By Fareed Zakaria
John Bolton’s book tells us very little that we didn’t already know about Donald Trump’s foreign policy. He paints a picture of a president who is ignorant — unaware, for example, that Britain is a nuclear power and that Finland is not part of Russia. Trump has few fixed foreign policy views; at times he’s been inclined to invade Venezuela, at other times losing interest in the country. But Bolton does reveal, according to the excerpts and reports published so far, that the real problem with Donald Trump is not his ignorance or his policies but his character.
President Trump has, for the most part, settled into conventional Republican policies. He has cut taxes for the rich, rolled back regulations, appointed conservative judges and lavished money on the Defense Department. He departs from the Reagan formula in two major areas — immigration and trade — and on these issues, he has changed much of the party, which is now comfortable with tariffs, subsidies and mercantilism as well as severe restrictions on immigration.
I don’t agree with many of these policies. But what has always worried me more is Trump’s character. He is a man for whom his own personal and political interests are paramount and override any other concerns — of decency, morality, even law. Bolton is not the first top aide to dissent — Rex Tillerson, James Mattis and John Kelly have all made clear their low opinion of Trump — but he is the first to provide details. And the details are damning.
(One note: Trump says Bolton is breaking the law by revealing classified information and claims “every conversation with me as president [is] highly classified.” So Trump’s defense would seem to confirm that Bolton’s account is true.)
The book says Trump promised to remove federal prosecutors who were going after a Turkish bank because President Erdogan asked him to intervene. Trump insisted that the Ukrainian government hand over incriminating information about Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden before he would release congressionally approved aid to that country. Bolton notes that he and the secretaries of state and defense tried eight to 10 times to press Trump to release those funds and that Trump refused.
Ukraine might be the most “impeachable” offense, but Trump’s dealings with China are the most troubling. U.S. policy toward China is the most important business any president will conduct. It will set the stage for peace or war, the preservation of American interests, and the security of America and its allies for decades to come. And Trump treated this relationship almost entirely as one to be used, manipulated and altered to serve his personal interests (specifically, to boost his reelection prospects).
Bolton describes Trump’s willingness to reverse prosecution and even criminal penalties against Chinese firms as personal favors to President Xi Jinping. He casually offered to reduce tariffs on Chinese goods in return for a deal that would make him look good in November, pressing Xi to have China buy agricultural products so that Trump would poll well in Midwestern states. He praised Xi for building concentration camps in Xinjiang. (We saw Trump do something similar on COVID-19, praising Xi to the skies, probably hoping to preserve their trade deal.) Bolton describes Trump as “pleading with Xi to ensure he’d win [reelection].” Most strikingly, the Chinese understood with whom they were dealing and openly played to Trump’s personal political interests. Xi said he would like Trump to remain in office for the next six years. Trump responded that “people were saying” — his favorite way of expressing his own views — that the two-term limit on U.S. presidents should be waived for him.
Bolton’s conclusion regarding the deal with China — and Trump’s foreign policy more generally — is breathtaking. “Trump commingled the personal and the national not just on trade questions but across the whole field of national security. I am hard-pressed to identify any significant Trump decision during my White House tenure that wasn’t driven by reelection calculations,” he writes.
For those who have been willing to support Donald Trump because of particular policies they have always wanted — Supreme Court judges or tax cuts — Bolton’s book makes clear the cost is high. Donald Trump will pay any price, make any deal, bend any law to assure his own survival and success.
(c) 2020, Washington Post Writers Group