Political Economy Journal: A book review on ‘The Room Where It Happened’; Bolton reveals what happened in the room

BY: Chaitra Arjunpuri*

PEJOURNAL – “No one really knows how the game is played, the art of the trade, how the sausage gets made, we just assume that it happens, but no one else is in, the room where it happens.” (Lyrics in ‘Hamilton’)

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s ‘Hamilton’ compares himself to Alexander Hamilton, founding father and first treasury secretary. In the Broadway smash, ‘Hamilton’, Aaron Burr, the antagonist laments his lack of nexus to power as opposed to the protagonist who is negotiating a compromise on the federal government’s assumption of the state debts. In the song, Burr complains, “I wanna be in the room where it happens.” And here comes John Bolton, with his memoir ‘The Room Where It Happens’, narrating his 17 months as national security adviser to the US president, Donald Trump, in remarkable detail. The title is not just a coincidence is what we realize while going through the details.       

“You know, your views and mine are actually very close. Very close,” Trump shook his hands with John Bolton during his campaign. Fast forward 2018: Trump was looking for a replacement for his second national security adviser HR McStar. He saw Bolton on Fox News and loved his commentaries, and who knew the rest would be a part of history or even a part of a book one day! 

When President Donald Trump fired Bolton as his national security adviser in September 2019, Fred Kaplan wrote, “We may, at last, have in Bolton a piece of scorched debris from Trump’s inner circle disgruntled and disloyal enough to write a scathing tell-all memoir.” And here comes Bolton with his much-talked memoir, The Room Where It Happened, an account of his 17 months as Trump’s national security adviser. 

Known to be a meticulous note-taker, Bolton has packed his memoir’s nearly 600 pages with every minute detail, including the time and length of routine meetings. He doesn’t even spare out the details of even a nap, at one point! The book oozes his obsession far and wide-ranging from Iran, Iraq, North Korea, and at home “the high-minded” former defense secretary Jim Mattis.  

As a committed defender of the Iraq war and an adamant Iran nemesis, Bolton’s top priorities in the White House remained to make sure Trump did not sign a deal with either North Korea or change his mind on his withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal. He hates the nuclear deal of Iran signed with former President Barack Obama and the other five countries. He often calls it a “wretched deal” and urges Trump to “withdraw from the nuclear agreement” and feels “the use of force against Iran’s nuclear program might
be the
 only
 lasting
solution”.
     

Bolton pushes Trump to approve a series of military strikes in retaliation of Iran’s attack on an unmanned American drone. He’s full of excitement going home “at about 5.30” to change his clothes because he wanted to be at the White House “all night”. He’s utterly shocked when Trump decides to call off the strikes at the last minute after realizing that the attacks would result in the deaths of as many as 150 people. “Too many body bags,” Trump told him. “Not proportionate.” He seems enraged by Trump’s caution and humanity, considering it “the most irrational thing I ever witnessed any President do”. 

Death in other countries and for others has no value in his eyes, which he himself had avoided years ago. In his Yale University 25th reunion yearbook, he wrote: “I confess I had no desire to die in a south-east Asian rice paddy. I considered the war in Vietnam already lost.” He doesn’t seem to care even if there are casualties in Iran or in Syria: “No one seemed to care particularly about potential Iranian casualties, although both Russians and Iranians were increasingly located throughout Syrian territory held by Assad’s forces.” 

He’s exhilarated to “shred the Iran nuclear deal, showing how easy it was to do once somebody took events in hand”. He does his “best to prepare” the allies Britain, Germany, and France “for what happened, because they had seemed completely unready for a possible US withdrawal”. 

Trump seems to readily agree to his advises on Iran, but with caution on Iraq: “Trump said, “you know, you and I agree on almost everything except Iraq,” and I replied, “Yes, but even there, we agree that Obama’s withdrawal of American forces in 2011 led us to the mess we have there now.”

Bolton offers his strong review of Trump’s foreign policy: his last-minute reversal of a retaliatory strike against Iran after the shoot-down of a US drone was “the most irrational thing I ever witnessed any President do”, his coddling of Kim “made me ill”, the “slowness and lack of agility” of his Venezuela policy was “painful to watch”, his withdrawal of US troops from Syria was a “huge mistake”. 

Bolton accuses Trump of doing personal favors for dictators such as interfering with US investigations. He gives details about Trump’s dealings with Russia. In a joint press conference with Russian leader Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Trump “misspoke” and appeared to side with the Russian leader over US intelligence agencies. Bolton writes that Putin must have been “laughing uproariously” later. 

It’s not just Bolton himself, many Cabinet officials who are seen as Trump loyalists, such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, actually make fun of him behind his back for his lack of foreign policy knowledge. He writes that Trump asked if Finland was part of Russia: “Isn’t Finland kind of a satellite of Russia? He asked. (Later that same morning, Trump asked Kelly if Finland was part of Russia.)”

In the series of events, Bolton mentions disturbing situations when Trump tried to please the President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan by dangling the possibility of removing or easing pressure on the Turkish bank, Halkbank. Trump told Erdogan that Halkbank’s legal troubles for violating the Administration’s sanctions on Iran would be taken care of if the “Obama people” who worked as prosecutors in the Southern District of New York were “replaced by his people”. Bolton feels it as an empty promise from the side of Trump. “It was as though Trump was trying to show he had as much arbitrary authority as Erdogan.”

Trump’s conversations with China’s leader Xi Jinping were even more open trade negotiations. He assured to ease the pressure on Chinese telecom companies ZTE and Huawei. He writes Trump made “matters worse” by implying that Huawei also could be simply another “US bargaining chip”, ignoring “the criminal case” and “the threat it posed to the security of fifth0generation telecom (or 5G) systems worldwide”.

During his trade negotiations, Trump “turned the conversation to the coming US presidential election, alluding to China’s economic capability to affect the ongoing campaigns, pleading with Xi to ensure he’d win,” Bolton writes. “I would print Trump’s exact words, but the government’s prepublication review process has decided otherwise.”

Knowing Xi was effectively “President for life” in China, he asks his help to win the elections by buying more US farm products. Trump praises him, “You’re the greatest Chinese leader in three hundred years!” and amends it a few minutes later to “the greatest leader in Chinese history”. 

While praising Xi, Trump gives a “go ahead with building the camps” for Uighurs which he thought was “exactly the right thing to do”. “Religious repression in China was also not on Trump’s agenda; whether it was the Catholic Church or Falun Gong, it didn’t register,” Bolton writes.

This is not the only incident when Trump didn’t care about lives abroad. Bolton notes, “He says it would be ‘cool’ to invade Venezuela.” He also reveals that Trump’s unrepentant defense of Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman over the assassination of Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi was to “divert” the attention “from Ivanka”. Ivanka had used her “personal e-mail for government business, “which the White House was trying to explain was actually quite different from Hillary Clinton’s extensive use of her personal e-mail for government business”. Trump didn’t stop there regarding reporters. Bolton writes that Trump said that the US should be able to jail journalists to force them to reveal their sources. “These people should be executed, they are scumbags,” Trump said. 

Bolton also records the doubts of Israel leader Benjamin Netanyahu about Jared Kushner’s ability to deliver Middle East peace. He writes, Netanyahu was “enough of a politician not to oppose the idea publicly, but like much of the world, he wondered why Kushner thought he would succeed where the likes of Kissinger had failed”. Denying his remarks, Netanyahu has said he “has complete faith” in “Kushner’s abilities and rejects any description to the contrary”. Bolton also notes that the Israeli prime minister “had known” and Kushner’s “family for many years”, indicating a strong relationship.  

Bolton gives detailed and captivating accounts of Trump’s two summits with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, in Singapore and in Hanoi. The first summit ended with a meaningless joint declaration and the second one failed as there were no talks. Kim came to Hanoi with “only one strategy” offer, an “action for action” formula: he would dismantle Yongbyon nuclear site if Trump lifted all sanctions imposed since 2006. Trump rejected the offer and “walked away” as Yongbyon was not the only reactor Kim has in Korea. Trump offered to negotiate by saying that he would lift “some of the sanctions” if Kim banned producing “long-range ballistic missiles, the ones that could hit the United States”, but Kim didn’t “buy” his ideas.

When Kim continued to persuade Trump, the latter said that “the political impact” would be so huge that “he could lose the election”. Kim said that “he didn’t want Trump to do anything that would harm him politically,” to which Bolton adds in his remark, “Oh great,” one of his many snarky remarks found in the book. “I am hard-pressed to identify any significant Trump decision during my tenure that wasn’t driven by reelection calculations,” he writes. 

In fact, he’s very disappointed in Trump as the president. He writes that the desk in the Oval Office is called the “Resolute Desk”. Time and again he notices that the president’s public persona is different from the man who sits behind the Desk. He strongly believes that the president did not remain steadfast with respect to many of the foreign policies that Bolton favored.“Trump was not following any international grand strategy, or even a consistent trajectory,” Bolton observes. “His thinking was like an archipelago of dots (like individual real estate deals), leaving the rest of us to discern – or create – policy.” At one point, he even notes: “He opposed ‘endless wars’ in the Middle East but had no coherent plan for what followed withdrawing US forces.”

He describes the president’s “vindictiveness, as evidenced by the constant eruptions against McCain, even after McCain died and could do Trump no more harm”. No wonder, Trump bashes Bolton as a liar and threatens him with criminal prosecution. 

As a shrewd storyteller, Bolton keeps the chapter on Ukraine at the end of the book. It carries Bolton’s account of the Ukraine affair, in which Trump Trump said he wanted Giuliani to meet with Ukraine’s then-President-elect Volodymyr Zelensky “to discuss his country’s investigation of either Hillary Clinton’s efforts to influence the 2016 campaign or something having to do with Hunter Biden and the 2020 election, or maybe both”. Along with other officials, Bolton repeatedly tried to persuade Trump to release military aid to the besieged nation. But Trump, “said he wasn’t in favor of sending them anything until all the Russia-investigation materials related to Clinton and Biden had been turned over,” he writes. 

Responding to this, Trump tweeted: “I NEVER told John Bolton that the aid to Ukraine was tied to investigations into Democrats, including the Bidens. In fact, he never complained about this at the time of his very public termination. If John Bolton said this, it was only to sell a book.”

The president was impeached over the Ukraine episode, though not removed. Surprisingly, Bolton, who wrote so much in this book, didn’t testify under the oath. However, he mentions about the impeachment process, saying that the House of Representatives was guilty of “impeachment malpractice” because they focused only on the telephone call of July 25. “Had the House not focused solely on the Ukraine aspects of Trump’s confusion of his personal interests (whether political or economic), but on the broader pattern of his behavior – including his pressure campaigns involving Halkbank, ZTE, and Huawei among others – there might have been a greater chance to persuade others that ‘high crime and misdemeanors’ had been perpetrated.”   

He gives a reason for not testifying, “Had I testified, I am convinced, given the environment then existing because of the House’s impeachment malpractice, that it would have made no significant difference in the Senate outcome,” sounding almost similar to what he had written in his 2007 book, ‘Surrender Is Not An Option’, “Dying for your country was one thing, but dying to gain territory that antiwar forces in Congress would simply return to the enemy seemed ludicrous to me.”

However, Bolton’s justification has not gone well with his critics. Taking creative license with his “History Has Its Eyes on You” lyrics, ‘Hamilton’ creator Lin Manuel Miranda tweeted:

“Let me tell you what I wish I’d known

When I was young and dreamed of glory

You have no control Who lives, who dies, who

[borrows your song title to write a cash-in book when they could have testified before Congress] tells your story …”

Bolton and Trump thought that they both shared each other’s views, but very soon realized they didn’t. After firing Bolton, Trump tweeted, “Frankly, if I listened to him, we would be in World War Six by now.”

Throughout the book, Bolton spews venom on those he does not like. He notes former UN ambassador Nikki Haley was “untethered” and a “free electron” communicating directly with Trump. Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner was an interfering person who was “doing international negotiations he shouldn’t have been doing (along with the never-quite-ready Middle East peace plan)”, he writes. Bolton describes Mike Pompeo, secretary of state, as “secretive” and too willing to make concessions that Trump wanted. He was too subservient to the boss that a pushback on arms control was “a rare occasion of Pompeo’s being explicitly critical of something Trump did”. However, former secretary of defense James Mattis is like Bolton’s favorite punching bag. 

In the early pages, he trashes Mattis as an “obstructionist” for pursuing his own agenda, contrary to Trump’s policies that Bolton favored. Throughout the book, he keeps giving his remarks about Mattis. He’s “looking for excuses not to do much of anything” in retaliating against Syrian chemical weapons use, Bolton notes. He would “predict gloom and doom when he didn’t get his way” on policy, he used “spite” as a common tactic, prompting Bolton to observe “they didn’t call him ‘Chaos’ for nothing”. Bolton seems more than happy when Mattis resigns. He quotes Trump’s parting line: “He’s leaving . . . I never really liked him.” And Trump’s bizarre claim: “He’s a liberal Democrat, you know that, don’t you?”

Whatever his distortions and misunderstandings, Bolton is known as a scrupulous note-taker. He narrates his 17 months stint as national security adviser in striking detail and his account will astonish you. He records every Trump rant, reckless phone calls, and private talks. No wonder the White House was so determined to block this book, as it exposes Trump’s foreign policy and exposes him as “stunningly uninformed”.  

It’s obvious that Trump’s loyalists are gawking at the trouble that will not vanish, and it’s no surprise that Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, called Bolton “a traitor who damaged America by violating his sacred trust with its people”, while Peter Navarro, the White House Director of Trade and Manufacturing, labeled the books as a “deep swamp revenge porn”.   

Though much of the book reads like a notebook dump – the index alone is 33 pages detailing his relationship with Trump for 17 months and all the things that went down before their relationship crumbled – we cannot deny the fact that he was “in the room where it happened”.  

*Chaitra Arjunpuri is an Indian writer and journalist based in Qatar. She’s the author of three books, including two collections of book reviews.  

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