Whether you like John Bolton or not, it’s impossible to deny that he is someone who spent almost 18 months in very close proximity to President Donald Trump. And someone who was in meetings in which major decisions about national security and foreign policy were made.
Which is why these lines from Bolton – from his interview with ABC’s Martha Raddatz that ran Sunday – regarding how Trump conducted the business of being president are so incredibly striking (bolding is mine):
“There really isn’t any guiding principle – that I was able to discern other than – what’s good for Donald Trump’s reelection.
“Now, look, you can’t take the politics out of politics. It plays a role in every aspect of decision making in the executive branch. But there’s no coherent basis, no strategy, no philosophy. And decisions are made in a very scatter-shot fashion, especially in the potentially mortal field of national security policy. This is a danger for the republic.”
What those lines confirm is something I’ve long believed: There is no secret plan that Trump is operating against. He isn’t playing three-dimensional chess. He’s playing zero-dimensional chess. He’s just, well, doing stuff. And seeing what sticks. (There are myriad examples over his first three years in office that prove this out.)
“Most people are surprised by the way I work. I play it very loose. I don’t carry a briefcase. I try not to schedule too many meetings. I leave my door open. You can’t be imaginative or entrepreneurial if you’ve got too much structure. I prefer to come to work each day and just see what develops.”
This who he is – and always has been. He has no plan, not for the day, the week or the month. No broad strategy. He just acts or, more often, reacts. His belief system and what he cares about is deeply flexible. He can think one thing in the morning and another, opposite thing by lunch.
Which is fine – if deeply unorthodox – in the world of business! After all, Trump’s name is on the company he ran. If he wanted to run it by whim and gut, well, that’s his right! (While Trump has tremendous faith in his gut, the numerous bankruptcies littering his business life suggest he might do well to trust it less.)
It’s much less fine when that approach is used to deal with national security and geopolitics. Because while the stakes for Trump’s businesses are primarily financial, the stakes in the White House are often life and death. As Bolton told Raddatz: “This is a danger for the Republic.”
And we don’t even need to take Bolton’s word for the lack of rhyme or reason to Trump’s approach to these critical areas. We can see it for ourselves.
One day Trump is calling North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un “little rocket man” and telling him that the American nuclear button is “bigger & more powerful…and my Button works!”
Then, suddenly, Trump is meeting with Kim – and stepping across the demilitarized zone into North Korea.
But, to what end? What was the goal of the meeting? What were the deliverables? Again, Bolton provides insight:
“I think he was so focused on the re-election that longer-term considerations fell by the wayside. So if he thought he could get a photo opportunity with Kim Jong Un at the demilitarized zone in Korea, or he thought he could get a meeting with the ayatollahs from Iran at the United Nations, that there was considerable emphasis on the photo opportunity and the press reaction to it and little or no focus on what such meetings did for the bargaining position of the United States, the strength that our allies saw or didn’t see in our position, their confidence that we knew what we were doing. And I think it became very clear to foreign leaders – that they were dealing with a president who just wasn’t serious about many of these issues, to our detriment as a country.”
Trump’s summit with Vladimir Putin – at which Trump infamously said that the Russian president had denied meddling in the 2016 election – follows the same pattern. Trump, desperate for photo-ops in which he looks powerful and a great man of history, has no plan for why the meeting should be taking place or what specifically he needs to get out of it.
Because he is focused on himself, not the country. Because he has spent a lifetime just doing things to get attention and media coverage – positive or negative didn’t really matter. His life has been a series of seat-of-the-pants decisions guided by an unswerving and not altogether proven-out faith in himself and his judgment.
Which, again, fine if you are running a company with your name on it. Much less fine if you are the head of a country that, well, doesn’t have your name on it. And when your quick-twitch decision-making has reverberations that will last long after you are president.
The most important thing Bolton’s memoir reveals is that Trump doesn’t grasp the difference between how he ran his businesses and how someone has to run a country. Making it up as you go along might be OK for the Trump empire. But it’s potentially disastrous for the American experiment.