John Bolton is one of the few voices from the Trump administration whose account I was interested in reading because, he didn’t deal with the issues arising out of the administration that generated – appropriately in many cases – more emotional reactions.  He only addresses the administration’s work through the Justice Department in passing, and on immigration, race relations and COVID almost not at all. He mentions Republican politics, but only on occasion  Instead, he focuses only on his work in the White House as national security advisor from 2017 to 2019, a field where he had prior experience working for multiple previous Republican presidents.

I didn’t expect to agree with all Bolton’s views on foreign policy – the reason I got his book was to get an account by someone with prior White House experience but no political axes to grind one way or the other on Donald Trump’s decision-making process.  And the account is a horrific one.  Trump’s ignorance – by which I mean simply lacking knowledge – his unwillingness to pay attention to the information he was given, and his obsession with himself and his personal interests and how he was seen – was every bit as bad as I had feared.

The thing about international affairs which is different from the more heavily reported domestic political stories is that Trump was surrounded by aides such as Bolton, Pompeo, Haspel, and multiple defense secretaries and chairs of the Joint Chiefs who were experienced and competent.  They did not always agree, and some were pursuing personal political strategies (hardly unusual) but with almost no exceptions all were pursuing what they thought to be policies that were in the best interests of the United States – and they were constantly managing their unpredictable president so that what they understood to be his overall wishes on a certain issue were carried out, despite the way he sabotaged his own policies on an almost daily basis.  Bolton is something of an outlier here, though, because he clearly came into the administration with an agenda, and spent his entire term working to persuade Trump to support it, and using all his bureaucratic expertise to slow-roll Trump where he didn’t, knowing that in a few days – sometimes only a few hours – Trump would decide he agreed with him. 

Characteristically, he reserves his particular dislike for others who were trying to put their own agendas in place – Mattis, Haley, Mnuchin, Pompeo – although they were doing precisely the same thing he was – using Trump to advance their own personal or political agendas.  Mattis deserves a brief mention here because Bolton clearly disliked him for the additional, unforgivable sin that not only did he disagree with him on policy – he was better at slowing the machinery of decisionmaking down when he didn’t like what the decision was than Bolton was at keeping it moving.  I also get the feeling that Bolton felt that Mattis was damaging Trump politically with conservatives which Bolton didn’t want because he wanted Trump able to enlist their support for what Bolton wanted done.   

Here, your personal political opinion of Bolton’s policy goals in terms of foreign policy is almost irrelevant, because depending on whether you consider him the agent of good or bad policies, Trump damaged both on a virtually equal basis.  If you oppose his policies, you owe Trump a debt of gratitude for inadvertently blocking them, but if you support them, then you have to be frustrated at how badly Trump damaged the U.S.’s progress towards those goals. Because he did both. 

The bottom line you will take away from reading the book is how absolutely, utterly, lacking Trump was in basic competence to carry out a strategy, even when a sound one, consistent with his wishes, was provided to him by advisers and staff who had the ability to formulate it and carry it out.  And, in one of Bolton’s lowest moments, how easily Trump was spooked from carrying out a previously agreed missile strike in retaliation against an Iraqi strike – one that he had previously excoriated as “not strong enough.”  As soon as an unnamed mid or low-level staffer charged into the Oval Office with a completely unsupported estimate of casualties on the part of the Iraqis – an estimate not given to Defense or State or the NSA – to anyone to vet and consider (what Bolton would call a “process foul”) – and told Trump it would look bad on TV, he called off the strike without even telling his advisers, and then tweeted that he’s planned a strike but called it off, saying that if a strike hit an American, there would be hell to pay.  That tweet inadvertently made it clear that U.S. installations and hardware could henceforth be targeted with impunity.  The retaliation he had asked for, and all his advisers had agreed was appropriate, was gone.  

The process fould could likely be extended to Jared Kushner’s involvement in foreign policy, but there is almost no mention of him here.  I suspect he was heavily involved at various points, but that Bolton is unwilling to make clear that he was often not “the” adviser on national security.  But I haven’t read deeply here, so it’s possible that the old pro Bolton had in fact sidelined Kushner more than I am speculating.  He is remarkably unwilling to name enemies in the book (other than newspapers, of course) which I have to assume is another old pro’s trick.  This is not a book about his infighting with other advisers (other than Mnuchin, who comes across as a clueless dilettante in foreign policy).

One of the book’s shortcomings is Bolton’s writing style.  This is dry stuff, to be sure, but Bolton spends a lot of time with his tongue firmly in his cheek, and because the reader doesn’t know the subject as well as he does, while you can tell he is being ironic, you cannot tell whether the irony is because X is red or because X shouldn’t be red.  It is like watching someone laugh at something they think is funny, but you don’t know why they’re laughing.  It isn’t a major point, but it does make the book more opaque than it should be in places. 

It is a valuable book for the historical record because Bolton is a national security professional with extensive experience working with presidents.  His policy interests are debatable, as is his unwillingness to speak out more fully about Trump when he could have – he was and likely still is interested in a spot as Secretary of State down the road, and as a non-politician, he has to have someone else’s wagon to hitch himself to.  Which is why I take his negative observations about Trump seriously – they are against his personal interests in getting another hitch in the next Republican administration.  But his observations are very helpful to the reader wanting to understand what Trump was like as president but who can’t stomach the domestic side of the coin.  This book is just about incompetence.  It’s not about corruption, white nationalism, or subverting the Constitution.