The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In CNN interview, John Bolton says he has planned foreign coups

Former U.S. national security adviser John Bolton in 2020. (Jonathan Drake/Reuters)
Placeholder while article actions load

Former White House national security adviser John Bolton said Tuesday that it was a “mistake” to believe the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol was part of a “carefully planned coup d’etat” by President Donald Trump.

“That’s not the way Donald Trump does things,” Bolton told Jake Tapper on CNN’s “The Lead.” “It’s rambling from one half, vast idea to another, one plan that falls through and another comes up — that’s what he was doing.”

John Bolton said he planned foreign coups. The global outcry was swift.

Then Bolton claimed to have firsthand experience orchestrating coups. “As somebody who has helped plan coups d’etat — not here, but, you know, other places — it takes a lot of work, and that’s not what [Trump] did,” Bolton told Tapper.

Bolton’s comments were unusual, as U.S. officials have generally avoided using the term “coup” when speaking about U.S. foreign policy matters. The remarks went viral, with one clip on Twitter amassing more than 2 million views by early Wednesday.

Bolton’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Washington Post.

Trump called impeachment a ‘coup.’ Here’s why past U.S. officials have avoided the word.

Tapper later pressed Bolton to elaborate on his “expertise having planned coups,” asking whether they were “successful coups.”

Bolton responded that in his 2020 memoir, he wrote about the United States’ support for an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to overthrow Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro in 2019.

“Not that we had all that much to do with it,” Bolton said, “but I saw what it took for an opposition to try and overturn an illegally elected president, and they failed.”

The remarks Tuesday were a departure from Bolton’s previous statements about Venezuela. “This is clearly not a coup,” he told reporters in 2019.

A longtime Republican hawk, Bolton served as Trump’s national security adviser for 17 months before a turbulent departure in 2019. Before that, he held a major role in arms control during the George W. Bush administration and served as the ambassador to the United Nations in 2005 and 2006. Bolton has often embraced foreign intervention by the United States, having supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq and advocated for regime change in Iran months before joining the Trump administration.

John Bolton’s turbulent tenure comes to a Trumpian end

His remarks about planning coups came as the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack presented evidence Tuesday that Trump spurred right-wing extremists to march to the Capitol and had secret plans to direct his supporters there.

Bolton told Tapper that the former president’s false claims of election fraud were indefensible. Yet he argued that Trump’s actions were “not an attack on our democracy.”

“It’s Donald Trump looking out for Donald Trump,” Bolton said. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence.”

Tapper pushed back, arguing “one doesn’t have to be brilliant to attempt a coup.”

Bolton then said he had planned foreign coups d’etat in the past, and it wasn’t what Trump did, arguing that the former president was “just stumbling around from one idea to another.”

“The notion that Donald Trump was half as competent as the Venezuelan opposition is laughable,” Bolton later added.

Referring to Bolton’s stated résumé of planning coups, Tapper said he felt as if there’s “other stuff you’re not telling me.”

Bolton responded, “I think — I’m sure there is.”