It’s hard to decide what is more remarkable about former national security adviser John Bolton’s new book: all the evidence he lays out that President Trump is “erratic,” “stunningly uninformed,” hopelessly corrupt, and has a thing for authoritarian leaders, or that any sentient observer of this administration is surprised by the revelations.
As astonishing as it might be that the president of the United States was unaware that the United Kingdom has nuclear weapons, let’s be honest: It would be a tad more surprising if Trump was aware of the UK’s nuclear status.
It would be shocking if any other president had asked the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, to buy more US agricultural products because it might help him win key farm states next fall, but Trump has already been impeached for trying to coerce Ukraine into aiding his re-election. Been there done that.
The image of an American president obsessed with “delivering an autographed copy of Elton John’s ‘Rocket Man’ on CD” to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un would normally be stupefying, but since Trump had already publicly declared his love for the sociopathic strongman, this seems rather on-brand.
If in June 2020 you are somehow flabbergasted to find out that the president is stupendously ignorant, devoid of a moral or ethical core, and a flagrant narcissist unable to think of anything but his own personal and political interests, I’d like to congratulate you on your three-and-a-half-year nap. We’re all deeply envious.
If any other commander in chief had allegedly told the Chinese president that he applauded his country’s decision to build concentration camps to intern Uighur Muslims, it would be a national scandal. In Trump’s America it’s a Wednesday. That revelation came on the same day that the president signed the Uighur Human Rights Policy Act, sanctioning China for its treatment of the Uighurs.
Yet, there is something so undeniably perfect about the Bolton book story. It not only captures the bottomless pit of repugnance that is our president but also the gobsmacking amorality of those who have made his nightmare presidency possible.
According to Bolton, Trump has regularly abused power, sought to interfere in Justice Department investigations that affected his strongman friends, and “engaged in obstruction of justice as a way of life.” And what did Bolton do about this? He kept all of it to himself until he could make a buck on it.
As Congress was investigating whether Trump had engaged in a quid pro quo with Ukraine, using US military aid as leverage, Bolton had, according to his book, concluded that the president was guilty of precisely this crime. Did he offer to testify in the impeachment inquiry? Nope. Instead he made clear that he wouldn’t appear in the House of Representatives until the matter had been run through the courts, which would have taken months. Did he give a press conference to tell the world about Trump’s crimes? Nope. That would have undercut his book sales. Instead, he remained silent — and actually had the chutzpah to criticize the House for not going far enough in its impeachment inquiry. Gee, I wonder why they weren’t fully aware of Trump’s criminality.
Even as the former members of his National Security Council staff were being smeared by Trump and his allies (and in the case of Lt. Col. Eugene Vindman, fired from his job on the council) Bolton said nothing publicly. In an era defined by the moral cowardice of conservatives, Bolton’s cravenness and corruption still stand out.
Of course, even Bolton would have a hard time competing with the spineless contingent of congressional Republicans who (with two exceptions) not only refused to subpoena him to appear at Trump’s Senate trial, but are now dismissing his latest revelations. He’s a disgruntled former employer, they say; he’s trying to sell a book; he’s lying. However, it is Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, outed in the book for mocking Trump’s foreign policy acumen, who wins the “suck up to the president” award by branding his former colleague a “traitor.” Not to be outdone, Attorney General William Barr has filed a civil lawsuit to stop publication of a book that is already in the hands of dozens of journalists — a lawsuit that has no chance of succeeding.
I have little doubt that most every member of the GOP caucus, as well as Trump’s Cabinet, knows that Bolton’s account is spot-on, but the price for being a card-carrying member of the modern Republican Party is to regularly refuse to see what is in front of one’s nose. All of this makes the Bolton story more than your garden variety tale of grifters grifting. It’s the perfect parable for Trump’s malevolent presidency and the cabal of corrupted enablers too weak, too greedy, and too feckless to stop it.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.