There’s a lot to digest from former national security adviser John Bolton’s explosive new book, which depicts a Trump White House in moral and political crisis. Bolton has also flooded the airwaves this week, including sitting down for an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on Wednesday.
In the book, “The Room Where It Happened,” Bolton said President Donald Trump only genuinely cares about his re-election and asked leaders of Ukraine and China to help him win in November. Bolton also said Trump is woefully uninformed about basic matters of foreign policy and is obsessed with shaping media coverage of his presidency.
Bolton’s purported $2 million advance is now in jeopardy. A federal judge said Bolton likely published classified information without government approval, which means the Justice Department can try to seize his profits or even bring criminal charges. Trump signaled his support for the latter, saying Tuesday that Bolton “should be in jail.”
CNN broke down some key takeaways from Bolton’s book and media tour, highlighting details you may have missed.
The far reach of Trump’s wrath
Throughout his presidency, Trump has repeatedly called for the Justice Department to investigate and imprison his political enemies, including his predecessor Barack Obama, his 2016 opponent Hillary Clinton, former FBI Director James Comey, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, and many others. This week, Bolton joined the list.
In a series of tweets, Trump recently claimed Bolton “broke the law” and “should be in jail.”
With Bolton, it’s not just bluster. A federal judge said Saturday that Bolton “likely jeopardized national security by disclosing classified information” in his book, and therefore “exposes himself to criminal liability” by releasing the book before he received explicit government authorization.
Bolton denies committing any crimes, but the Justice Department will weigh in on that. Under Attorney General Bill Barr, the department has rigorously investigated some Trump critics and shown extraordinary deference to Trump’s allies who were convicted of crimes. (Two Justice Department officials testified to Congress on Wednesday about these alleged political abuses.)
Asked by Blitzer if he’s prepared to go to jail over the book, Bolton said, “I don’t think there is any reason, whatever, for that to happen.” Bolton acknowledged that he might need to give up the proceeds from his book, but said he would fight in court to prevent that outcome.
“The judge’s decision creates some issues for Bolton. Combine that with a Bill Barr-run Justice Department that hasn’t been shy about going out on a limb,” said Ross Garber, a former CNN legal analyst with extensive expertise in politically charged investigations. “If I were Bolton or his lawyer, that would be of great concern. The judge gave some air cover for criminal charges.”
Fighting over classified material
While there is essentially no evidence to support Trump’s claims that Bolton’s memoir is filled with outright lies, there is a more compelling case to be made that it contains potentially classified information, according to legal experts familiar with the case.
“There are a number of examples, but one that really stands out for me is the discussion of the President’s decision-making on bombing Iran,” said Norm Eisen, former counsel to House Democrats and ethics czar in the Obama White House. “The specificity of the deliberations, the structure of the President’s reasoning and that of other senior level officials and the high value of all that information to Iran and to other adversaries when there are future tensions.”
rForeign intelligence services and analysts are likely using Bolton’s book to gain insights into the sitting president, Eisen added, noting “that is not good for our national security.”
However, Eisen told CNN he does not believe Bolton should have kept his concerns to himself but rather presented them in a controlled environment, like during the impeachment inquiry, where careful judgments could be made about what information was made public.
More information on this key topic will come to light in the coming months if the Justice Department continues to pursue its case against Bolton and tries to claw back his earnings from the book.
Key claims corroborated
Bolton’s claims deserve scrutiny, as do his motives. He did not testify during Trump’s impeachment proceedings – where he could have shared these details under oath, and without expecting payment. And given his unceremonious departure from the administration, and the personal attacks he and the President exchange on Twitter, he appears to have an axe to grind.
But many of the book’s key claims are corroborated by CNN’s past reporting.
The book includes stunning new details about Trump’s dealings with foreign leaders, including his deference to China. Bolton claims Trump didn’t want to upset trade talks, so he refused to sanction China over its use of concentration camps for Uyghurs and other minority Muslims.
Bolton also details a meeting last year between Trump and Chinese leader Xi Jinping, where Trump urged Xi to buy American agricultural products to help his reelection. This shocking claim was denied by US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer last week and has not been independently verified, but Bolton said Tuesday he would consider testifying about the meeting.
CNN has previously reported on several aspects of this story. Trump is obsessed with his own reelection. He has an affinity for strongmen leaders, including Xi. And he’s fixated on China purchasing US farm products. The President even praised Xi’s early handling of the coronavirus outbreak – at least in part – because he feared his criticism would derail the trade negotiations.
The President appeared to confirm one of the anecdotes himself, in an interview with Axios this week. The President explained that he had not retaliated against the Chinese Community Party or Chinese companies over the concentration camps, so as not to derail trade negotiations.
Trump’s most sensitive topic
In the book, Bolton shed new light on the Trump-Russia scandal and Trump’s response to Russian meddling.
US intelligence agencies, special counsel Robert Mueller, and bipartisan reports from Congress have released overwhelming evidence that the Russian government interfered in the 2016 election to help Trump win. Trump has vociferously denied that his campaign colluded with Russia. But amazingly, he has also repeatedly said Russia didn’t even meddle in the election.
Instead, Trump has embraced conspiracy theories that absolve Russia of responsibility. He even publicly accepted Russian President Vladimir Putin’s denials during their infamous 2018 summit in Finland, which Bolton described in the book as a “self-inflicted wound” for Trump.
“He did not like talking about election interference,” Bolton told ABC News on Sunday. “He made what I viewed as the mistake of believing that if he accepted that the Russians had intervened in the 2016 election, that it legitimized the narrative that they had intervened to help him, hurt Hillary Clinton, and that he would not have won without the Russian interference.”
This corroborates what other ex-Trump advisers told special counsel Robert Mueller, including former chief strategist Steve Bannon, chief of staff Reince Priebus, spokesman Sean Spicer, campaign official Rick Gates, and Hope Hicks, who returned to a White House post this year.
Trump’s unwillingness to acknowledge Russian meddling has hampered his ability to forcefully respond to Russia, a geopolitical adversary that is still trying to undermine US democracy. The Trump administration has taken some punitive steps against Russia, but Trump himself has adopted a Russia-friendly posture, and even tried to undo some of these steps, Bolton said, like new US sanctions on Kremlin allies.
Is Bolton the new Comey?
Bolton finds himself in a strangely similar position to Comey, the FBI head Trump fired in 2017. Both had high-profile departures under Trump and later condemned his behavior – but they also garnered considerable controversy for their decisions, and burned some bridges along the way.
In his book, Bolton twists himself into a pretzel trying to explain why he didn’t speak out or testify during Trump’s impeachment, despite possessing relevant and explosive information that would have undoubtedly strengthened the case against the President. Bolton says he refused to engage with House Democrats because they botched the process and rushed things for political purposes.
This reasoning hasn’t satisfied Bolton’s detractors. It’s similar to how years ago, few were persuaded by Comey’s explanation why he publicly discussed the Clinton email investigation but never said anything about the Trump-Russia investigation until after Trump took office. Like Bolton, Comey possessed explosive information about Trump but kept quiet during a critical period.
Also, both men have seen their political alliances shift over time. Democrats castigated Comey during the Clinton investigation, only to become his biggest cheerleaders when he turned on Trump. For Bolton, he transformed from a respected leader in conservative foreign policy circles to a persona non grata, with some prominent Republicans publicly disavowing him as a “traitor.”
This article has been updated with analysis on the comparison between Bolton and Comey.