“That was really quite good,” she recalled teasing him afterward. “You’re really quite the diplomat.”
Bolton turned to her.
“Don’t tell anyone,” he said. “You’re going to ruin my reputation.”
In his four-decade career as a conservative Republican hawk, an omnipresent television commentator, a caustic writer of opinion pieces and one of America’s most antagonistic government officials, the 71-year-old Bolton has nurtured that hard-boiled reputation. It’s become as fixed in the public consciousness as his signature walrus mustache.
But in a lifetime of Boltonesque moments, Bolton is now sumptuously enmeshed in the most Boltonesque moment of all as he rides a publicity blitz following publication of his best-selling book, “The Room Where It Happened,” an insider account of his tenure in the Trump administration that paints President Trump as dangerously incompetent and unprincipled. In a sense, they were born for each other, these two bombastic, master showmen turned nemeses.
Their brawl keeps getting more colorful — a state of affairs that each has been able to use to his advantage. It stokes Bolton’s book sales and gives him a larger platform to espouse his worldview. Trump, in turn, gets something he loves: a new punching bag.
In his book, Bolton calls Trump “erratic” and “stunningly misinformed” and says he’s obligated to share his take on the president with Americans before November’s election. Trump has responded by calling Bolton an “idiot” and a “wacko.” Neither has resorted to saying, “Nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah” — yet.
Bolton’s animosity toward Trump now goes so deep that he said in an interview with The Washington Post that he’d rank Democratic presidents Bill Clinton and even Barack Obama — whose Iran nuclear deal Bolton has savaged repeatedly — as handling foreign policy better than Trump. (Bolton rates Ronald Reagan as the best of the past six presidents on that count and Trump dead last.)
This November, Bolton won’t vote for Democratic nominee Joe Biden but won’t vote for Trump either. He’d be comfortable with Trump’s vice president, Mike Pence, occupying the Oval Office, he said during an interview Friday morning that was briefly interrupted as he finished typical Bolton breakfast fare — a chocolate chip cookie.
“It’s not going to do him any good at the White House if you print that,” cracked Bolton, who says he’ll find a suitable conservative as a write-in for his ballot.
Bolton’s new book has enraged Democrats who had wanted him to testify at the president’s impeachment trial but opted against issuing a subpoena when he signaled resistance. But he also has earned the disdain of some once-reliable supporters.
“This has real potential to damage national security because it will discourage this president and future presidents from consulting and confiding in the best national security experts,” said Fred Fleitz, chief of staff to Bolton when Bolton was President George W. Bush’s undersecretary of state for arms control and international security. “It is absolutely inappropriate to write such a book when a president is in office.”
A life in Washington
Bolton's was a political career born in miscalculations. Growing up in a Baltimore rowhouse as the teenage son of a firefighter and a stay-at-home mom, in 1964 he handed out leaflets for the presidential campaign of Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.). He was optimistic the conservative firebrand would win.
Goldwater lost to Lyndon B. Johnson in a landslide.
Bolton attended Yale Law School at the same time as Bill and Hillary Clinton but says he didn’t run in their circles. He considered himself one of only two “real” conservatives there. His friend and classmate — the future arch-conservative Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas — wasn’t one of the two but “later more than qualified,” Bolton said.
After Yale, Bolton practiced law in the capital for a while, then launched himself on a career path through the alphabet soup of official Washington gigdom that stretched from the early 1980s until last year: U.S. Agency for International Development, Justice Department, State Department, United Nations, National Security Council. His checklist was periodically interrupted — primarily while Democrats were in power — by think tank stints, law practice, lucrative speaking engagements and global private-equity advising work, as well as the occasional dalliance with a presidential run.
While serving as an assistant attorney general for the Reagan Justice Department’s civil division, he’d often find himself verbally sparring in the evenings with a young lawyer he’d hired, Tom Boyd. The Republican Party was in the midst of a reset, with the election of Reagan, a “movement” conservative who viewed government as getting in the way of individual initiative. Boyd considered himself a traditional, right-of-center conservative and wasn’t always in sync with Bolton’s movement-conservative fervor.
“Just out of curiosity,” Boyd recalled asking Bolton during one of those evening talks, “why did you hire me?”
Bolton, who likes to fight, responded: “I didn’t need another me.”
On the walls of the John Bolton PAC and the John Bolton Super PAC, there's an abundance of — John Bolton.
John Bolton on horseback dressed in armor skewering an arms treaty with a lance.
John Bolton driving a tank through a wall at the United Nations. (“The new U.S. ambassador is here to present his credentials.”)
John Bolton — child-size — arriving at an unruly “U.N. Playground” in shorts and carrying his lunch box. (His T-shirt reads: “Does not play well with others.”)
He is an editorial cartoonist’s dream, and the proof is right there on display in the offices he hopes will help propel campaigns for Bolton-approved candidates.
There are also photos of Bolton scrunching his nose and squinting at ballots in Palm Beach County, Fla., on behalf of Bush’s campaign during the epic 2000 presidential election recount battle.
Staring at hanging chads would be rewarding. Shortly after Bush took office, Bolton became his undersecretary of state for arms control and international security. By then, he had a well-entrenched reputation as a smart and voracious consumer of data, a formidable bureaucratic infighter, a deft massager of public opinion (translation: spinmeister) and the media (translation: skilled leaker).
At his confirmation hearing, Biden — then a senator from Delaware — said: “This is not about your competence. My problem with you over the years is that you’ve been too competent. I mean I’d rather you be stupid and not too effective.”
Once in office, Bolton called North Korean leader Kim Jong Il a “tyrannical rogue,” a barb that in 2003 prompted that country’s state-controlled news agency to call Bolton “human scum and a blood sucker.”
“I was quite honored by it, actually,” Bolton said, looking back. “When an authoritarian regime that is running a 25-million-person prison camp in its own country, which has breached every material agreement it’s had with the United States, attacks you like that, I think that it tells you you’re doing something right.”
One of his most praised moves was standing up a nonproliferation system that invited like-minded countries — under rules established by the United States — to stop ships suspected of carrying nuclear weapons or materials. In a Washington Post interview at the time, he pointedly called the idea an “activity” — not “an organization that issues diplomatic statements or has a bureaucracy or issues resolutions.”
Anyone could see he was taking a swipe at the United Nations, one of the most frequent targets of his criticisms.
Naturally, Bush named him the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, slipping him through as a recess appointee because there was little chance he would be confirmed by the Senate.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who had come up with the idea knowing that she could neutralize Bolton by tucking him into a job with a fancy title but little role in shaping policy, had the task of notifying congressional leaders. When Rice called Biden to tell him, the senator “burst out laughing,” according to a Rice biography by Washington Post reporter Glenn Kessler.
It would be a relatively short stint in New York for Bolton, and it would end badly. Less than a year and a half after assuming the job, he stepped down at the end of 2006 amid widespread belief that the Senate would not confirm his reappointment.
Out of government and on a perch at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, Bolton would watch a Bolton-less Bush administration with disapproval. He was particularly irked by the announcement of its intention to remove North Korea — once a member in good standing of Bush’s “axis of evil” — from the list of state sponsors of terrorism in return for promises that it would declare it was moving to dismantle its nuclear program. Bolton knew North Korea had violated agreements with the United States before, and he asserted that Bush was falling prey to a Soviet-style “dark art of denial, deception and disguise.”
“Nothing can erase the ineffable sadness of an American presidency, like this one, in total intellectual collapse,” Bolton wrote in a June 2008 opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal.
Having read the column, Bush told a group of reporters: “I don’t consider Bolton credible.”
It was a good little Washington dust-up. But the Bolton vs. the Presidents show was barely getting warmed up.
'We've got two bad cops'
In April 2018, Trump named Bolton his national security adviser — the third person to hold the post in the administration's first 16 months in office. There had been stories that Trump did not like Bolton's mustache, but the president assured him that wasn't true, Bolton said. Trump told Bolton that his father, developer Fred Trump, had also had a prominent mustache.
“That’s another thing for the shrinks to contemplate,” Bolton quipped.
After the announcement of his appointment, Bolton said, Trump was delighted with the media reaction.
“Some of them think you’re the bad cop,” Trump told him.
He told Trump that the president always plays the “good cop” when he’s with the national security adviser.
“The trouble is,” Trump said, “we’ve got two bad cops.”
Once he was ensconced at the National Security Council, Bolton fell into well-worn routines: Blasting out emails with 3:45 a.m. or 4 a.m. time stamps that would be waiting in his staffers’ inboxes when they woke; huddling over stacks of reports with Charles Kupperman, a decades-long friend who served as Bolton’s deputy national security adviser, at 6 a.m. in the White House; sustaining himself on an endless stream of cookies, doughnut holes and coffee.
Throughout the day, staffers would be summoned to his office for long, analytical explications.
“It wasn’t exactly very comfortable,” said Hill, who served as Bolton’s senior director for European and Russian affairs. “It’s like being in, what I imagine, one of those law classes where he cross-examines you.”
Bolton came into office sharing with Trump a volcanic aversion to Obama’s Iran nuclear deal, which lifted sanctions in return for a pledge to follow more restrictions on uranium enrichment and to allow for U.N. inspections. Bolton had long advocated bombing Iranian nuclear-enrichment facilities, an argument he made with characteristic flair in a 2015 New York Times column headlined, “To stop Iran’s bomb, bomb Iran.”
Bolton got his chance in 2019 when Iran shot down an unmanned U.S. drone. He favored a retaliatory strike, but Trump ultimately opted against it after hearing estimates of possible civilian casualties. He said “he didn’t want a lot of body bags on television.”
“This was the most irrational thing I ever witnessed any president do,” Bolton wrote.
That passage has garnered attention from Bolton critics, including Fleitz — his former chief of staff — who said in an interview that it undercut a central thesis of Bolton’s book: that Trump has no principles.
“Trump stood up to them on principles,” Fleitz said.
When word broke of Bolton’s book plans, Fleitz said, he made a “difficult decision” to separate himself and the group he leads — the Center for Security Policy — from the man he has known for 30 years and had urged the Trump administration to appoint as national security adviser.
Trump went a step further, calling Bolton a “traitor,” and his Justice Department later unsuccessfully sued to block the book’s release.
The book has topped bestseller lists since its release last week, signaling it may very well justify its reported $2 million advance. Bolton has chafed at critics who suggest he’s profiteering off his time in the White House, saying if money was his foremost concern, he would not have gone into government service.
For the foreseeable future, Bolton — out of office but not necessarily out of power — scans the horizon and sees threats large and small. The novel coronavirus has only served to warn us about our vulnerabilities to cataclysms, such as a biological attack.
Like everyone, he watched Trump make that long walk across Lafayette Square with an array of senior officials for a photo opportunity holding a Bible in front of the historic St. John’s Episcopal Church as the nation reeled from the anxieties of a pandemic and the protests following the killing of a black man in police custody.
If Bolton had been at the White House that day — not as one of Trump’s most visible critics but as one of Trump’s closest advisers — he can imagine what he would have done if the president asked him to come along.
“I probably would have,” Bolton said, “and regretted it later.”