I am waiting for the word “weasel” to appear in Tweets from President Donald Trump any day now. It’s precisely the kind of epithet that would spring to the mind and thumbs of the leader of the free world to disparage former national security adviser John Bolton, as the White House attempts to block the publication on Tuesday of a potentially highly damaging book to the re-election prospects of the president.
To that end, the Trump administration asked a federal judge earlier this week to stop the publication of Bolton’s In The Room Where It Happened, claiming the long-time Republican apparatchik had breached non-disclosure agreements and was risking national security by exposing classified information.
This is the type of gunfight Bolton thrives on — an old-style gun slinger who shoots from the lip. He doesn’t take prisoners
But here’s the thing about weasels: They are ferocious fighters and, in this case, come armed with a manuscript that will maul President Trump, his tempestuous thinking and the temerity of the Oval Office — and an administration steeped in the excesses of the First Amendment unaccustomed to the moral high ground in a freedom of speech case.
Both are exactly the type of gunfights Bolton thrives on — an old-style gun slinger who shoots from the lip. He doesn’t take prisoners.
Lawsuit against Bolton
The suit, filed in Washington federal court, alleges that Bolton’s manuscript was “rife with classified information,” and prosecutors say that Bolton backed out of an ongoing White House vetting process for the book that he’d been obligated to do as a result of the agreements.
On Monday, President Trump said Bolton could face criminal liability if the book comes out. “I will consider every conversation with me as president highly classified. So that would mean that if he wrote a book and if the book gets out he’s broken the law,” Trump said. “That’s called criminal liability. That’s a big thing,”
Bolton, who served as Trump’s national security adviser for about 18 months, is a controversial figure in Washington. He is a Republican policymaker known for his hawkish stance on foreign affairs. Bolton was fired by Trump in September 2019 over simmering differences on a range of foreign policy issues, most notably North Korea and Afghanistan.
In the book Bolton writes that almost every decision by Trump was motivated by domestic politics, and that he committed impeachable offences even beyond the charges related to Ukraine.
Trump's re-election calculation
“I am hard-pressed to identify any significant Trump decision during my tenure that wasn’t driven by reelection calculations,” Bolton writes in the book, according to a statement by the publishers, Simon and Schuster.
The book describes Trump as “a president addicted to chaos, who embraced our enemies and spurned our friends, and was deeply suspicious of his own government”.
Trump has accused Bolton of not completing the clearance process required for a book by former government officials who had access to sensitive information. While Trump admitted he had not read the book, he said the problem of revealing conversations with the president “becomes even worse if he lies about the conversation, which I understand he might have in some cases.”
US Attorney General William Barr — Trump’s Censor-in-Chief — has also waded in noting the administration was “trying to get them to go through the process and make the necessary deletions of classified information.” Classified or politically damaging?
Bolton, unsurprisingly, isn’t backing down. His lawyer Chuck Cooper says Bolton had painstakingly worked with classifications specialists at the White House National Security Council to ensure classified material is not published.
“This is a transparent attempt to use national security as a pretext to censor Mr. Bolton, in violation of his constitutional right to speak on matters of the utmost public importance,” according to Cooper. “This attempt will not succeed, and Mr. Bolton’s book will be published June 23.”
Bolton became a central figure in the Senate impeachment trial of President Trump after it became clear Bolton was personally involved in meetings relevant to whether Trump withheld military aid to Ukraine for political reasons.
The book says Trump explicitly told Bolton he did not want to release aid until Ukraine helped with investigations related to the 2016 election and Democrats, including former Vice-President Joe Biden — now Trump’s adversary and favourite in this November’s presidential election.
Bolton, 71, is a Yale graduate, lawyer and diplomat who served as President George W. Bush’s ambassador to the United Nations.
He has long advocated an aggressive US foreign policy including the right to strike first against potential threats. He was a strong proponent of the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq and still believes toppling Saddam Hussein was the right move, despite the failure to find weapons of mass destruction and the costly occupation.
After leaving the Bush administration, Bolton espoused his views as a columnist and Fox News commentator. In that role, he called for pre-emptive military action against Iran and North Korea. In 2015, he wrote an op-ed that ran in The New York Times titled To stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran.
And in a 2018 piece in The Wall Street Journal that ran just before he was tapped to become Trump’s next national security adviser, he argued it was “perfectly legitimate” for the US to strike North Korea first to take out the threat posed by its nuclear weapons.
Bolton was tapped to replace outgoing national security adviser H.R. McMaster in March 2018. From the offset Bolton clashed with Trump, who sought to disengage the US from military conflicts rather than beginning new ones.
The president and his national security adviser disagreed on a number of key issues, including peace talks with the Taliban in Afghanistan, withdrawing US troops from Syria and negotiations with North Korea. He also wanted Trump to take more aggressive action against Iran and Venezuela.
The two can’t even agree on the circumstances of Bolton’s departure from the White House. The president says he fired him, Bolton tweeted that he had offered his resignation the night before and Trump had told him, “Let’s talk about it tomorrow.” Bolton texted journalists saying, “Let’s be clear I resigned.”
The book, however, represents Bolton’s opportunity to set the record straight first — if indeed straight records mean anything nowadays anyway.