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Bolton on Why Trump Likes Putin and Kim: “He Likes Being with the Other Big Guys”

John Bolton talks about the Russian bounties, Mike Pompeo's ambitions, and why Trump gets along so well with authoritarians.
July 1, 2020
Bolton on Why Trump Likes Putin and Kim: “He Likes Being with the Other Big Guys”

On today’s episode of The Bulwark Podcast, Donald Trump’s former National Security Advisor John Bolton came on the show to talk about Trump, Russia, and his book, The Room Where It Happened.

This is a transcript of our conversation.

Charlie Sykes: Welcome to the Bulwark Podcast, I’m Charlie Sykes. We are talking today with Ambassador John Bolton, who has been in the news lately. 

Ambassador, thank you so much for joining us. I appreciate it very much.

Amb. John Bolton: Well, glad to be with you. Thank you for having me.

Charlie Sykes: So let’s start with this. On the issue of the Russian bounties in Afghanistan. I know you said you won’t comment on classified information, but I am interested to know. Have you read or heard anything in the last few days that has come as a surprise to you? 

John Bolton: No, I haven’t. And, look, I think the Russians want us out of Afghanistan. They want us out of Iraq, out of Syria, out of the middle East, generally, out of Eastern and Central Europe. Out of Ukraine.

It’s a long list and what makes these reports out in the public domain about in effect, providing bounties to the Taliban for killing American soldiers, is that this is an escalation, if it turns out to be true, of their efforts against us.

You know, during Cold War days, they sold equipment to and weapons to Vietnam, North Vietnam, for example, that was part of the relationship back then.

But at least since the collapse of the Soviet Union, that kind of activity has not been engaged in.

So if they started it up again, it has huge potential significance.

Charlie Sykes: Would you testify about this? If you were called by, say, the United States Senate or the by the House? 

John Bolton: Well, you know, it would depend who was calling in and for what purpose, honestly. And, I think it’s also important to understand there’s been a lot of confusion about this. Just because they call me and put me in a public hearing. It’s not just me, it’s anybody. It doesn’t mean I can then say whatever I want, whether it’s classified or not.

So, you know, we’re going to have to see what the circumstances are.

It is, after all, presidential election time and, you know, politics have been known to occur during presidential elections.

Charlie Sykes: They have been. Okay. So now you left in September. So I’m going to ask you about the reports that we’re getting, that the president himself was briefed on this, that this was included in the president’s daily brief in late February.

What are the implications, if in fact, the president was briefed on this particular allegation that the Russians were paying bounties to kill American soldiers? 

John Bolton: Well, I think if he was briefed and if it was deemed that people had some confidence in the accuracy of the information and he did nothing, that would be very troubling.

Which is why the president’s first response was, “I don’t know about this. Nobody told me about this. I haven’t heard this before now.”

There’ve been several subsequent responses, which leads you to wonder, as Bill Clinton might’ve said, what the meaning of brief is. Did he get told about it? Did he read about it? What exactly are we referring to?

And I think the administration’s been very unclear on that point.

Charlie Sykes: So let me just read you something that David Sanger and Eric Schmidt write in the New York Times today: 

“It doesn’t require a high level clearance for the government’s most classified information to see that the list of Russian aggressions in recent weeks rivals some of the worst days of the Cold War.”

“There have been new cyber attacks on Americans working from home to exploit vulnerabilities in their corporate systems and continued concern about new playbooks for Russian actors seeking to influence the November election.” 

“Off the coast of Alaska, Russian jets have been testing American air defenses, sending us war planes scrambling to intercept them.”

I’m interested in your take about the moment we are in right now. 

Are the Russians testing us and how should we respond? 

John Bolton: I think they are testing us. And I think the record of close physical approaches of their planes to our planes, their planes to our ships. This has been growing over a number of years. And it’s of enormous concern to the Pentagon.

I have no doubt that the Russians, the Chinese and perhaps others, North Korea, Iran perhaps, are trying to interfere in the election. I think the Chinese effort actually goes much beyond that.

I think if you look at Vice President Pence’s speech from a little bit over a year ago where he talks about China’s broader effort, it’s something we should be paying more attention to. So I think all of these things are of a piece.

I think the ultimate Russian objective here is destabilization. They want to reduce our confidence in our ability to act internationally. They want to reduce confidence in our domestic institutions.

And while I do think a number of steps were taken in the Trump administration in cyberspace and elsewhere, I also don’t have any doubt that looking at the array of opponents we’ve got out there, it’s something that all of us should be taking much more seriously.

Charlie Sykes: So you mentioned China, one of the more stunning things in your book, was the suggestion that the president had this in a sense endorsed the use of concentration camps for the Uyghurs. 

In the context of, sounded like he was, he was willing to concede all sorts of things to stay on the good side of President Xi. So right now, how should the United States be responding? 

I guess we’re getting mixed signals. 

Of course, we have the president winking about Hong Kong in the past, but tweeting out that we should be angry at China for the Coronavirus. 

So give me your sense right now on where we’re at with China and how serious the Chinese threat is.

John Bolton: Well, I think China is the 21st century’s existential threat to the United States. I don’t think that’s where Donald Trump is by any stretch of the imagination.

I think a good part of the problem here, it’s true with Putin and Russia, it’s true with Xi and China, it’s true elsewhere, is that Trump has difficulty distinguishing between his personal relationship with a foreign leader on the one hand, and the real extent of the bilateral relationship between the US and that country on the other.

So if his personal relationship with Xi Jinping is good, then US-China relations are good. And he’ll ask rhetorically, isn’t that something we want?

Well, yeah, we would like to have good relations, assuming our interests are not being compromised, but it’s certainly not the case that a good personal relationship means that the underlying bilateral relationship is good.

Now, how does that work out in practice?

In the early days of the coronavirus, staff at the NSC, at the Centers for Disease Control, National Institutes of Health and elsewhere were raising red flags about the disease.

Trump didn’t want to hear that.

He didn’t want to hear anything bad about Xi Jinping, he didn’t want to hear that he was commanding a cover up and a disinformation campaign about the disease.

He didn’t want to hear about its effects on China and its ability to meet its obligations under the partial trade deal.

And he particularly didn’t want to hear that the virus, if it got out of control could have a negative impact on our economy, which he saw as his ticket to reelection.

That’s very serious.

So now he criticizes China on some things. The State Department is imposing sanctions because of the repression in Hong Kong, what the Chinese are doing to the Uiygers.

This is not because it’s part of a policy.

It’s because politically he wants to be, the president wants to be clear that he’s tough on China as opposed to Sleepy Joe Biden, who’s not tough on China.

And how will Trump be the day after the election, if he wins?

I think we’ll be right back to where we started from.

I think he’ll be pursuing this administration’s great white whale, the big trade deal with China and all this rhetoric about Hong Kong and the Uiygers will disappear.

Charlie Sykes: So you were Donald Trump’s National Security Advisor for 17 months. 

And I have to ask you this. 

When you took the job, Ambassador Bolton, what were you thinking? 

This was no secret that Trump was Trump and that he rejected a lot of the foreign policy ideas that you’ve been associated with your whole career.

Not exactly a secret. You’re an internationalist, he ran on “America First.” 

So looking back on it, what were you thinking? How did you think this was going to work? 

John Bolton: Well, I was optimistic. I wouldn’t have taken the job if I had concluded it would end poorly.

I described in the first chapter of the book, various meetings and conversations I had with Trump beginning before the election, during the transition during his first year in office.

We discussed at length my views on all the key issues.

It consisted of really going through them sometimes fairly systematically, and he would comment on many occasions how we agreed on almost everything thing, except the invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

But even there he would say, you know, Obama did the wrong thing in withdrawing American forces in 2011.

He would say that he’s watched me on Fox News for almost 10 years and how it sounded, as we sat there talking, like he was watching on television again.

I assume when he was watching, he was listening to what I said and understood it.

So, in that case, you know, every advisor has differences with the president that he or she works for. It goes with the territory. You’d never agree with somebody a hundred percent.

And you have to be ready, as an advisor to have the decision maker make decisions contrary to your advice. That probably happens more often than not. And not confuse the position. You’re the advisor and he’s the decision maker.

But all that signaling, all those meetings, all those pieces of evidence, led me to believe that it couldn’t possibly be as bad as some people were saying.

And that with hard work, we could get it done the right way.

So in a way you could say the book is the unfolding of that question. And, you know, people can make up their own minds whether it worked or not.

I think it’s pretty clear what the outcome was.

Charlie Sykes: So Ronald Reagan once described the Axis of Evil, and yet one of the most fascinating things about Donald Trump is his fascination with, I suppose, the successors. 

You know, having worked with him up close, what do you make of his fascination with authoritarian thugs like Kim Jong Un, Vladimir Putin, Erdoğan? What is it that attracts Donald Trump to those kinds of figures, as opposed to the leaders of democratic nations that were our allies? 

John Bolton: Well, it’s very hard to explain.

I mean, he himself said, and I put this in the book, as he was leaving for the NATO summit in 2018 and then immediately after summit with Theresa May of the United Kingdom, and then the famous, as it turned out, the Helsinki summit with Vladimir Putin, he said to the press, “You know, I think the easiest meeting of all might be with Vladimir Putin, who would have thought that?”

And the answer is nobody would have thought that except Donald Trump himself.

The best I can do for an explanation is that when you sit down with an authoritarian figure, obviously in command of his government and the country as a whole, there’s a confidence there that is frightening, frankly, is the main reaction I have to it.

Somebody who’s so totally in control that they know their opinion is the law.

And I think Trump just, you know, he’s a big guy, he likes being with the other big guys, he likes talking like big guys talk to each other.

And he enjoyed it.

And the fact that he was a constitutionally bound, elected president, that was sort of the earth he had to fall back to.

But it was fun being a big guy for a while.

Charlie Sykes: So were you surprised that the U.S. Senate did not want to hear your testimony, voted against subpoenaing you during the impeachment trial? 

John Bolton: Well, I was surprised, and what I think accounts for the decision is that the White House took advantage of the malpractice by the House Democrats advocating impeachment.

And focusing narrowly on Ukraine, it allowed the White House lawyers to argue that even if everything that the Democrats said was true.

If there was, in the phrase that became so famous, a quid pro quo, that Trump wanted, the investigation of Biden and Hillary Clinton in exchange for the release of the security assistance.

Even if all that was true, it did not rise to the level of an impeachable offense. And therefore a Senator should vote to acquit against the main article of impeachment.

Once you’ve persuaded yourself of that, then it is the case that further evidence is irrelevant.

And I just thought, if there were any chance that impeachment was going to work, it would only be if the Democrats followed the model, imperfect though it is, of the Watergate scandal and the bipartisan effort by Ervin, Sam Ervin, with Howard Baker and others to gain Republican support and not to push it away.

And yet that’s what happened.

Charlie Sykes: Well, I agree with you and I wrote about this at the time. What was the rush? What was the reason for pushing ahead on all of this, as opposed to looking at all the other things. And in your book, you talk about quid pro quo as being a way of life.

But of course, this now raises the question. You left the White House in September. Why not testify before the House committee, why not come forward? I mean, lots of whistleblowers came forward at great risk to themselves. Lieutenant Colonel Vindman. Fiona Hill. 

Why not you, Ambassador Bolton? 

John Bolton: Well, with all due respect and I do respect the fact they testified, every one of them asked for and received the subpoena. The House Democrats never subpoenaed me.

They did subpoena Charlie Kupperman, my deputy, and instantaneously when Charlie got that subpoena, he got a letter from the White House counsel saying the president has instructed you not even to show up to testify.

All the rest of the witnesses got letters saying you’re under no obligation to cooperate, but that was a direct order going back to the time Charlie had been Deputy National Security Advisor.

So he, advised by Chuck Cooper, an old friend and colleague of mine from the Reagan Justice Department, said, look, we’ve got conflicting orders here. One order, a subpoena from the House, a second order from the White House. Let’s talk with the third branch of government and see if they can and give us some guidance, so that as an ordinary citizen now, Kupperman isn’t caught in the middle.

The Democrats, faced with that, going directly to your point said, well, we don’t want to waste time with courts.

If Kupperman won’t abide by our subpoena, we’re going to check out.

And they withdrew the subpoena and mooted the case out.

Now, why were they in such a hurry? Because they were trying to torque the impeachment process around the Democratic presidential nomination schedule.

I understand that was politically inconvenient for the Democrats, but it’s not a good excuse. And I think ultimately they, they paid for it.

Finally, when by their own actions, the House had acted and shifted the responsibility to the Senate when there was no chance of getting a judicial resolution, I did announce that I was prepared to testify.

You know, the White House also had my draft testimony in effect for this pre-publication review process.

Think about that.

That they know exactly what I’m going to say.

So there was a very strong argument, there was no need for witnesses and certainly not me.

And combined with the argument that no matter what I said, it would not demonstrate an impeachable offense, I think that’s what led to the decision in the Senate, not to call witnesses.

Charlie Sykes: So you don’t want to, you know, you’ve heard this a million times. 

The rap on you is that you could have spoken out, but you waited in order to sell the book. You could, of course, have called up one of your friends from FOX News. You could have written an op ed piece. You could have written an open letter.

Is there any reason why you could not have spoken out outside of the process of the congressional investigation? 

John Bolton: Well, let’s take the money thing first. You know, I’ve served in the Reagan administration, Bush 41 administration, Bush 43 administration, and the Trump administration.

If money were my objective, you could have just zeroed all those out and I could have stayed being a lawyer and done quite well.

My objective, since I started the ringing doorbells for Barry Goldwater in 1964, was to advance the conservative philosophy. And that’s why I went into the government this last time.

Why not take one of these other alternatives? You know, the book’s 500 pages long. I tried to lay out one fact on top of another, about what Trump was like.

And in fact, some of the reviews that he likes to cite complain, there are too many facts in the book. It’s just so long.

I could have written another 500 pages. Just to pick on Hillary Clinton for a minute, it may not take a village, but I thought it did take a book to make the case.

Anybody can issue a press release.

You can tweet, you can even write 20 pages of congressional testimony. It’s not the same as laying out the whole case.

And so that was my decision. I understand I’ve been criticized for it.

But, you know, another aspect of this book when 50 years from now, when all the players on the scene now are gone, the book will remain.

Charlie Sykes: So you have been a—and feel free to disagree with any words that I use here, okay? You’ve been a conservative icon for decades. Going back to Reagan. You were a regular on FOX News. You’ve been, you know, gotten awards from conservative foundations. You’ve been published in probably every conservative publication. You had a conservative political action committee. 

Right now, though, do you feel as if you have been excommunicated from the conservative movement? 

I’m asking kind of a personal question, because you know, right now you’ve gone from being sort of the right wing go-to guy on foreign policy to now being regarded as well, you’re kind of the Judas goat. You are a traitor. 

Have you been surprised at the way the conservative movement has made loyalty to Donald Trump pretty much the only measure of loyalty? 

John Bolton: I’m not surprised at the reaction. I can tell you that I’ve gotten all kinds of private messages from friends and others saying, “thank God you’ve done this” and “we really think it’s important.”

But I won’t characterize it overall as a pleasant experience, that’s for sure.

But on the other hand, I asked myself as I was writing the book and thinking, you know, maybe I shouldn’t go through with all this grief, who else is going to do it?

I believe that that one of the real tragedies of the Trump administration, for the country as a whole but particularly for conservatism, is the way that the ongoing philosophical debate we’ve had for decades in this country has been bent around the question, are you for Trump or against him?

And you know, if as conservatives we believe anything, it’s that we don’t put our faith in any one person.

It’s not the candidate that defines what we believe or what our priorities are. It’s the philosophy and how we see it playing out in policies.

And I do think we’ve got to get beyond this. I think after the election it’ll be true whether Trump wins or loses. It’ll be immediately upon us if he loses.

We’ve got to have a conversation about what conservatism looks like going forward, what the Republican party looks like. I think we’ve got to cut this albatross off from around our neck, and I thought the book would be, one of its purposes would be a contribution to that discussion as well.

I think a lot of things will change.

I think you cannot underestimate the intimidating power of a what George Orwell once called a “two minutes hate” from Donald Trump and his Twitter feed.

A lot of people just don’t want to stand up to it. I wish more did. I do understand how they don’t like it and don’t want to face it.

And I think if Trump loses, it’s a little bit like the curtain being pulled away from the little green man at the big organ. I think things will change.

Charlie Sykes: Well, I have to ask you about this. I mean, speaking of the excommunication, I don’t think it’s any secret that there was probably no love lost between you and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, but still, his tweet was pretty extraordinary. 

He wrote, and you know this: 

“It is both sad and dangerous that John Bolton’s final public role was that of a traitor who damaged America by violating his sacred trust with its people.” 

Let’s get your reaction to that. Because he doesn’t, he’s not just questioning your patriotism. He’s calling you a traitor, violating your sacred trust. 

Your thoughts?

John Bolton: Well, that’s what Donald Trump called me as well. So the fact that Mike Pompeo called me that doesn’t surprise me.

I think Mike has higher political aspirations. I think he’s tied them to Donald Trump. I feel sorry for him.

I think my higher loyalty is to the American people. I think that part is absolutely right. And that’s who the book is for.

Charlie Sykes: So right now, to get the larger picture, to just step back for a moment. How deep is the damage to our role in the world right now? And how hard is it going to be to repair? 

Give me some sense, because I think that a lot of people who have gone along with “America First” also went along with America as the last best hope, the shining city on the hill, the American exceptionalism. All of those seem to be in eclipse right now. 

So how bad is it? How badly damaged has America’s leadership role in the world been hurt? 

John Bolton: Well, I think it has been damaged. I think our credibility as a country is in jeopardy. I think the seriousness of American purpose is being discussed, but I believe that it is essentially almost entirely caused by the personality of Donald Trump.

And therefore I think surviving one term and repairing the damage is something that’s entirely doable.

It won’t happen overnight. The damage wasn’t imposed overnight.

But I am confident that America has not fundamentally changed. And I think many people who are legitimate conservatives who believe in a strong Reaganesque peace through strength national security policy, don’t fully realize that that’s not where Donald Trump is.

I don’t think Donald Trump has a philosophy. I don’t think he does philosophy. I think he does Donald Trump.

But I am worried that a second term might not be repairable and that the consequences then of eight years of kind of feckless behavior that he’s engaged in would do serious damage.

And so that’s the conclusion that I draw, that leaves me for the first time in my life, not to vote for a Republican for president.

Charlie Sykes: But not vote for a Democrat for president. Look, we all know that, I mean, either Donald Trump is going to be reelected or Joe Biden is going to be elected. There’s no third choice. 

So you’re not going to vote for Donald Trump. You see Donald Trump’s second term as an existential threat to the country, or at least to our leadership role, but you won’t vote for Joe Biden. 

Why not? 

John Bolton: Well, my plan is to hope for a miracle. We haven’t yet as a party nominated Trump as president and maybe something will happen. Now that’s—miracles aren’t anything you can count on.

Look, it’s an unhappy choice. In 2016, I made exactly the same point. It’s a binary decision. You’re either going to vote for Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump.

I did vote for Trump. And I argued that, kind of similarly to my approach to going into the administration, it can’t be as bad as we think, and the alternative is Hillary Clinton.

After 17 months in the government, obviously in good conscience I can’t vote for Trump again. There are a limited number alternatives: vote for Biden, write in somebody, which is what I’m going to do, or just not vote for president.

Different people are going to do different things.

I respect those who are going to vote for Biden, I just don’t think that’s the choice I’m going to make.

I think a lot of people will silently just not vote for anybody for president. And in a close election, not voting for Biden, not voting for Trump, is still a vote that he got in 2016 that he’s not going to get this time.

But it’s part of the reason I think conservatives and Republicans have a particular obligation after the election, even if Trump wins because he will begin a second term as a lame duck.

The 2024 race is hot underway already. We’ve got to talk about why we shouldn’t let this happen to us again.

Charlie Sykes: There does seem to be some Republican pushback against Trump’s desire to withdraw American troops from Germany.

What are the consequences of a major withdrawal of American troops from Germany right now? 

John Bolton: Well, you know, this is a good example of what I talk about in the book where Trump does something that just is utterly inconsistent with American national security interests, utterly inconsistent with a conservative, small C, foreign policy.

He runs into blowback from Republicans in the House and the Senate and the policy changes. So instead of the original decision, which I think was to take nine to 10,000 people out of Germany and bring them back to the United States, now they’re talking about redeploying them, perhaps, in Poland.

I happen to think, myself, that that’s an excellent idea. It’s something we actually talked about when I was in the White House.

No deployment is sacrosanct. I think the troops have been in Germany for a long time. They were put there, obviously, during the Cold War. Germany is not the front line anymore. There are other places we could think of.

But the point is, are you redeploying in this case to strengthen the NATO Alliance or to weaken it?

And after the election, if Donald Trump is reelected, when he no longer needs that political base, where all the decisions that I saw that rested on avoiding the blow back from Republicans on the Hill and Republicans out in the electorate. Once that’s removed, what is he going to do in his second term?

That’s what worries me more than anything else.

And I think, honestly, should worry conservatives and Republicans across the board.

Charlie Sykes: Ambassador John Bolton, thanks so much for spending so much time with us. Thank you for coming on the Bulwark Podcast. 

John Bolton: Well, thanks again for having me. I enjoyed it.

Charlie Sykes: And thank you for all listening to the Bulwark Podcast. I’m Charlie Sykes. We will be back tomorrow and we will do this all over again.

Charlie Sykes

Charlie Sykes is a founder and editor-at-large of The Bulwark and the author of How the Right Lost Its Mind. He is also the host of The Bulwark Podcast and an MSNBC contributor.