“President Trump asked Chinese President Xi Jinping to help him win the 2020 U.S. election” is the lead sentence of the Washington Post’s write-up of John Bolton’s new tell-all book about his time as the national security adviser.
It’s a helluva allegation and, frankly, would be a helluva first line in impeachment proceedings, had the Democrats not wrapped theirs up five months ago. Now, it should be the first line out of former Vice President Joe Biden’s mouth every day of the presidential election campaign until November.
Or, as some Republicans would have it: “Beijing Biden.” For months, the GOP has tried to paint the presumptive Democratic nominee as a Chinese lapdog, themselves as tough on Beijing, and Trump’s inconsistent and largely ineffective dealings with his counterpart as somehow beside the point. Bolton’s book, The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir, blows right through that premise.
The president’s former national security advisor, long considered as tough on China, Russia, and Iran as any table-thumping far-right pundit could want, portrays Trump in his dealings with China’s President Xi as ignorant, unskilled, tactless, fawning, insensitive, and interested in only one thing: saving his own ass this November. For example, Bolton writes, Trump asked Xi to buy more American agricultural products to help himself look good at home and win reelection.
Small wonder that the Trump administration is trying desperately and with court action by the Justice Department to prevent the book’s scheduled release on June 23.
The suit alleges, dubiously, that the book contains classified information. Bolton’s publisher, Simon & Schuster, called the lawsuit “nothing more than the latest in a long-running series of efforts by the Administration to quash publication of a book it deems unflattering to the President.” In any case, it already has been printed, and now parts have been posted by the Post and the New York Times — not to mention Bolton’s own op-ed in the Wall Street Journal.
Boy, is it unflattering. Let’s just focus on the China parts. Bolton writes that Trump was “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.”
The Post adds perspective: “The request for electoral assistance from Xi is one of many instances described by Bolton in which Trump seeks favors or approval from authoritarian leaders. Many of those same leaders were also happy to take advantage of the U.S. president and attempt to manipulate him, Bolton writes, often through simplistic appeals to his various obsessions.”
The Wall Street Journal obtained an excerpt of Bolton’s China section in full. The former national security advisor claims that when he arrived at the White House, Trump’s inner circle was “fractured intellectually” about China, with “panda-huggers” and military hawks. He wanted to form a cohesive policy but Trump’s haphazard attention made it impossible.
“Trade matters were handled from day one in a completely chaotic way. Trump’s favorite way to proceed was to get small armies of people together, either in the Oval Office or the Roosevelt Room, to argue out these complex, controversial issues. Over and over again, the same issues. Without resolution, or even worse, one outcome one day and a contrary outcome a few days later. The whole thing made my head hurt,” Bolton writes.
In Bolton’s account, chaos ruled more than internal White House meetings. At the December 2018 meeting of the G20 in Argentina, he writes, Trump humiliated himself before his Chinese counterpart. “Xi read steadily through note cards, doubtless all of it hashed out arduously in advance. Trump ad-libbed, with no one on the U.S. side knowing what he would say from one minute to the next.” To the American team’s astonishment, Trump caved on his threat of 25 percent tariffs, agreeing to just 10 percent. And when he said Jared Kushner would be involved in the details, “all the Chinese perked up and smiled.”
On and on it goes until they meet again in June, when China has reneged on its six-month-old promises. Trump, simply gleeful that he can say he has a deal in the works, pronounces Xi “the greatest Chinese leader in 300 years!” amending that a few minutes later to “the greatest leader in Chinese history.”
But embarrassing trade deals are one thing. Selling out America’s very soul is another.
In episodes related to human rights, basic freedoms, and strategic allies, Trump abdicates leadership, Bolton writes. The U.S. president says he doesn’t want to get involved in Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests, which Bolton thought would have been obvious leverage over China. Later Trump demurs about the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre: “‘That was 15 years ago,’ he said, inaccurately. ‘Who cares about it? I’m trying to make a deal. I don’t want anything.’ And that was that.”
Trump also gave Xi permission to imprison China’s Uighur minorities on more than one occasion. “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,” Bolton writes.
And Trump privately insulted Taiwan as a speck compared to China.
Here’s the caveat on all of this: it’s clear that Bolton’s book is one man’s telling, late to the game, and shrewdly opportunistic. And the whole thing is as American as apple pie. Bolton was national security advisor and everything he alleges should be confirmable through notes and sources. We’ll see how far reporters can get.
Remember, Bolton’s very existence in the Trump White House was a remarkable second rising for a man whose career and ideas were considered too fringe for the mainstream national security blob, and eventually even too far for conservative Republicans. Trump couldn’t find, and probably did not want, a mainstream Republican national security leader to be his advisor. Many predicted that Bolton was a mismatch with Trump’s isolationist instincts and would fail. He did. But like his erstwhile boss, he has always been a media hound, willing to use the press to whatever he thought was his advantage. So with personal reasons to write what he wrote, with maximum profit to his politics and purse, he’s played the American political machine with zero shame.
Bolton’s critics complain that his biggest self-serving calculation of all was — after a lifetime of talking to anyone who would listen — to keep his mouth shut before, during, and after the impeachment investigation and proceedings, when he could’ve had the most immediate impact on American history. But his timing may still help their cause. There’s little reason to think that had Bolton shared any of this last year, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., would have been any more inclined to toss Trump out of the White House and, with it, the reelection chances of every Republican on a ballot in 2020. And there may be more outrages to come, when the book is released. Forget the Senate. Bolton’s revelations now become election-year evidence for the only jury left that matters: voters.