Trump in tweets Wednesday morning labeled Bolton “a guy who couldn’t get approved for the Ambassador to the U.N. years ago, couldn’t get approved for anything since, ‘begged’ me for a non Senate approved job, which I gave him despite many saying ‘Don’t do it, sir.’ ”
“Why didn’t John Bolton complain about this ‘nonsense’ a long time ago, when he was very publicly terminated,” Trump asked, referring to the claims in Bolton’s book.
Bolton may not have complained so directly, but Trump seems to have missed the signs of what was to come.
What’s notable about Trump’s outburst is how unprecedented it is. Despite Bolton leaving the White House under less-than-ideal circumstances and disputing Trump’s claims about his departure, Trump has resisted going to war with him — as he has with plenty of others. Even as Bolton loomed as a potential impeachment witness and seemed to lean into criticizing Trump, Trump seemed to opt for a strategy of hopeful appeasement of Bolton, perhaps in hopes that he wouldn’t go there.
The strategy hasn’t worked; Bolton is now going there. In his book, he links Trump directly to a Ukraine quid pro quo, among other big claims.
In September, after Trump announced Bolton’s departure and said he had asked Bolton to resign, Bolton took to Twitter to dispute that and say he had offered to resign first and that Trump didn’t initially accept it.
When White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham backed up Trump’s version, Bolton told the Daily Beast that her “statement is flatly incorrect.”
He also told The Washington Post’s Robert Costa: “Let’s be clear, I resigned, having offered to do so last night.” Pressed further, he said: “I will have my say in due course. But I have given you the facts on the resignation. My sole concern is U.S. national security.”
As he was departing, his loyalists in the White House were warning about what might come next. “Since Ambassador Bolton has been national security advisor over the last 17 months, there have been no bad deals,” one ally said conspicuously.
The signs seemed to be clear enough: There was acrimony here, and Bolton — by his own account — wasn’t just going to sit this one out. He has spoken sparingly in the months since then, but he notably seemed to warn about Trump’s elusive pursuit of a North Korea nuclear deal, and he even suggested Trump’s foreign policy decisions may be driven by his personal interests.
Nonetheless, despite this and despite Trump having been on poor terms with Bolton in the final months of his time in the White House, Trump treated him gently. He occasionally pointed to errors Bolton had made — including by floating a “Libya model” for North Korea and the Iraq War — but he otherwise suggested there was no animosity.
“I got along well with him,” Trump said in October. “Some people didn’t; some people didn’t like John Bolton. I actually got along with him pretty well. It just didn’t work out.”
He added later that month when asked about Bolton testifying, “I like John Bolton. I always got along with him, but that’s going to be up to the lawyers.”
Even shortly after Bolton’s lawyer suggestively previewed that his client had knowledge of significant, unknown events in the impeachment inquiry — a disclosure that presaged where we are today — Trump the next day retweeted Bolton’s comments about 9/11 and the progress in the fight on terrorism.
And finally, in late November, Trump called Bolton “a patriot” and seemed to not-so-gently nudge him toward a helpful version of events on Ukraine.
“John Bolton is a patriot and may know that I held back the money from Ukraine because it is considered a corrupt country,” Trump said.
That tweet is particularly jarring now, given that’s precisely the subject on which Bolton has now come out against Trump. He says in his yet-to-be-released book that Trump told him the military aid to Ukraine was withheld in connection with Trump’s desire for specific investigations. It’s not unreasonable to think Trump might have known what Bolton was privy to, and he was trying to steer him in the direction of saying this was about corruption in Ukraine. Bolton chose a different course.
Whatever the case, it has become clear that Trump’s careful treatment of Bolton has failed to reap dividends. He’s now essentially the one firsthand witness saying Trump had a quid pro quo with Ukraine. Nobody knows exactly what his testimony would look like, but it appears as though it could be as damaging to Trump as Trump’s allies feared.
Now the man Trump relatively recently hailed as a “patriot” is suddenly a disaster. But the strategy of maligning and trying to discredit him isn’t without its pitfalls, either. Trump ally Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) warned Trump on Wednesday after the tweets, “I am concerned when John Bolton’s credibility is attacked, it makes it more likely some will feel the need to call him as a witness.”
It seems Trump may need to rethink his Bolton approach — again.
This post has been updated with Graham’s comment.