added, “I’ve made up for the fact that China was, you know, targeting our farmers. Because they know the farmers like me, and I like them. I love them. And they sort of love me, I guess, when you get right down to it. And it was $16 billion — billion. That’s a lot of money. But I took it out the tariff money essentially, and we are in the process of distributing it.”
Here, for emphasis, Trump is saying publicly that China was “targeting our farmers… [b]ecause they know the farmers like me, and I like them.” Agricultural states largely voted for Trump in 2016. Those are his constituents. This is publicly available information. So what if Trump pointed that out in a high level trade discussion?
What Bolton is alleging Trump said privately is not much different from what he says publicly. In this case, that the farmers were being targeted by China, and the President was there to advocate for them because they voted for him.
Of course President Trump is concerned about his constituents. We live in a democratic republic. Telling a foreign leader, “You’re hurting my constituents” is not a high crime and misdemeanor, it’s what presidents are supposed to do, even if Trump speaks casually and informally about these topics. It’s called straight talk.
I for one am now interested to see the transcript and what the context of Trump’s remark really was rather than Bolton’s spin. It sounds like he was fighting for American farmers. Both his public remarks the same day and the trade deal later agreed to bear this out.
That is why it is simply beyond belief that Bolton would seek to make this highly sensitive information public.
The National Security Advisor has one very important job, and that is to provide candid advice to the President to make historic decisions, not merely for the President’s benefit, but for the benefit of future presidents and the country as a whole.
In 1986, as Assistant Attorney General, Bolton testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee in the William Rehnquist nomination hearings that then-President Ronald Reagan was invoking executive privilege over internal memos Rehnquist wrote when he was in the Justice Department during the Nixon administration.
Bolton quoted the famous Nixon v. Administrator of General Services decision outlining the rationale for executive privilege as a means of preserving the executive decision-making process: “Human experience teaches that those who expect public dissemination of their remarks may well temper candor with a concern for appearances… to the detriment of the decision-making process… The privilege is not for the benefit of the President as an individual, but for the benefit of the Republic.”
Therefore, a move to violate that very privilege by publishing a book that contains privileged and classified information, by definition, would be to the detriment of the Republic. Suddenly, now presidents can no longer have advisors in the room at top-level talks because those discussions are monitored by ambitious would-be turncoats.
Given Bolton’s eagerness to testify in the impeachment trial, and now his reckless push to publish his memoirs, one has to call into question why he wanted to be Trump’s National Security Advisor in the first place. Certainly not to help the President achieve the agenda he was elected on—including the Trump trade agenda to put America first. No, it was to take notes.
Robert Romano is the Vice President of Public Policy at Americans for Limited Government.