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John Bolton Is Not a Hero. Or a Villain.

January 28, 2020
John Bolton Is Not a Hero. Or a Villain.
Say my name. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

1. Bolton

The world is complex and very few people wear white hats or black hates all the time.

So let’s talk about John Bolton.

Overnight, Bolton has become a hero to the anti-Trump forces and a villain to Trump’s defenders.

He should not be either.

A few months ago John Bolton joined the line of senior advisors to President Trump who resigned on principle. This was a good thing.

And I don’t mean “good” in the pro- or anti-Trump sense. I mean good in the global sense: He saw something he didn’t want to be a part of, so he walked. That’s what everyone on both sides hopes their public servants will do. We don’t want guys who when they think something bad is going down, just look the other and follow orders.

We don’t want that at any level of government. Not at county dog catcher, not at national security advisor.

Now, if you’re an Always Trumper you could argue that Bolton’s judgment was incorrect and that, actually, everything was totally above board in the administration. But even so, you’d still want Bolton to act as he did.

But at the same time, Trump’s opponents are turning Bolton into some sort of white knight. And that’s probably not true, either. Don’t forget that Bolton spent a long time as a paid contributor to Fox News praising Trump up and down. From Graeme Wood:

Fox News’s No. 1 fan grew used to seeing Bolton on television. “John played Trump perfectly,” says Mark Groombridge, who worked for Bolton in government and out for more than a decade. “Bolton auditioned for this position for essentially a year. And he nailed that audition.” (Groombridge, a Never Trump Republican, split with Bolton in 2016, and the two no longer speak.) Bolton’s supporters acknowledge that his performance on Fox News melted the president’s heart. “So many of the people who populate this administration watched Bolton teach the country, through Fox, how to think about foreign policy,” says Matt Schlapp, a friend of Bolton’s and the chair of the American Conservative Union. “That’s why you have people like [White House economic adviser] Larry Kudlow and John Bolton in serious positions. They know how to communicate to the president in a way that he’s used to.”

I don’t know John Bolton, but unless he is a fool—and whatever else he may be, I do not take him for a fool—he knew exactly who and what Donald Trump is.

Which means that he spent a year going on television saying flattering things about Trump that he knew were not true.

I’m sure Bolton could explain this all away: The Trump administration was such a wreck that it was important to get capable people inside and the only way to do that was to go on Fox and audition. You deal with the world as it is, not as you wish it were.

There’s something to that. But on the other hand, even if his intent was the flatter Trump in order to get inside and do good, this had the practical effect of misinforming the public about his real views.

And let me tell you: There is a lot of that going on. I have stopped counting the people who tell me one thing about Trump in private and then publicly say very different things, because they’re positioning themselves for something.

This isn’t how I operate, because I think in general you should say what you think and if you’re wrong, so be it. But neither is it the worst sin in the world.

All of this is the long way of saying that John Bolton is neither villain nor savior. He’s a complicated figure who has behaved honorably in some circumstances and questionably in others. He is, in other words, like most of us.

So let’s not invest in him too much of either our hopes or hatreds.

2. Only the Best People

I assume you’ve seen the Lou Dobbs thing about Bolton:

One of the things that I find vexing about the president’s defenders is their refusal to admit that Trump has any faults.

Because, at the very least, if you are a defender of Donald Trump, you should be able to look at this parade of people that Trump hired and then turned on as traitors—Bolton, Michael Cohen, Jim Mattis, Rex Tillerson, Fiona Hill, John Kelly, Jeff Sessions, Scott Pruitt, Omarosa, Steve Bannon, the Mooch, Reince—and say, Geez, he’s a very bad judge of character who makes awful hiring decisions.

But even getting Trump defenders to say that much is like pulling teeth.

3. Systemic Failure

This a tour de force of reporting from NBC News and it will make your blood run cold:

Dr. John Cox knew as soon as he heard the baby’s cry that he had hurt his 1-month-old adopted daughter. He’d accidentally fallen asleep while cuddling the girl in bed early one morning last May, he said, and must have turned on top of her.

Cox, 39, a pediatric emergency room doctor at Children’s Wisconsin hospital, sat up, panicked. His hands shook as he assessed the baby, he said, fearing that he’d smothered her. She wasn’t in distress, but he said he could tell from the way she was moving her left arm that he might have broken her collarbone, a common injury in infants that typically heals on its own without medical treatment.

Cox called his wife, Dr. Sadie Dobrozsi, who was out of town with their two older children, and cried as he explained what had happened. Dobrozsi, a pediatric oncologist at the same hospital, said she told him to calm down and asked to video chat. The baby appeared fine to her, but to be safe, Dobrozsi suggested that Cox take her to see her pediatrician.

“That’s what normal parents who aren’t doctors would do,” she told him.

What followed, according to more than 15 medical experts who later reviewed Cox’s case, was a series of medical mistakes and misstatements by hospital staff members that has devastated Cox’s family and derailed his career. A nurse practitioner on the hospital’s child abuse team confused the baby’s birthmarks for bruises, according to seven dermatologists who have reviewed the case. A child abuse pediatrician misinterpreted a crucial blood test, four hematologists later said. Then, two weeks after the incident, armed with those disputed medical reports, Child Protective Services took the child.

“In hindsight,” Cox said in a recent interview, “taking her to our own hospital was the single most harmful decision that we made for our baby.”

Read the whole thing.

Jonathan V. Last

Jonathan V. Last is editor of The Bulwark.