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Bolton book exposes rare fissures between Trump and Pompeo

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo listens as President Trump speaks at the White House last year.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo listens as President Trump speaks at the White House last year. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

The new memoir by President Trump’s former national security adviser John Bolton exposes alleged fissures between the president and his closest foreign policy adviser, Mike Pompeo, a man who elevated himself into Trump’s inner circle through unmatched loyalty and messaging discipline.

The 592-page book — the most blistering and comprehensive insider account of the Trump presidency yet — recounts Pompeo breaking with the president across a broad spectrum of his foreign policy issues, from his near-war footing with Iran, transactional dealings with China, diplomatic flirtations with North Korea and freewheeling discussions with allies.

Pompeo, who leads Trump’s signature foreign policy objective to denuclearize North Korea, described the president’s diplomacy with Pyongyang as having “zero probability of success,” Bolton writes in the book, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Post.

Pompeo’s skepticism about the effort started before Trump’s first summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore in 2018 and only grew, Bolton writes. After listening to Trump speak with South Korean President Moon Jae-in ahead of the summit, Pompeo and Bolton shared their mutual disgust over the president’s handling of the conversation. Pompeo, having listened in on the call from the Middle East, told Bolton he was “having a cardiac arrest in Saudi Arabia,” Bolton writes. Bolton shared his similar disappointment with the call, describing it as a “near death experience.”

As the negotiations progressed, Pompeo fretted that he and his colleagues were in the “danger zone” of Trump undercutting his own North Korea goals because he so badly wanted a deal.

When Trump finally came face-to-face with Kim in Singapore in 2018, the young dictator blamed the troubled relationship between North Korea and the United States on “hostile policies of past U.S. administrations,” Bolton writes. Trump “agreed with Kim’s assessment, noting that there were some very militant people on the U.S. side.”

At that moment, Pompeo passed Bolton a note saying “he is so full of s---,” Bolton writes. It is unclear from Bolton’s writing if Pompeo was talking about Trump or Kim, but the secretary of state clearly disagreed with the two men’s belief that the United States was to blame for the bad relations between the two countries.

Pompeo lashed out against Bolton on Thursday night, calling his book “lies, fully-spun half-truths, and outright falsehoods.”

“It is both sad and dangerous that John Bolton’s final public role is that of a traitor who damaged America by violating his sacred trust with its people,” Pompeo said in a statement.

He did not rebut any of the specifics of Bolton’s claims.

Pompeo, a former member of Congress from Kansas, has outlasted all of his peers on Trump’s national security team who either resigned in anger, such as former defense secretary Jim Mattis, or were fired unceremoniously, like former secretary of state Rex Tillerson.

One person close to Pompeo said the secretary would survive the book because Trump despises Bolton, whose ouster he announced last September in a tweet. “Trump won’t believe the book is true because he hates Bolton,” said the person, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment on the book.

A senior White House official said that Pompeo still has the confidence of the president.

But Trump’s reaction to media reports about his advisers insulting him can be difficult to predict. Despite Trump’s antipathy toward NBC News, after the network reported that Tillerson called him a “moron” in 2017, the president repeatedly seethed about the insult, and the relationship never recovered.

The key to Pompeo’s longevity has been creating zero daylight between himself and the president, reflexively defending Trump’s most controversial policies and tolerating the president’s sporadic micromanagement of the department, including his request to fire the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine at the time, Marie Yovanovitch, a decision that became the focal point of the House impeachment proceedings.

On Yovanovitch’s firing, Bolton writes that Pompeo declared to him that there were “no facts” to support allegations made by Trump’s personal attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani against the American ambassador. At the State Department, Yovanovitch’s colleagues urged Pompeo to publicly stick up for the career diplomat. Pompeo dragged his feet about removing her from her post but did not publicly defend her.

Bolton writes that Trump repeatedly asked for Yovanovitch to be ousted. After one tongue-
lashing from Trump on the subject in April 2019, Bolton writes that he called to report Trump’s outburst to Pompeo.

Pompeo responded that had already shortened Yovanovitch’s planned tenure, which had seemed to satisfy Trump. “Pompeo wanted to leave it at that,” Bolton writes. “I told him the mood was pretty volcanic because she wasn’t gone entirely, which was met with a groan.”

Pompeo then agreed to order Yovanovitch back to Washington that very night.

Bolton’s book, “The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir,” is the subject of an escalating legal battle with the Justice Department, which filed a lawsuit Tuesday seeking to block its publication by alleging that it contains classified material. Bolton’s attorney has said the book does not contain classified material and that it underwent an arduous review process.

Bolton comes to his newfound position as a Trump critic after a lifelong reputation as a rock-ribbed conservative, Fox News commentator and Republican serving in administrations dating back to the 1980s.

During his tenure under Trump, Bolton and Pompeo often clashed behind the scenes, and last September Pompeo defended Trump’s decision to fire him, saying there “were definitely places that Ambassador Bolton and I had different views about how we should proceed.”

But the two men have long shared a similarly hawkish foreign policy, which led them to confide in each other and express dismay about the president’s actions, Bolton writes.

For instance, in one key Dec. 10, 2018, meeting, Bolton writes that he met with Pompeo to express his worry that Trump engaged in “obstruction of justice as a way of life,” indicating that he told Pompeo this was a state of affairs they “could not accept.”

He said he told Pompeo that Trump’s softening of sanctions against Chinese companies accused of violating sanctions and endangering U.S. telecom infrastructure amounted to appeasing the United States’ enemies. “Somewhere nearby was resignation territory, I said, which Pompeo agreed with,” Bolton writes.

Many of Bolton and Pompeo’s objections to Trump related to the two men’s extremely hawkish positions on foreign policy issues. For instance, the two men shared their sense of anguish in the summer of 2019 when Trump decided against bombing Iran in response to its downing of a U.S. drone.

“This is really dangerous,” Pompeo said, according to Bolton’s book, as both men fumed about the president’s refusal to use military force.

After Trump pulled out of the Iran strikes at the last minute, Pompeo said he was so distressed that he stayed up until 2 a.m.

“I can give him latitude in what he decides he wants, but I can’t figure out how to do what he wants. We can keep telling people we are concerned about Iran’s missile programs, but who will believe us?” Pompeo says, according to the book.

During a different discussion with French President Emmanuel Macron over a potential Iran nuclear deal, Trump said that he would be willing to relieve oil sanctions for a while, the book recounts.

The proposed concession on relieving the sanctions was “beyond belief to him,” Bolton says, describing Pompeo’s reaction. Pompeo said he would call Republican Sens. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.), Ted Cruz (Tex.) and Tom Cotton (Ark.) to stir up GOP opposition to negotiations.

“Once again Pompeo was ready to resign, and he said it was only a matter of time until we both made that call,” Bolton writes.

Pompeo is regularly depicted as trying to keep Trump from pulling troops out of various countries, including in the Middle East and the Korean Peninsula. “Pompeo said he feared Trump was back to leaving the Peninsula entirely,” Bolton writes of the aftermath of one Trump-Kim summit.

Pompeo has previously dismissed accounts of palace intrigue as inaccurate, including ones about him fighting with Bolton that were later confirmed. But the Bolton book, buttressed by copious notes and vivid details, may be more difficult for Pompeo to discredit.

Still, Pompeo has proven himself to be an eager member of the Trump Cabinet, forgoing a bid for a Senate seat from Kansas this month despite Trump’s encouragement that he run and keep it in Republican hands.

People close to the secretary said he enjoys being at the nexus of power even in an administration run in ways he thinks are troubling. “Becoming the junior senator from Kansas isn’t remotely as appealing,” said a close ally of Pompeo’s.

Josh Dawsey and Rosalind S. Helderman contributed to this report.