You can call John Bolton a lot of things — bully, brawler, neocon — but not many would call him a dummy.
This is especially true at this precise moment, when he may be the only person to emerge a winner from Donald Trump’s impeachment trial.
To many Americans, the name John Bolton likely conjures up little more than a walrus-ian mustache to which the man’s loyalty never wavers. Perhaps he keeps the little shrub to remind his upper lip not to curl with contempt toward those whose opinions differ from his own. As his friends and former colleagues will tell you, Bolton tends to be an absolutist with an affinity for black and white and no love for elitists or fools.
They will also tell you that he is above all a man of principle who would never sacrifice himself for the most-unprincipled president in modern history. Whether he is subpoenaed to testify before the Senate is virtually irrelevant considering that we already know what he knows.
For one thing, excerpts of his forthcoming book’s manuscript were recently leaked to The New York Times. Among revelations therein: Then-national security adviser Bolton and Attorney General Bill Barr discussed “concerns that President Trump was effectively granting personal favors to the autocratic leaders of Turkey and China.”
Also, Bolton writes that Trump explicitly made military aid to Ukraine contingent upon investigations into political foe Joe Biden and his son Hunter. But, then, we already knew that, too.
The rest is theater, which, frankly, has become a bit dull. Witnesses-to-the-rescue is a tempting notion, but it seems unlikely that Bolton’s contribution would sway the Republican-majority Senate to convict the president.
So, why the backlash against Bolton from the White House, other than his apparent disloyalty? What else does he have? The White House knows exactly what he has since Bolton sent a copy of his manuscript for its review a month ago.
The more apt observation may be that he’s got nothing to lose and, based on his long history of government service, everything to maintain. That is, his reputation for principle over loyalty. Bolton’s repertoire in government service, which began soon after his graduation from Yale Law School (on scholarship), is that of a bulldog — stubborn, fearless, prone to infighting and concerned foremost with the sovereignty of the United States. He was an America First gladiator long before Trump thought of it as a foreign policy imperative.
Among other things, Bolton has nothing but contempt for the United Nations, which made his turn as U.S. ambassador to the U.N. under President George W. Bush a bit unusual. Before that, while serving in the State Department, he helped Bush un-sign the U.N. “Rome Statute,” which created the International Criminal Court for war crimes, lest other countries use the treaty as a cudgel against America and our troops. In a 2018 speech to the Federalist Society, Bolton referred to this as “one of my proudest achievements.”
In some conservative circles, bets are that Bolton wouldn’t just be willing to testify, as he has said he would if subpoenaed by the Senate. He’d love to. One way or the other, his story, supported by the paper trail he created as national security adviser, will come out. It won’t be good for Trump, but it won’t necessarily hurt him in the immediate future. Everybody knows what Trump is. The only issue is whether enough senators care enough to convict him.
Trump and his loyalists have accused Bolton of trying to sell a book and make money. Note to the unpublished: Well-known writers such as Bolton typically are paid upfront by their publisher in the form of an advance. Whether the book makes money, thereafter, is primarily the concern of the publisher. Bolton’s book’s value has been reported in the neighborhood of $2 million.
Thus, money isn’t likely Bolton’s chief motivation. Far more compelling to someone like Bolton is what one might call principled justice. Trump embarrassed Bolton by ignoring his advice and then firing him by tweet (Bolton maintains he quit) for an offense that ought really to make Bolton’s point-of-pride list: He objected to Trump’s genius idea to host the Taliban at Camp David near the anniversary of 9/11.
So, no, Bolton isn’t only selling books. He’s saving his legacy — and giving back to Trump as good as he got. Testifying before the Senate might just make his day — in a Dirty Harry kind of way. But the book otherwise will stand when history passes judgment on a man who picked the right side.
Kathleen Parker’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.