Hayward: Bolton Offers Nitpicky Criticism of Trump While Feeding Media’s Scandal Culture

Former US Ambassador to the UN John Bolton speaks to the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor, Maryland, February 24, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / Mike Theiler (Photo credit should read MIKE THEILER/AFP/Getty Images)
MIKE THEILER/AFP/Getty Images

Former national security adviser John Bolton published an excerpt from his new book The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir in the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday.

The excerpt dealt with President Donald Trump’s China policy and included the controversial claims that Trump asked Chinese dictator Xi Jinping for help winning re-election in 2020 and gave his blessing to the concentration camps China was building at the time for the Uyghur Muslims of Xinjiang province.

Bolton declared Trump’s China policy a “scandal,” even though the excerpt began with him agreeing with Trump’s disdain for the “two basic principles” that have long guided U.S. policy towards China: the notion that economic engagement would liberalize China, and that prosperity naturally leads to “political openness.”

“Both propositions were fundamentally incorrect,” Bolton asserted, arguing that China got worse in every respect after it joined the World Trade Organization in 2001. It used “free trade” principles as cover to rob its trading partners blind, and exported authoritarianism instead of importing democracy. China has its most powerful and ruthless authoritarian ruler since Mao, not a flourishing of democracy, and it is growing more aggressive instead of more peaceful.

Bolton tipped his cap to Trump’s understanding of “the key truth that politico-military power rests on a strong economy,” and his distrust of the fundamentally incorrect principles guiding China policy since the close of the previous century, but then tore into Trump for doing just about everything wrong when it was time to take action. 

In Bolton’s view, the foreign policy shop at the Trump White House was nothing but chaos, infighting, and bad hires, presumably excluding John Bolton. Trump changed his mind too often, failed to provide a firm vision for his advisers to work with, and was too easily manipulated by glad-handing foreign leaders, Bolton claimed, prominently including Xi Jinping.

Contrary to the general perception of Trump being tough on China, Bolton thought he was far too soft and too willing to cede both policy and principle to Xi in the hope of reciprocal concessions that never came. 

Some of Bolton’s critique reads a great deal into Trump’s verbal tics and conversational gambits, taking what some see as Trump’s bluster and “schtick” very seriously. For example, he fumed over the way Trump “nodded approvingly” when Xi said over dinner in Buenos Aires that the U.S. has too many elections, and he would rather deal with a more stable leader who had a longer term in office.

The bombshell passage in Bolton’s China chapter involves a meeting between Trump and Xi in Osaka that Bolton admitted he could not quote verbatim because “the government’s prepublication review process has decided otherwise,” but in essence Xi complained about Americans who want to start a “new Cold War” with China – bog-standard boilerplate Chinese rhetoric repeated every time any American politician says something Beijing doesn’t like – and Trump supposedly assumed Xi was scoffing at the Democrats and offering Chinese assistance to keep them out of power:

Whether Xi meant to finger the Democrats or some of us sitting on the U.S. side of the table, I don’t know, but Trump immediately assumed that Xi meant the Democrats. Trump said approvingly that there was great hostility to China among the Democrats. Trump then, stunningly, turned the conversation to the coming U.S. presidential election, alluding to China’s economic capability and pleading with Xi to ensure he’d win. He stressed the importance of farmers and increased Chinese purchases of soybeans and wheat in the electoral outcome.

The exact words Trump spoke to Xi may or may not prove outrageous if Bolton could quote them, but the general idea of asking foreign leaders to play along with an administration’s policies to help it win re-election is not without precedent. Critics of former President Barack Obama often cite his remarkable open-mic comment to outgoing Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in March 2012 that he would have “more flexibility” after he won re-election to work on defense deals that Medvedev’s successor Vladimir Putin would approve of. Republicans generally thought this was a huge scandal, interpreting it much the way Bolton interpreted Trump’s conversation with Xi, while Democrats and their media treated it as a trifling matter of no importance.

“I am hard-pressed to identify any significant Trump decision during my White House tenure that wasn’t driven by re-election calculations,” Bolton wrote, as if that state of affairs was unusual in the White House.

Bolton’s version of this conversation between Trump and Xi was immediately disputed by U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, who called Bolton’s account of the meeting “completely crazy.”

“Absolutely untrue, never happened. I was there, I have no recollection of that ever happening. I don’t believe it’s true, I don’t believe it ever happened,” Lighthizer said in testimony before the Senate Finance Committee, when asked about Bolton’s book.

Bolton’s other blockbuster slam against Trump was the president’s alleged indifference to the plight of the Uyghur Muslims. According to Bolton, Trump considered the matter of the Uyghur camps to be an annoying distraction from his wheeling and dealing with Xi, and in the big headline-grabbing passage from his book excerpt, Bolton claimed Trump told Xi to go right ahead and march those Uyghurs into concentration camps:

At the opening dinner of the Osaka G-20 meeting in June 2019, with only interpreters present, Xi had explained to Trump why he was basically building concentration camps in Xinjiang. According to our interpreter, Trump said that Xi should go ahead with building the camps, which Trump thought was exactly the right thing to do. The National Security Council’s top Asia staffer, Matthew Pottinger, told me that Trump said something very similar during his November 2017 trip to China.

One problem with this explosive passage is that it is all secondhand, something Bolton was told by a nameless interpreter and another White House staffer.

Pottinger, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, is one of the more hawkish administration officials on China issues. He was exceptionally concerned about the coronavirus epidemic and popped up in May 2018 as the background source for a media story about North Korea that President Trump disapproved of. Profiles of Pottinger generally describe him as smart, grounded, affable, and with little taste for politics. He might want to weigh in on exactly what he heard Trump say about the Uyghurs in 2017.

The Trump administration has been quite critical of how China treats the Uyghurs, to the perpetual displeasure of the Chinese Communist Party. On the same day the Wall Street Journal published Bolton’s book excerpt, Trump signed the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020, a law that condemns the Xinjiang camps and provides for sanctions against Chinese officials involved in human rights abuses against the Uyghurs. President Trump’s use of the tools provided by this act will go a long way toward confirming or disputing Bolton’s assessment of his attitude toward the Chinese camps.

It is worth noting that China has always described the Uyghur camps as “educational centers” and claimed the security situation in Xinjiang merited taking extreme measures against its population. This explanation is officially accepted by about half of the Muslim world, a factoid China touts endlessy in its propaganda. It is highly unlikely Xi said anything about building “concentration camps” or torturing captive people out of their religious beliefs in his conversation with Trump – the Chinese simply do not describe their actions in Xinjiang that way, ever. They invariably describe the camps as vocational training centers filled with happy voluntary occupants.

It’s fair enough to suggest that Trump could have refused to accept whatever Xi said about Xinjiang province and angrily thrown the truth in his face, but that is part of the broader disagreement about diplomacy between Bolton and Trump. Trump has a tendency to take fairly tough actions against rogue states while flattering their leaders in terms that critics find difficult to swallow, in a strategy to work out personal deals with maximum leaders and make them feel the survival of their regimes is not threatened. 

That’s especially tough to swallow with a character like North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, whose regime is an inhuman obscenity that should be threatened, but it’s difficult to get dictators to agree to deals that have the express goal of knocking them out of power and possibly into an early grave. Few of the world’s monsters would sign agreements that weakened their grip on power while simultaneously agreeing to U.S. charges that they are guilty of war crimes and belong in prison.

History has not yet rendered its judgment on if Trump’s approach will work better than that of Barack Obama, George W. Bush, or Bill Clinton’s – all of whom conspicuously failed to make any progress on China or related diplomatic crises like North Korea, but the Democrats, at least, were roundly applauded for doing everything right while they were busy getting nowhere.

Another of Bolton’s attacks on Trump is that he doesn’t care enough about Taiwan and doesn’t appreciate what it has to offer:

Trump was particularly dyspeptic about Taiwan, having listened to Wall Street financiers who had gotten rich off mainland China investments. One of Trump’s favorite comparisons was to point to the tip of one of his Sharpies and say, “This is Taiwan,” then point to the historic Resolute desk in the Oval Office and say, “This is China.” So much for American commitments and obligations to another democratic ally.

China certainly is much larger than Taiwan and can project far more military and economic power. The Taiwanese government does not seem to feel neglected under the Trump administration. Many analysts in both American and Taiwan feel Trump is the most pro-Taiwan president in history.

Bolton concluded his WSJ book excerpt by defending Trump from some criticisms he found “frivolous,” such as Trump supposedly crippling the National Security Council’s biodefense directorate, a characterization of the Trump administration’s NSC “streamlining” with which Bolton strongly disagreed. But then he slammed Trump for his handling of the Chinese coronavirus anyway, essentially blaming Trump for believing too much of what China said about the virus in the early days of the pandemic.

“The NSC biosecurity team functioned exactly as it was supposed to. It was the chair behind the Resolute desk that was empty,” he asserted.

Judging by this excerpt from Bolton’s book, he has many policy differences with President Trump and a fundamental disagreement about the best tactics for bringing hostile foreign leaders closer to American objectives. To summarize a great deal of criticism leveled at Bolton over the years, his detractors think he puts too much emphasis on military force, and the threat of using it, as the only reliable way to influence enemy nations and rogue states.

Bolton lays out much of his critique in meticulous detail, but parts of his book read like a tendentious effort to scandalize his disagreements with Trump, and his detractors will wonder why he sat on so many bombshell stories about the Trump White House until he could charge audiences $20 to read them.

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