Is John Bolton’s new memoir of his days in the Trump administration, “The Room Where It Happened,” an accurate account of what he saw in the White House as national security adviser? The answer is almost certainly yes, making it a valuable historical record. Journalists may be particularly interested to learn that Donald Trump said that we “should be executed.”
We can believe what Bolton says not because he has a long track record of honesty. On the contrary, he’s one of the most deceitful individuals ever to hold high office in the U.S. However, Bolton is also extremely intelligent by the standards of the right-wing and has a keen sense of his own self-interest. His lies in the past have always been about people and nations weaker than him, who couldn’t exact a price for his mendacity. By contrast, when he takes on those more powerful than him, such as a sitting president, we can be sure he’s careful to have reality on his side.
But whatever the merits of Bolton’s new book, it’s important to remember that he is no truth-telling hero. Here’s a short list of just some of his dreadful actions over his long and destructive career.
- Bolton strenuously supported the Vietnam War, but just as strenuously opposed the idea of him personally having to fight it. Before graduating from Yale, he enlisted in the Maryland National Guard to be sure he avoided combat. He later explained, “I had no desire to die in a Southeast Asian rice paddy,” suggesting that he was generously providing an opportunity for someone who did want to die like that. Bolton shortly went on to intern for Vice President Spiro Agnew.
- Perhaps Bolton’s most powerful impact on U.S. politics is the oldest and least-known: his role as a baby right-wing lawyer destroying post-Watergate campaign finance reforms. In Bolton’s memoir, he writes proudly of his efforts on the lawsuit Buckley v. Valeo, which resulted in a 1976 Supreme Court decision that was more important than Citizens United. The ruling struck down limits on campaign finance expenditures and self-funding by super-rich candidates. As Bolton explains, “Everyone knew the decision in Buckley v. Valeo could determine … the future shape of American politics.” He was right. Without Buckley v. Valeo, Donald Trump would never have been able to spend tens of millions of dollars of his own money to get elected and then hire Bolton.
- Bolton held many different positions in the Reagan administration in the 1980s. One administration obsession was killing international regulations on the marketing of baby formula in countries without clean water. A subordinate later wrote that when she refused to help with this project, Bolton “shouted that Nestlé was an important company and that he was giving me a direct order from President Reagan.” He then tried to fire the subordinate, and when he couldn’t, had her moved into a basement office.
- Bolton joined the George W. Bush administration as an undersecretary of state for arms control. In 2002, he declared that Cuba had a limited offensive biological weapons program. When a State Department analyst disputed stronger language in an earlier draft of the speech, Bolton characteristically tried to have the analyst fired.
- That same year Bolton did succeed in getting Brazilian diplomat leader José Bustani ousted from his position as head of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. “We know where your kids live,” Bolton told Bustani when first attempting to get him to quit. “You have two sons in New York.” Bustani’s sin was persuading Iraq to sign the international chemical weapons ban treaty. This in turn would have led to intrusive OPCW inspections, which would have demonstrated that Iraq didn’t have anything. This would have been, from Bolton’s perspective, the worst outcome possible, since it would have made it more difficult for the U.S. to attack Iraq.
- In 2015, Bolton wrote an op-ed for the New York Times headlined, “To Stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran.” It was riddled with Bolton’s characteristic falsehoods, all to make the case for unprovoked war.
- Just before Trump brought Bolton into his administration in 2018, Bolton wrote an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal calling for yet another unprovoked war, this time with North Korea. In it, Bolton argued that presidents should now be able to ignore the war powers clause of the Constitution, which reserves the right to declare war to Congress, and attack other countries whenever they feel like it.
This barely scratches the surface of Bolton’s lifelong hard-right crusade. In particular, it will likely be years before we have a full accounting of his actions as national security adviser. But in a certain sense, Bolton’s expulsion from the Trump administration demonstrates just how successful he’s been. Like many extremist revolutionaries, he triumphed and then found that the people who eventually seized power in the chaos didn’t share his agenda, and finally decided that he himself had to be purged.