Again, they cheered, and again, the Schadenfreude chorus sounded off-key. It was another atrocious week for US President Donald Trump, whose efforts to prevent the publication of his former national security adviser’s memoir seemed more than a touch childish. For one, John Bolton is hardly the administration’s most sympathetic figure. When he was admitted to the inner circle, it was said that the commander-in-chief could not abide with his moustache. His account, The Room Where it Happened: A White House Memoir, involves both handwashing and hand wringing.
Bolton’s book is said, according to the president, to contain classified information, a distinction without significant difference. The ambit power of the executive office is not, at least in the US context, that expansive as to deem all and everything that passes through the leader “classified”. As National Security Archive senior analyst Peter Kornbluh puts it, “Even the commander-in-chief cannot classify everything.”
Trump’s criticisms do underscore a long debate within national security circles on the issue of prepublication assessments. Former CIA director Adm. Stansfield Turner, in testimony before a House Subcommittee, gave his view on the matter in 1988: “The Reviews as conducted by the CIA are subject to abuse and should be placed under some outside regulation.” He recalled the arduous, onerous process of vetting that the agency gave to his own book, Secrecy and Democracy, one “painful and costly” to him. But during his time as chief of the agency, he also availed himself of the agency’s powers, taking former CIA analyst Frank Snepp to court for publishing his own memoir. Snepp reflected upon this in a not unbalanced review of Secrecy and Democracy. Turner had justified the decision “by suggesting that I broke a personal promise to him guaranteeing him a look at my manuscript.” Nothing of the sort claimed Snepp. Time wears all minds.
The attempt by the Department of Justice to restrain publication of Bolton’s account seems fairly meaningless in the context of distribution, though there are still a few days before the official release on June 23. The big media figures – the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and New York Times – already have copies. In fact, Bolton himself claims that those copies were already the subject of the knife. “I would print Trump’s exact words but the government’s prepublication review process has decided otherwise.” As his lawyer Charles Cooper explained, the director of the National Security Council’s Office of Records and Access Management, Ellen Knight, supplied Bolton with 17 single-spaced pages of references to passages supposedly containing classified information. Four months were spent scouring the manuscript four times. By April 27, Knight had satisfied herself “that the manuscript draft did not contain classified information.”
Two actions have duly taken place. One is a suit against Bolton alleging that he is compromising national security in “publishing a book containing classified information – in clear breach of agreements he signed as a condition of his employment and as a condition of gaining access to highly classified information and in clear breach of the trust placed within him by the United States Government.”
The second is an application for temporary restraint which claims that Bolton did not seek such review. “In this case, defendant John Bolton has not received any such approval, but unilaterally has decided to abandon the prepublication review process that he agreed to and instead plans to disseminate classified information he sees fit to profit from his book.”
The press pack has preferred to avoid troubling themselves of the legal niceties of his seemingly futile gesture. Customary positions are assumed about Trump’s corrupt sundering of the office he holds. Bolton, a person rather inclined towards broad assertions of power by executive office, is happy to dump on Trump. Trump frustrated his efforts, for instance, to defend and promote the merits of pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong through social media channels. Trump’s response, as recorded by Bolton, was fascinatingly refreshing. “I don’t want to get involved … We have human rights problems too.” The NSC adviser sulked. “That pretty much ended my Twitter campaign pressing China to honour its deal with Great Britain, highlighting how little respect China paid to international agreements, for all those so excited at the prospect of a trade deal.” (What happened to the Bolton that claimed that international law and agreements were really chimaeras before the dictates of state power?)
Bolton also notes how Trump, through the US interpreter, “said that [Chinese President] Xi should go ahead with building the camps [for the Uighurs], which he thought was exactly the right thing to do.” Another official is also noted as claiming that repressing the Uighurs was an issue that could be crossed off “our list of possible reasons to sanction China, at least as long as trade negotiations continued.”
This account of events has been rejected by US trade representative Robert Lighthizer during a Senate Finance hearing. “Never happened. I was there,” he explained. “I was at the meeting… nothing like that happened … completely crazy.”
The China angle is particularly exciting for those who see Trump as a star-struck lover of authoritarianism. This enables two points to be made: the first, to legitimise the encirclement and containment thesis on China, something that the Democrats happily embrace; the second, to show how Trump fails at it, harbouring strongman fantasies of President Xi Jinping. Michael H. Fuchs, former deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs provides a good example of this. “From encouraging Xi to continue ethnic cleansing against Uighurs to asking for China’s help in his 2020 re-election campaign, Trump’s actions make it clear why Chinese officials believe that Trump is good for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).” Fuchs adds, for good measure, that Bolton’s book reveals “exactly who we know [Trump] is – an amoral charlatan using the most powerful office in the world to help himself at the expense of the American people”.
What seems so reprehensible to good slashings of commentary on Trump, the latest Bolton revelations on the Chinese connection being no different, is that the president is not merely a narcissist but distinctly incapable of pure, patriotic sentiment. Transactional politics frustrates the fevered ideologue, the flag bearing fanatics. It is that sort of disposition that seems to trouble Bolton, who makes the almost boring point that Trump’s decisions were all “driven by re-election calculations.” (What an odd sentiment from a political figure!) Trump’s triumph, at least so far, has been to keep that side of the patriotic sham formidable and valuable. Should his supporters work out that he is, at heart, a businessman first before being a MAGA patriot, they might reconsider their options.
Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: email@example.com