Book Review: The Room Where It Happened

This book is not old news, though it replays the international relations news during Bolton’s tenure as National Security Advisor. It gives the reader a first-hand look into behind-the-scenes discussions and interpersonal relationships. No national security secrets are revealed, of course, and in the final pages Bolton explains what the pre-publication review involved.

Bolton’s opinions on foreign policy are well known, but a person who disagrees with him can still read this and benefit. Ignore his ego and read for substance. The value of this book is the precise, detailed narration of Trump’s erratic, self-absorbed decision-making process in foreign policy. Bolton’s observations on how masterfully Kim Jong Un manipulated Trump are fascinating as well as troubling. Trump apparently has no ability to discern moral issues. If someone seems to like him, he doesn’t mind if that person is a despot who has subordinates who let him down killed. Bolton records his concern about Trump’s tendency to do favors for dictators he likes, even when those favors contradict or undermine U.S. foreign policy goals. (Talking to Japanese Prime Minister Abe about North Korea’s recent launches, Trump told him “not to worry, because the launches were short range and not really missiles. If he said it enough times, perhaps it would become true.”)

Bolton describes Trump speaking with Chinese president Xi. “He then, stunningly, turned the conversation to the upcoming U.S. presidential election, alluding to China’s ability to affect the ongoing campaigns, 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. I would print Trump’s exact words, but the government’s pre-publication review process has decided otherwise.” Trump also indicated to Xi his approval of China’s concentration camps for Uighurs, making Bolton realize that human rights would not be an administration priority.

Trump never seems able to grasp the value of our alliances or why we have troops stationed in other countries. Over and over, even after having it all explained to him, he would ask, what are we doing there? Why are we in there, anyway?

Trump’s fixation on making deals apparently blinds him to the real-world impact of those deals in terms of trade, balance of power, strategic alliances, diplomacy, or leverage against hostile governments. All he wants is to be the guy that made the deal. Whether it’s a deal with the Taliban—a near-disaster—or a deal with North Korea—it never happened, it’s all about deals.

Trump’s obsession with getting allies to pay more for everything is a recurring theme, as well as his failure to comprehend history and international relations.  Another major thread is his apparently inability to listen. He dominates briefing and meetings with off-topic rants and obsessions, and it appears that no one can reign him in.

Trump has either fired or burned out anyone who is not an enabler. Bolton and Pompeo often discussed resigning. But we now see Pompeo as a major Trump ally. Pompeo doesn’t come off well in this book. Bolton describes Pompeo’s management of the state department this way: conflict avoidance. Nikki Haley comes across as unable to grasp that she actually works for the state department, not as a free-lancer, as U.N. Ambassador. Bolton sees her as mostly wanting more camera time and wanting to further her political ambition. Ambition may be why Pompeo has clung to his job despite almost quitting few times. They both may be walking the tightrope hoping to get to 2024.

The Ukraine chapters come late in the book, since the issues helped push Bolton to resign, though he’d written his resignation letter long before and had it ready for the moment he couldn’t take it anymore. Yes, Trump did exactly what he was accused of in his impeachment. According to Bolton, Trump’s intention to withhold military aid until he was assured of investigations into what the author calls Giuliani’s Ukraine fantasies was already “baked in” before infamous July 25 phone call. Earlier in July, “the Ukraine security assistance was at risk of being swallowed by the Ukraine fantasy conspiracy theories.” “The call was not the keystone for me, but simply another brick in the wall.”

Trump, at the debriefing meeting with the delegation to Ukrainian President Zelensky’s inaugural, repeatedly said such things as “I don’t want to have any f___ing thing to do with Ukraine. They f___ing attacked me.” Volker tried to intervene to say something about Ukraine, but Trump said, “I don’t give a sh__.” Rick Perry asked for ninety days and Trump interrupted to say “I’m not f___ing interested in helping them.” Senator Ron Johnson, who was present later told Bolton he was “ ‘pretty shocked by the President’s response.’ I thought it sounded like just another day at the office.” (Johnson is nonetheless still supporting Trump today.)

For some time, Pompeo, Esper, and Bolton made efforts to get Trump to free up the military aid money for Ukraine. They calculated that individually and in various combinations they had talked to him between eight and ten times. They felt that confronting him directly about Giuliani’s fantasies would be ineffective, would result in a number of high-level vacancies, and would make Trump dig in more against releasing the aid. This is disturbing. His senior advisors couldn’t get through to him, and saw no point in being more confrontational about his delusional ideas. “Even after they became public, I could barely separate the strands of multiple conspiracy theories at work.”

“…on December 10, prompted by Trump’s Christmas party remarks on Huawei and the Uighurs, I spoke to Pompeo on those problems, and also on questions about the settlements of some of Trump’s personal legal issues. It looked like obstruction of justice as a way of life, which we couldn’t accept … Somewhere nearby was resignation territory, I said, which Pompeo agreed with.”

Bolton insists the impeachment effort was too narrow and too rushed. He says the constitutional questions should have been allowed to go through the courts.

And yet he knew so much and didn’t voluntarily testify.

Okay, if he had, I admit, I might not have bought the book. I recommend it to any undecided voters, especially those with an interest foreign policy. As of the date of my posting this review, you’ve got two months to read it before you vote.