Regarding John Bolton: A reply to Scott Johnson

In a post called “Jeff Sessions: The Open Questions,” Scott critiqued a post I wrote about the demonization of John Bolton. My post was called “It’s John Bolton’s turn.”

My post objected to the treatment by some conservatives of Sessions and Bolton. Scott discussed both ex-Trump administration officials. I replied to the portion of Scott’s post pertaining to Sessions here. Now, I will reply to the portion pertaining to Bolton.

If I read Scott’s post correctly, he questions whether Bolton has been demonized (or, if you prefer, vilified) at all. In an email to me, Scott said I was “arguing with shadows.”

This, though, is what President Trump had to say about Bolton in a tweet I quoted in my post:

For a guy who couldn’t get approved for the Ambassador to the U.N. years ago, couldn’t get approved for anything since, “begged” me for a non Senate approved job, which I gave him despite many saying “Don’t do it, sir,” takes the job, mistakenly says “Libyan Model” on T.V., and many more mistakes of judgement, gets fired because frankly, if I listened to him, we would be in World War Six by now, and goes out and IMMEDIATELY writes a nasty & untrue book. All Classified National Security. Who would do this?

Trump casts a giant shadow. Within two days of his attack tweet, conservative commentators were piling on.

Lou Dobbs called Bolton a RINO and a “tool” for radical Democrats and the “deep state.” Rodney Howard-Browne, a conservative pastor who has visited the White House to “lay hands” on Trump, lamented not physically assaulting Bolton when he had the chance. The pastor added that Jesus Christ would have “beat the crap out of” Bolton for disobeying President Donald Trump.

Rush Limbaugh referred to Bolton as “the next Christine Blasey Ford.”

It was these sorts of denunciations (and there were others) that I had in mind when I wrote my post.

I can’t tell from Scott’s email and his post whether he thinks Bolton should be attacked in harsh terms like those used by Trump. If he doesn’t, then we are in agreement on the main point I tried to make in my post.

It is clear that, at a minimum, Scott thinks Bolton was wrong to seek the publication of his memoir of service in the Trump administration before the upcoming election, and that doing so was a betrayal of trust. But that’s not the same thing as believing that Bolton should be denounced the way he was in Trump’s tweet and the attacks that followed.

As to whether Bolton should have sought publication of his book, Scott cited with approval an article by Bolton’s longtime friend and associate, Fred Fleitz. The article criticized Bolton’s decision but did not demonize Bolton. Scott deems Fleitz’s criticism of Bolton’s decision “unanswerable.”

I respect Fleitz (as I respect Bolton) and knew he had expressed this view. However, I don’t agree with it.

The public benefits from truthful accounts by former administration officials about the policies a current administration has employed or is employing. This is particularly true if a president isn’t telling the truth about his policies.

Suppose an ex-Obama administration official had written that, contrary to the White House’s claims, the president was orchestrating the IRS’s policy of withholding tax exempt status from conservative organizations. I wouldn’t criticize that ex-official for blowing the whistle, I would praise him or her.

In Bolton’s case, assuming that accounts of what he has written are true, the former national security advisor is contradicting Trump’s claims about the withholding (for a brief time) of aid to Ukraine. That issue – the matter of “quid pro quo” — was at the heart of the impeachment proceedings. It remains in dispute (though probably not in serious doubt). I think the public would benefit from Bolton’s first-hand account.

There is, to be sure, a potential downside to books like Bolton’s. Fleitz identifies it. Such insider accounts might deter future candid discussions between the president and members of his staff.

However, Bolton’s is not the first insider’s book about the Trump administration. There is The Briefing by Sean Spicer, Unhinged by Omarosa Manigault Newman, Team of Vipers by Cliff Sims, and A Warning, by an anonymous White House official. There has also been non-stop leaking about presidential conversations (which I don’t approve of).

These books weren’t written by members of Trump’s national security team. However, special procedures protect against the breaching of national security through books like Bolton’s.

Fleitz’s point wasn’t that Bolton’s book threatens national security. It was that it makes candid discussion less likely because the revelations might affect the next election. But the same is true, potentially, of revelations in the other books.

Yet the publication of these books does not appear to have deterred candid White House conversations. I gather, for example, that Trump and Bolton communicated candidly about key matters such as Ukraine policy. I gather, too, that extensive leaking in past administration hasn’t prevented candid White House conversations.

Even so, reasonable people can disagree with me as to whether the benefits of a book like Bolton outweigh the potential risks. I didn’t argue that Bolton should be immune from criticism for seeking to publish his book. My argument was that he shouldn’t be demonized.

I also wondered why President Trump has selected so many people for key positions whom he later found severely wanting and, in some cases, saw fit to demonize. I’m still wondering.