He could be “the John Dean of Donald Trump,” says a former senior administration official.
The president’s former national security advisor—the flame-throwing John R. Bolton—is now a private citizen. Gone, but not allowing himself to be forgotten. As evidenced by pointed public remarks made earlier this month at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), and even more searing comments made at a gathering in September at the secretive Gatestone Institute, Bolton is making no bones about distancing himself policy-wise from the president of the United States.
Bolton noted wryly at CSIS that he was now “free to speak, in unvarnished terms.” But the million-dollar question in Washington these days is if Bolton is doing more.
“So not surprising,” said an administration interlocutor who’s known Bolton for years, in response to a rash of unfavorable leaks now shelling the administration. “Ukrainegate”—that is the impeachment inquiry—now subsumes the White House. As House Intelligence Chair Adam Schiff said Wednesday, President Trump “sought to coerce a vulnerable ally into conducting sham investigations involving his opponent,” referring to leading Democratic presidential candidate Joseph R. Biden, Jr. The White House denies that characterization, and leading administration officials, including Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have said they will not cooperate with the House inquiry.
Still, the matter suddenly colors all of U.S. politics—with the Democratic candidates, including leading rivals such as Bernie Sanders—closing ranks around Biden at the Ohio debate Wednesday night. Sanders emphasized the House had “no choice” but to impeach Trump, for violating the Constitution’s emoluments clause, an Article I provision that holds that “no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them, shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present… of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.”
Controversial, as well, has been the behavior in Ukraine by Mr. Biden’s son, Hunter Biden. The younger Biden sought to allay concerns this week in a press blitz. He also resigned from the board of a Chinese company. Former Vice President Biden’s alleged softness has also been seized on by leading Republicans. On his recent moves, Hunter Biden told ABC: “I think it’s pretty obvious why” he’s made them.
But the overriding question is why now, and why this scandal? Trump has navigated rocky waters before—mostly notably the Mueller investigation—but it was Ukraine that begot likely impeachment. Some argue the matters are inextricably tied, with Trump overreaching in an attempt to procure fully exonerative evidence on the 2016 election. Remarkably, the scandal again engulfs Trump’s leading Democratic rival, this time Biden not Hillary Clinton. But the dynamic supplies Republicans with a rich counter-narrative that’s useful, at the very least, in shoring up Trump’s standing among conservatives.
Daily Beast reporting Wednesday indicated that Trump is concerned that Bolton is behind the leak campaign against the White House. Proof positive are the appearances of Bolton allies before Congress, including the former National Security Council Russia hand Fiona Hill, who impressed on the Hill this week.
Those who know him express skepticism. Frederick H. Fleitz, Bolton’s former chief of staff on the NSC, has become one of the most viral, telegenic defenders of the administration on this matter in recent days. Would Bolton really break so forcefully with a protege?
A former senior administration official reminds that Bolton has “always been at odds and extremely unpopular” with the permanent bureaucracy in Washington, making the former national security advisor an unlikely ally of this contingent, even after he was unceremoniously discarded by Trump. But then again, this person said, Bolton is vengeful.
Curt Mills is a foreign affairs columnist at The National Interest, where he covers the State Department, National Security Council and the Trump Presidency.