John Bolton’s Original Sin

It’s not about what’s in his book; it’s about how he’s always framed his decision to do nothing.

John Bolton adjusts his glasses.
John Bolton in Durham, North Carolina, on Feb. 17. Melissa Sue Gerrits/Getty Images

John Bolton’s decision to take the money and run has all but drowned out the important revelations in his new book, The Room Where It Happened, which was published this week despite the Trump administration’s best efforts to block it. To be sure, Bolton has garnered very few fans with his decision to cash in as he bails out, and—as I argued last autumn, when we first learned of the book deal— democracy simply cannot survive a bunch of egomaniacs running around building their tawdry brands in lieu of doing their duty. If COVID has taught us anything, it’s that commerce can’t fix it.

But while I join the many vociferous critics of Bolton who deplore his decision to make a quick buck off his proximity to power, I think that in the fog of capitalism we may also have failed to name his original sin: Bolton first gave up on America, and he then also gave up on himself. The subheading on his book might just as easily have been “Important Enough to Make a Profit but Not Important Enough to Make a Difference.” That really isn’t the moral lesson the nation needs to hear.

That Bolton simply gave up on America doesn’t bear much discussion. We all know that while he had material evidence about Donald Trump’s unlawful and abusive conduct in office—that evidence forms the heart of his book after all—he refused to testify in the impeachment hearings without a court forcing him to do so, and he allowed his subordinates to take the professional and personal attendant risks of testifying instead. While Bolton now proclaims that the House Democrats who impeached Trump committed “impeachment malpractice” by “limiting their inquiry to the Ukraine matter and moving too quickly for their own political reasons,” and for failing to broaden their inquiry to include Trump’s meddling around Turkey’s Halkbank or China’s ZTE, he himself sat back and allowed all that to happen. That is all information he had and chose not to divulge when the House impeachment proceedings were playing out. Now he derides America for not knowing enough about it. As Nancy Pelosi has put it, “I don’t want to pay money for a book that was a substitute for testifying before Congress about the well-being of the American people.”

But even Bolton’s decision to hold himself above the formal constitutional system of checks and balances, to sit as omniscient Shakespearean chorus as impeachment proceeded without him, wasn’t his true original sin. Bolton’s belief that Democrats failed to bring the impeachment case he would have brought and his conviction that this failure somehow zeroed out both Trump’s lawlessness and his own moral obligation to participate are, after all, of a piece with the general pox-on-both-houses worldview that currently holds that “government” is the problem and therefore “government” can’t possibly serve as the corrective. It allows one to both work in government while also disparaging democratic processes. That viewpoint is so thoroughly entrenched in this era that Bolton’s cynical decision to sit out impeachment and make some bank off his experience almost seems reasonable. Something should have stopped Trump, Bolton suggests, but it sure couldn’t have been the Democratic impeachment process and it sure couldn’t have involved John Bolton. Boy, howdy, government sure is broken.

Still, Bolton’s single greatest failing isn’t his steadfast refusal to have done the right thing and helped rid the country of this president when he could. His greatest failing is the same one we’ve witnessed in virtually every other enabler around this president: He’s convinced himself that he just wasn’t powerful or important enough to do anything. Bolton made this point explicitly in a Washington Post live event Tuesday when he acknowledged that “it may have been a ‘mistake’ not to challenge President Trump more aggressively during his tenure at the White House.” But Bolton justified his refusal to directly contradict a president who was demonstrably uninformed and reckless because, as he explained Tuesday, “I’m not an investigator. … I had plenty of stuff to do. … I told other White House advisers of my concern [and] I tried to do my job.” And then, as befits a cast member in the first-ever television presidency, Bolton compared himself to a decades-old television show about the presidency: “Service in the White House is not like The West Wing,” he explained, referring to the TV drama. “There aren’t dramatic confrontations with the president.” He went on to add that the Democrats were to blame for the “partisan” nature of the impeachment process, adding that because of that “partisan” quality, he did not think it would be worth it to jump “off the cliff” to serve their cause. Again, he seems utterly unaware of the irony: He could have made it nonpartisan but declined to do so. Thus the Democrats were to blame, not him.

Bolton declined to testify before the House without being forced to and then agreed to testify before a Senate that decided not to hear him. Since then, Bolton has insisted that nothing he said would have made a difference anyhow. And oddly, this is the part I find unforgivable. Not the money-grubbing so much as the cowardice; the creeping nihilism and lack of agency that pervade this entire presidency, a nihilism that suggests that nobody should ever attempt to do anything because nothing could make a difference anyhow. We’ve heard this refrain trotted out so frequently that it barely leaves an impression anymore. It’s not merely that those who depart this administration claim that they couldn’t have stopped anything but also the way the public responds to cowardice like Bolton’s. There’s a collective acceptance of the idea that, well, of course he shouldn’t have testified in the impeachment process because it wouldn’t have changed the outcome. The outcome was preordained by the number of Republicans in the Senate, or by their refusal to hear from witnesses, or by their fear of being primaried. Whatever it is, nobody is ever to blame for the decision to chicken out.

Bolton himself made the testifying-was-pointless claim in February and former National Security Adviser Susan Rice took him to task for it: “I can’t imagine withholding my testimony, with or without a subpoena,” Rice told him at the time. “I also can’t imagine, frankly, in the absence of being able to provide the information directly to Congress, not having exercised my First Amendment right to speak publicly at a time when my testimony or my experience would be relevant. And, frankly, when my subordinates … were doing their duty and responding in a fashion consistent with their legal obligations to provide information,” Rice said. “I would feel like I was shamefully violating the oath that I took to support and defend the Constitution.” Saying that you failed to act because it wouldn’t have changed outcomes is the last refuge for the cowards at the bottom of the food chain; it is inexcusable in leaders at the apex of their careers.

And that kind of cowardice, it appears, is contagious. It’s not just that Bolton has convinced himself that he was too insignificant to directly challenge Trump (after all he had “plenty of stuff to do”), and it’s not just that he declined to testify before the House (after all it was “partisan”). It’s that even after all this time, he has convinced himself that the testimony wouldn’t have changed anything, and he’s got millions of Americans parroting the same nonsense: Nobody has an affirmative obligation to stand up and do what’s right. The outcome is preordained. Nobody’s resistance matters.

It’s easy to see the Trump administration in conjunction with Mitch McConnell’s senate as a juggernaut that cannot be defeated by any action taken by anyone ever. But when Bolton complains that he couldn’t have made a difference, it’s an insult to all of the people out on the streets protesting, and also an insult to every young lawyer at the Justice Department who is courageously testifying, and also an insult to the Alexander Vindmans and Fiona Hills as well as to every other, lower-ranking person who may have mattered less than John Bolton in the org chart but who stood up anyhow. Most of the people who are fighting cluelessness and authoritarianism and presidenting-for-profit will never be in the room where it happened, but they certainly wouldn’t have the temerity to suggest that going higher up in Trump World makes your resistance matter less.

David French wrote this week about why the Bolton book won’t make any difference. It’s because the people closest to Trump “understand and discern precisely the chaos that Bolton describes. To stop the worst mistakes … one must be ‘in the room where it happens,’ to quote Bolton, quoting the musical Hamilton. But to stay in the room, one must engage in the flattery and the loud public defenses Trump requires.” In other words, people enter Trump’s orbit knowing his limitations and deficiencies. They say nothing while in service to him, they flatter and pander to him, then they all leave and suggest they were powerless to stop him. They want credit (and royalties) for having had the best of intentions, while perpetuating the myth that nobody bears any responsibility for enabling Trumpism because it’s unstoppable.

That’s the nihilism that seeps into public conversations about resisting Trump: Don’t bother impeaching him if it won’t end in removal, don’t bother speaking out against him if it won’t change anything, don’t bother testifying because it won’t matter. It is the language of abuse, every time. But it is not the language of democracy. The message, all told, is that since doing anything is futile, the heroes of the day are those who at least make money off of the doing nothing. And that is the central tragedy of Donald Trump’s time in office. The maddening thing about Bolton’s book is his definition of the “axis of adults” who ostensibly populate this mythical room where it happened. It now seems that they are sufficiently adult to profit off that service but not grown up enough to safeguard a desperately faltering democracy.