- - Tuesday, June 23, 2020

“Hard pounding, this, gentlemen. Let’s see who will pound the longest,” the Duke of Wellington declared at the Battle of Waterloo. On Waterloo’s 205th anniversary, Wellington’s words thundered from my review copy of former National Security Adviser John Bolton’s controversial tell-all of his 17-month stint in the Trump White House. 

Mr. Bolton’s epilogue laid down the gauntlet to President Trump, whose reactions, he claims, “ranged from the mean-spirited to the constitutionally impermissible.” “My reaction … my response?,” Mr. Bolton tempts the reader, “Game on.”

It is hard to recall greater frenzy over a political memoir. Simon & Schuster fronted a $2 million advance. The mandatory government national security review took months and drew accusations of deliberate delay. Mr. Bolton waits until the book’s last pages to tell us that he doesn’t think it should have been subject to review, and asserts that the administration intended to stave off its unflattering depictions of life at the Trumpian heights.

Excerpts, leaks and gossip tantalized media and political elites (and drove up sales) for weeks before the planned June 23 release, which Mr. Bolton hubristically authorized before receiving final clearance.

Mainstream pundits who excoriated Mr. Bolton as a warmongering ghoul suddenly championed him for civic-mindedness. Republican foreign policy wonks who vowed never to work for Mr. Trump salved the festering wounds of their collective professional self-castration with the eunuch’s pious certainty that they had been right and virtuous all along. 

Mr. Trump and his acolytes were adamant in their denials and merciless in invective. A week before the release, the U.S. government sued to prevent it. A federal judge dismissed the lawsuit but damningly found that Mr. Bolton had “exposed his country to harm and himself to civil (and potentially criminal) liability.”

“Game on” is already “Game over.” Mr. Trump hinted at criminal charges against Mr. Bolton prior to the judge’s ruling, and later tweeted that he “will have bombs dropped on him” for his misdeeds. Under the terms of Mr. Bolton’s non-disclosure agreement, all profits, including his cool $2 million advance, may now be forfeit. Hopeful critics-turned-champions began to wonder why Mr. Bolton voluntarily spent a year-and-a-half at Mr. Trump’s side without even a bat’s squeak of dissent, and why he refused to testify in the impeachment hearings.

A full read recalls much of what we know about Mr. Trump while raising doubts about Mr. Bolton’s sincerity. Mr. Trump has a mercurial management style imported from the New York business world that he has tried to impose on Washington’s ossified mandarinate. Mr. Bolton chafed under it, in one passage comparing a high-level brainstorming session to a “college food fight.” Yet he blasts Washington officialdom for its obtuse culture of bureaucratic resistance. 

Mr. Trump prefers to negotiate wide-ranging deals with foreign leaders rather than pursue punctiliously detailed agreements. Mr. Bolton found this frustrating, but denounces previous administrations for entering such agreements and praises Trump’s withdrawal from them.

The book’s “shocking revelations” are few, fleeting and uncorroborated. Did White House Chief of Staff John Kelly tell Mr. Bolton that Mr. Trump thought Finland was a Russian satellite? Maybe, but for a long time it was. Did Mr. Trump ask Chinese leader Xi Jinping to help reelection by buying more American soybeans and wheat? If true, Mr. Bolton only mentions it once, more than 300 pages in. 

Did an unidentified translator tell Mr. Bolton that Mr. Trump greenlighted Chinese concentration camps in a one-on-one with Mr. Xi? Mr. Bolton wasn’t in “the room where it happened” in this alleged case, and even if true, why should we believe that Mr. Trump was being honest with Mr. Xi during a trade war that Mr. Trump started?

Chapter-length accounts of missed opportunities elsewhere detail complexities and disappointments in places where earlier U.S. administrations also floundered. It was only over Iran, which Mr. Trump decided not to attack after the Iranians downed an unmanned drone in June 2019, that Mr. Bolton claims to have seen red, calling Mr. Trump’s decision “the most irrational thing I ever witnessed any President do.”

But was the “irrational thing” Mr. Trump’s decision not to launch a disproportionate response, or his failure to agree with Mr. Bolton, who has advocated war with Iran for nearly 20 years?

Oozing bitterness and drenched with wearying sarcasm, Mr. Bolton shows no trace of the true memoirist’s capacity for self-reflection. If he disapproved of Mr. Trump, his management style or his actions, Mr. Bolton could have walked away at any time. But he did not, and his memoir never hints at why he stayed and diligently maintained an exhausting regimen of early morning meetings, punishing long-haul flights, bureaucratic intrigue and his job’s other impositions.

The Trump administration is famously sensitive to criticism. If it considers the isolated and despised John Bolton a threat in a country where virtually nobody outside the Beltway votes on foreign policy, it might think less of Wellington’s rousing bravado and more of a line often attributed to Napoleon — that one should always give an opponent enough rope to hang himself. By all accounts, Mr. Bolton is swinging.

• Paul du Quenoy is a private investor and philanthropist. 

• • •


By John Bolton

Simon & Schuster, $32.50, 592 pages

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