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Trump Defenders Tie Themselves in Knots Over Bolton Book

While the Trump apologists scramble, expect members of Congress to profess ignorance.
by Jim Swift
June 18, 2020
Trump Defenders Tie Themselves in Knots Over Bolton Book
WASHINGTON, DC - AUGUST 20, 2019: U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to members of the media as National Security Adviser John Bolton listens during a meeting with President of Romania Klaus Iohannis in the Oval Office of the White House August 20, 2019 in Washington, D.C. (Alex Wong / Getty)

On the eve of its release, John Bolton’s book The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir sits in warehouses across the country, just awaiting the order to be shipped.

The Trump administration has filed an eleventh-hour legal challenge, seeking a restraining order to prevent the book’s release. But the revelations in the book by President Trump’s former national security advisor have already started to enter the nation’s political bloodstream. Copies of the book have found their way to reporters, who are sharing the book’s bombshells in previews and publicity interviews.

One revelation in particular seems to be roiling the president’s most ardent defenders, the anti-anti-Trumpers, and his run-of-the-mill media fanboys: Bolton’s characterization of President Trump’s dealings with Chinese president Xi Jinping. The most damaging detail is not that Trump apparently “pleaded” with China to help him win re-election, bad though that is. Nor is it that he used our “great patriot farmers” as cannon fodder for a trade war he lost. Rather, the really horrible detail is the internment camps.

Yes, internment camps.

Back in 2016 there was a meme of a photoshopped campaign poster that read: TRUMP: Probably no internment camps. Now, in the fourth season of Trump, the Presidency, the writers have willed this meme into reality.

According to the Washington Post, Bolton recounts that at a meeting between Trump and Xi at the G20, the question of China’s massive detainment camps containing perhaps a million Uighurs came up, and Xi defended them. Bolton says that Trump praised Xi for this decision: “According to our interpreter . . . Trump said that Xi should go ahead with building the camps, which Trump thought was exactly the right thing to do.”

It’s hard to say how much more we’re going to find out about this claim: Presumably only Xi and Trump and their interpreters are privy to what, exactly, was said. Bolton and his aides getting the rundown from the interpreter and the president (who we all know is not a reliable narrator) might be argued about, but it’s probably unlikely that anyone else in-the-know at the time is going to start weighing in publicly.

In an appearance last night on Sean Hannity’s Fox program, Trump denied Bolton’s China claims but indicated that Bolton’s book revealed classified information. Trump also told the Wall Street Journal that Bolton “is a liar.” Wait, which is it? Is Bolton exposing classified information or is he a lying liar who lies? It’s hard to see how both claims hang together.

Of course, it’s also possible that at some point Trump could very well just confirm that what Bolton said is true. How many times have we seen this movie before? Team Orange Man Good rushes to discredit anyone reporting or claiming negative things about President Trump—only to have him ultimately say: “Yeah, and I’d do it again!”

Still, the initial reaction on the right to Bolton’s account of the Trump-Xi conversation about the Uighurs has been one of horror—not horror because of what Trump allegedly said but horror at what it might mean for his 2020 chances.

As Patrick Chovanec observes: “Once again, not a single person is saying ‘The Donald Trump I know wouldn’t do that.’”

This too shall pass, and in short order the Trump apologists will slink back to telling us why Joe Biden is a compromised socialist with declining mental faculties—but while the Bolton book dominates the news cycle, it’s worth commemorating some of the best of the worst takes on it.

He’s blowing a layup.

Breitbart editor-at-large and writer/director John Nolte is “thoroughly disgusted with Trump right now.”

Here’s why:

But wait—is Trump “blowing a layup” or is this all just a Deep State conspiracy?

Sometimes occasional glimmers of reality will briefly shine through the layers of self-delusion one must accept to be a professional Trump defender—only to be occluded by a conspiracy theory a few hours later.

“Let us not just make this *all* about Trump.”

Bethany Mandel, a writer, had a thread where she moved through the stages of Trump defense pretty quickly, anticipating people would accuse her of making excuses for Trump, which was pretty much the entire point of it.

And to Mandel’s credit, she skipped over the part where you spend the first phase discrediting and doubting the person making the allegations.

Alas, this is all about the Bad Orange Man. Mandel thinks “China is too big and powerful to deal with” and every world leader knew and did nothing. Fine. But this is an election year and it’s Donald Trump on the ballot here, not Angela Merkel.

John Bolton was mean to me.

Federalist publisher Ben Domenech writes:

I would not be basing anything on the validity of John Bolton’s book given its numerous serious factual flaws. No offense to those of you who thought he was super trustworthy.

Has he read the book? Who knows. But please, elaborate:

Alrighty then! I guess we’ll just have to wait and see what that’s all about.

Hiring Bolton was Trump’s biggest error after. . .

Meanwhile in Federalist land, Mollie Hemingway (a consistent critic of Bolton) spent the afternoon suggesting Bolton was not credible, citing former President Bush and others across the aisle to paint a picture that he’s a guy not to be trusted.

It really says something that Hemingway thinks hiring Bolton was Trump’s second-biggest mistake as president, considering how many other hiring mistakes he has made over the years..

No word on whether detention camps are good or bad, Mollie is playing the Trump defense game more slowly than, say, Bethany Mandel, who fast-forwards to the end.

The inevitable pattern of the Trump defense.

If you’re in the conservative media ecosystem of punditry, the Trump defense game goes like this:

Eventually, the game ends when the person playing it accepts that, yes, Orange Man is bad, but others have done the same—or worse!—bad stuff before.

But senators and congressmen have a different game.

As Steve Vladeck put it, here’s how we can expect most GOP members of Congress to respond when they’re asked about Bolton:

That ploy can only last so long. And you’re going to get a lot more of these questions as Congress gets back into full swing before the election and reporters follow members of both chambers walking to the floor for votes. (Maybe Republican senators will change their mind on remote voting to, ya know, be safe from COVID-19.) And the Republican senators can’t say they don’t want to reward Bolton for not testifying during impeachment because they were against having witnesses at the trial.

It might seem like the only three options available to Trump’s congressional enablers are (1) to say Bolton is lying; (2) to deflect by saying that Bolton was violating the law regarding classified information (an argument that’s in tension with the idea that he was lying); or (3) to say that none of the Bolton revelations matter.

Unlike their media brethren, the Trump-enabling elected officials (except the tactically dumb) will probably not accuse Bolton of lying. As Vladeck says, their approach will be one of strategic silence, followed by “I didn’t read it.” (If only John Bolton starred in Hellboy, then you know Ted Cruz would have read it.)

And, because the Bolton story involves China, the GOP is in a very weird position, given the party’s historic views of that country’s Communist regime. The Senate just last month passed a bill called the “Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act” and President Trump signed it into law on Wednesday, the same day Bolton’s revelations dropped. It passed the Senate unanimously.

On the trade front, vulnerable senators have to be careful about the Bolton revelations because most incumbent Republicans facing voters this fall come from states with big farming industries. If, as Bolton alleges, Trump asked Xi to bail him out electorally by buying American products after his trade war failed, what do these senators tell voters who might feel like they were used as props? Republican voters have shown a high threshold for abuse by Trump and the GOP, but gambling with their livelihoods for political gain might cause some trouble.

Had Republican senators done the right thing and pushed for Bolton to testify during impeachment, they might not be in this tough position today. (Especially had they removed Trump, of course.) But by tying themselves to the mast of Trumpism, they have made matters worse for their electoral future.

Jim Swift

Jim Swift is a senior editor at The Bulwark.