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Ambassador John Bolton, who was President Trump's national security adviser, has deep familiarity with Republican administrations. But as he describes in a new book, "The Room Where It Happened," Bolton found Trump's divergence from presidential norms "stunning." Bolton's claims about Trump's foreign policy, in particular, have stirred national controversy. Bolton joins Judy Woodruff to discuss.
Ambassador John Bolton has worked in every Republican presidential administration since Ronald Reagan.
But, during his most recent government stint as President Trump's national security adviser, he saw a different kind of commander in chief, and the differences, he says, are stunning. He stepped down from that post last September.
And he is now out with his latest book, "The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir."
And John Bolton joins us from Washington.
Mr. Bolton, thank you very much for being with us.
I want to start with something that actually happened after you left the White House, and that is the coronavirus and its effect on this country.
You do lay blame in the book on the Chinese leadership, but you also say President Trump, every decision driven by his desire for reelection. Do you think he has put his reelection ahead of the country's interests in the way he's handled this pandemic?
Well, I think that's certainly true at the beginning.
Back in January, when key people around the government, on the staff of the National Security Council, the Centers for Disease Control and other places were signaling that this could be a pretty terrible medical incident, I don't think the president wanted to hear that news.
I don't think he wanted to hear anything bad about Xi Jinping. He didn't want to hear about Chinese efforts to conceal the nature and extent of the disease in China. He didn't want to see the trade deal with China in jeopardy, and particularly in this country, he did not want to hear anything about a negative effect on the economy that might jeopardize his reelection.
And I think, as a consequence of this empty chair in the Oval Office phenomenon, we wasted a lot of time that could have been used to mitigate the effect of the pandemic.
Let's turn to impeachment.
In essence, in the book, you lay out in great detail how the charge that was the basis for impeachment, that the president used the powers of his office to get — to try to get Ukrainians to do him a political favor, you lay out in detail exactly how that happened.
And yet you decided not to testify when you were asked by the House of Representatives. I know you have made the argument that you don't think you could have changed minds.
But what I'm hearing from a number of people on the Hill is that, if they had known last year, before the impeachment hearings, that it could have changed minds. Why don't you believe so?
Because I think they know that the impeachment effort was a massive failure, and I think they're looking for excuses.
The fact is, we have a model in this country of how to conduct a successful impeachment process. And it's obviously what happened at Watergate. Nixon wasn't convicted by the Senate, to be sure, but he did resign.
And that model was the Watergate Committee chaired by a Democrat, Sam Ervin, but working cooperatively with leading Republican Howard Baker, to build a kind of bipartisan base.
You know, when you run a partisan process, which is what the House Democrats did, it has consequences. And in this case, it was to push Republicans into a partisan corner in the House. They literally pushed away Republicans who might have been sympathetic to a truly nonpartisan approach.
And they had the same consequence in the Senate. And there's one other point I think that's important that I think demonstrates whatever I had to say would have just been lost in the turmoil, is that many Republicans, House and Senate, bought the White House argument that, no matter what the president did, as described in Ukraine, that his conduct, even if it was reprehensible, did not rise to the level of an impeachable offense.
That's why Republicans voted overwhelmingly in the Senate not to call any new witnesses.
So, I think it's — when the Democrats jump off a cliff and they're halfway down, they look up and say to me and others they could have said it to, why don't you join us, it rings hollow.
I have got a number of other things I want to — I do want to cover, Mr. Ambassador.
One is, the president and what happened with China and with Russia. You lay out, again, in detail how the president pandered to Chinese leader Xi Jinping, that he went easy, if you will, on the Chinese human rights repression of the Uyghurs, all in — so that he could get the kind of trade deal that he wanted.
You quote — you say that Vladimir Putin played President Trump like a fiddle.
How concerned are you that the Chinese and the Russians may try to interfere in this year's election in order to help President Trump?
Well, I think they would try to interfere in this year's election. I don't know who they would try and help.
I think their main objective — and I think this has been true for some time — is to sow mistrust in the United States about our constitutional structure. I think any time they can get us going at each other's throats, they're successful. And I think they have done a pretty good job of that.
And I think, if you look at what Vice President Pence said in a speech last year about Chinese efforts, it goes well beyond simply interfering in the election. That's bad enough.
The Chinese, even more than the Russians, I believe, are trying to influence American public opinion more broadly. This is a very significant part of the reason why we need a comprehensive strategy to deal with the Chinese threat across the board. It is a mistake — it's also a mistake in the case of Russia — to limit our concern to interference in the election.
I'm not downplaying that. I'm saying, this is a part of a much bigger picture.
You criticize a number of top officials in the book, aside from President Trump, former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the Treasury secretary, Steve Mnuchin, the former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley.
I read Washington Post columnist David Ignatius writes — and I'm quoting — "You are the hero of nearly every anecdote."
What about that? I mean, what about the criticism that this is a book about self-aggrandizement of John Bolton and criticizing a lot of other people?
Well, my focus is on the president. I tried to tell what happened in the range of issues we covered.
Some people come out better than others. I try to make sure I admitted in the book mistakes that I made. And I'm sure I made my share and maybe more. I was trying to tell this as honestly as I could. Obviously, it's a memoir. I told it from my perspective.
But I'm not questioning their integrity or patriotism. They will write what they want to write. They can tell their side to have the story, God bless them.
Just a few other questions, Ambassador Bolton.
In the White House right now, who do you believe would stand up to President Trump?
You know, if I answer that question, I'm going to get somebody in trouble.
So I will just say this. I think there are people who remain in the administration who have the correct view of how to defend American national interests. I think they are striving to do that.
I certainly have been criticized. So have other people, like Jim Mattis, John Kelly, others who have left the administration, criticized from two sides. One, why didn't you resign three days after you got there? Or the even more extreme criticism, you never should have joined up.
Other criticism is that you should have stayed longer, you should have fought harder, you shouldn't have given up so early.
Look, it's a very personal decision. I will just say, I think a lot of people joined the Trump administration, in part, perhaps they believe that I did, that it could not be as bad as some of the outside critics said. We all lasted as long as we could. That's not a decision anybody can second-guess, really, until you have walked in the kinds of shoes we have walked in.
But I think there were a lot of people who thought they were trying to make a contribution to the welfare of the country by serving. And that the what I tried to do. But so did many others.
Let me ask you very quickly about the president's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who, as you know, came from a real estate background.
He has played a huge role in the White House in foreign policy. Has that been a constructive role?
Well, I don't think that it has been. I don't think you should treat the White House or the U.S. government as kind of a small family business. I'm not on a moral high horse about anti-nepotism statutes. It's not a question of advancing somebody.
But I think there's a difference when your family is deeply involved in this kind of decision-making.
I will just go back a little bit in history. I don't think it was a good situation when John Kennedy made his brother attorney general. I think that was a mistake. That's just how I feel about it.
And, finally, a question about this election coming up.
You do say throughout the book you think the president is driven by his desire to be reelected. Right now, he's running behind in the polls. There are a couple of polls that have him 12, 14 points behind, both FOX and The New York Times.
What do you believe — I mean, if this president is focused on getting reelected, what do you believe he's capable of doing in order to stay in good shape that he would get reelected?
Look, first off, I don't believe these polls. I'm not putting any real weight on them. It's four months until the election. A lot can change in the economy, with respect to the coronavirus.
Famously, in 2016 — let's just say it again, so everybody remembers it — Hillary Clinton was substantially ahead, and she lost, because we don't have a purely popular vote system. We have an Electoral College.
So, before anybody gets hyperthyroid about what Trump may or may not do, let's just remember, this election, I think, is still a coin toss. I haven't seen any evidence that he would do anything unconstitutional.
And I think it's — I think Trump critics make a mistake when they exaggerate the nature of the threat. If we saw any evidence of some kind of extraconstitutional effort, I think we should all, as a nation, stop it. Particularly, the conservatives in the Republican Party have an obligation to stop it, and I think they will.
John Bolton, former White House national security adviser, the new book, "The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir."
Thank you very much.
Thanks for having me.
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