And the former national security adviser has one very clear and consistent message for his fellow conservatives: You should worry about a second Trump term.
In his book “The Room Where It Happened” and in new interviews about it, Bolton makes the case that whatever conservatives might have gotten from Trump in his first term, all bets would be off in a second term, when Trump wouldn’t have to worry about being reelected. Essentially, whatever moorings Trump has, Bolton suggests, they’d be gone come Nov. 4:
- “The concern I have, speaking as a conservative Republican, is that once the election is over, if the president wins, the political constraint is gone. And because he has no philosophical grounding, there’s no telling what will happen in a second term.” (ABC News interview)
- “Once he’s free of any reelection pressure, it’s going to be revealed what one of my greatest concerns is — is that he’s not a conservative. And that’s one reason I wrote the book. I think it’s important to make it clear to Republicans and to Democrats that this is not the future of the Republican Party.” (NPR interview)
- On China: “Most important of all, will Trump’s current China pose last beyond Election Day? The Trump presidency is not grounded in philosophy, grand strategy or policy. It is grounded in Trump. That is something to think about for those, especially China realists, who believe they know what he will do in a second term.” (Wall Street Journal excerpt of Bolton’s book)
- On Supreme Court justices: “But let’s imagine he’s reelected and a member of the liberal side of the Supreme Court leaves. I could imagine advisers that he has now saying, ‘You know, you nominated two wonderful conservative justices in your first term. Now think of your legacy. Think of the balance of the Supreme Court. Nominate equally competent liberal justices in your second term so that you leave the balance of the court as it was when you came in. What a legacy that would be.’ ” (ABC interview)
That last one feels overstated. Bolton is essentially suggesting — without directly saying it — that Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, who until recently were registered Democrats, might convince Trump to replace a Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg with a liberal justice.
But there is no way that Senate Republicans, who would almost undoubtedly retain their majority if Trump is reelected, would countenance that. Given the value of replacing the likes of Ginsburg with a conservative justice and turning the court from 5-to-4 conservative to 6-to-3 conservative, there would be virtually no limit to what those GOP senators would do to force Trump’s hand. Such a showdown would effectively be the end of the already uneasy working relationship between those senators and Trump. And given the stakes, it would be the kind of thing that could actually prove a dealbreaker for the overwhelming portion of the GOP base that has stuck by Trump. Trump would effectively be inviting everyone to hate him — rather than just half the country — and torching whatever legislative agenda he might have.
There is some truth in what Bolton is saying writ large, though. Bolton describes a president whose entire being is consumed with winning reelection, and there is plenty of evidence to back that up. From the moment he was elected, Trump has pursued much the same strategy as the one that got him elected in the first place: keep the base animated at all costs. And Trump’s public commentary has made clear that he’s constantly making decisions with an eye toward his reelection. What happens when that’s no longer part of the calculus?
Trump will still need to mind his base, of course, for reasons outlined above. But this calculus hasn’t prevented him from running a chaotic administration that, by the accounts of many of those around him, including Bolton, is forced to pivot from one executive whim to another. Trump may not totally thumb his nose at the conservatives who would have delivered him successive electoral victories, but he would certainly be more untethered in other, less inherently ideological respects.
China, for example, is an issue Trump spoke about long before he became a politician and seems to have true convictions about. Ratcheting up the trade war there in previously unfathomable ways wouldn’t seem to be out of the question.
Ditto his efforts to call into question the legitimacy of our judicial system and the heavy hand he’s employed when dealing with legal matters involving himself and others. Like China, this kind of thing may not be a dealbreaker for his base, but it is something on which you could foresee Trump becoming significantly more extreme in a second term.
What about the coronavirus? Trump for a period at least begrudgingly followed the advice of the health officials around him, but that was obviously never his true inclination. How would he deal with such a crisis (or another coronavirus wave) if he didn’t have to worry about his stewardship of it affecting a reelection campaign?
In a way, Bolton is making a valid argument to the wrong crowd. There is clearly a significant and sizable majority of the country — including many in the middle and even some who have stuck by Trump — who aren’t enamored of Trump’s tweets or his public commentary or his chaotic leadership. An Associated Press-NORC poll this weekend showed that Americans say 54 percent to 12 percent that Trump has made things worse during the George Floyd protests rather than made things better. (Only 22 percent of Republicans say he’s made them better.) Likewise, Americans say 64 percent to 12 percent that Trump has made the country more divided rather than more united. (Again, just 1 in 5 Republicans say Trump has united us.) Polls have routinely showed strong majorities of Americans view his personal character negatively.
There is already evidence that people who don’t like either Trump or Joe Biden are siding strongly with the presumptive Democratic nominee — a reversal of what we saw in 2016, when Trump carried these voters handily. Republicans will probably stick by Trump because of things like conservative Supreme Court justices, but there are plenty of other voters for whom the potential increase in chaos Bolton outlines in a Trump second term would seem to be a compelling message.
It’s a message that we haven’t seen quite as much as one would expect, but it seems ripe for the arguing — just, perhaps, not in precisely the way Bolton communicates it.