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President Trump asked China’s Xi to help him win reelection, according to Bolton book

John Bolton, the national security adviser at the time, listened to President Trump during an Oval Office meeting in July 2019.
John Bolton, the national security adviser at the time, listened to President Trump during an Oval Office meeting in July 2019. Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — President Trump asked Chinese President Xi Jinping to help him win the 2020 election, telling Xi during a summit dinner last year that increased agricultural purchases by Beijing from American farmers would aid his electoral prospects, according to a damning new account of life inside the Trump administration by former national security adviser John Bolton.

During a one-on-one meeting at the June 2019 Group of 20 summit in Japan, Xi complained to Trump about China critics in the United States. But Bolton writes in a book scheduled to be released next week that ‘‘Trump immediately assumed Xi meant the Democrats. Trump said approvingly that there was great hostility among the Democrats.

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‘‘He then, stunningly, turned the conversation to the coming US presidential election, alluding to China’s economic capability to affect the ongoing campaigns, pleading with Xi to ensure he’d win,’’ Bolton writes. ‘‘He stressed the importance of farmers, and increased Chinese purchases of soybeans and wheat in the electoral outcome. I would print Trump’s exact words but the government’s prepublication review process has decided otherwise.’’

At the same meeting, Xi also defended China’s construction of camps housing as many as 1 million Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang — and Trump signaled his approval.

‘‘According to our interpreter,’’ Bolton writes, ‘‘Trump said that Xi should go ahead with building the camps, which Trump thought was exactly the right thing to do.’’

The episode described by Bolton in his book, ‘‘The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir,’’ bears striking similarities to the actions that resulted in Trump’s impeachment after he sought to pressure the Ukrainian president to help dig up dirt on Democratic rival Joe Biden in exchange for military assistance. The China allegation also comes amid ongoing warnings from US intelligence agencies about foreign election interference in November, as Russia did to favor Trump in 2016.

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And on the Ukraine scandal itself, Bolton cites personal conversations with Trump confirming a ‘‘quid pro quo’’ that Trump had long denied, including an August meeting in which Trump allegedly made the bargain explicit.

‘‘He said he wasn’t in favor of sending them anything until all Russia-investigation material related to [Hillary] Clinton and Biden had been turned over,’’ Bolton writes.

The 592-page memoir, obtained by The Washington Post, is the most substantive, critical dissection of the president from an administration insider so far, coming from a conservative who has worked in Republican administrations for decades and is a longtime contributor to Fox News. It portrays Trump as an ‘‘erratic’’ and ‘‘stunningly uninformed’’ commander in chief, and lays out a long series of jarring and troubling encounters between the president, his top advisers, and foreign leaders.

The book is the subject of an escalating legal battle between the longtime conservative foreign policy hand and the Justice Department.

On Wednesday, the Justice Department asked a federal judge to immediately order Bolton to halt publication, saying the book contained classified information.

Bolton’s attorney has said that the book does not and that it underwent an arduous review process.

In a court filing, the Trump administration also urged the judge overseeing the lawsuit, Judge Royce C. Lamberth of the US District Court for the District of Columbia, to declare that the potential restraining order it is seeking should bind the book’s publisher, Simon & Schuster, and bookstores from disseminating the book once they receive notice of it.

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The Justice Department requested that Lamberth hold a hearing on the matter Friday.

The Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that the First Amendment, which protects press freedoms, means that it is rarely constitutional for the government to try to stop a work from being published under the doctrine of so-called prior restraint, although it has upheld seizing proceeds as a penalty for violating prepublication review agreements.

Bolton describes the book as being based on both contemporaneous accounts and his own notes, and it includes numerous details of internal meetings and direct quotations attributed to Trump and others.

The request for electoral assistance from Xi is one of many instances described by Bolton in which Trump seeks favors or approval from authoritarian leaders. Many of those same leaders were also happy to take advantage of the president and attempt to manipulate him, Bolton writes, often through simplistic appeals to his various obsessions.

In one May 2019 phone call, for example, Russian President Vladimir Putin compared Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó to 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Clinton, part of what Bolton terms a ‘‘brilliant display of Soviet style propaganda’’ to shore up support for Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro. Putin’s claims, Bolton writes, ‘‘largely persuaded Trump.’’

In May 2018, Bolton says, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan handed Trump a memo claiming innocence for a Turkish firm under investigation by the US attorney for the Southern District of New York for violating Iranian sanctions.

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‘‘Trump then told Erdogan he would take care of things, explaining that the Southern District prosecutors were not his people, but were Obama people, a problem that would be fixed when they were replaced by his people,’’ Bolton writes.

Bolton says he was so alarmed by Trump’s determination to do favors for autocrats such as Erdogan and Xi that he scheduled a meeting with Attorney General William Barr in 2019 to discuss his behavior. Bolton writes that Barr agreed he also was worried about the appearances created by the president’s behavior.

In his account, Bolton broadly confirms the outline of the impeachment case laid out by Democratic lawmakers and witnesses in House proceedings earlier this year, writing that Trump was fixated on a bogus claim that Ukraine tried to hurt him.

Trump was impeached in January by the Democratic-controlled House of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, before being acquitted by the GOP-controlled Senate the next month. Bolton resisted Democratic calls to testify without a subpoena.

Bolton is silent on the question of whether he believes that Trump’s actions related to Ukraine were impeachable and is deeply critical of how House Democrats managed the process. But he writes that he found Trump’s decision to hold up military assistance to pressure newly elected Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky ‘‘deeply disturbing,’’ and that he tried to work internally to counter it, reporting concerns to Barr and the White House Counsel’s Office.

In the memoir, Bolton describes the president’s advisers as frequently flummoxed by Trump and said a range of officials — including Chief of Staff John Kelly, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Bolton himself — all considered resigning in disgust or frustration.

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‘‘What if we have a real crisis like 9/11 with the way he makes decisions?’’ Kelly is quoted as asking at one point as he considers resigning.

Bolton recounts numerous private conversations Trump had with other leaders that revealed the limits of his knowledge. He recalls Trump asking Kelly if Finland is part of Russia. In a meeting with then-British prime minister Theresa May in 2018, a British official referred to the United Kingdom as a ‘‘nuclear power,’’ and Trump interjects: ‘‘Oh, are you a nuclear power?’’

During one trade meeting, Trump grew irate when advisers begun discussing Japan and the alliance, and began railing about Pearl Harbor, Bolton writes.


Material from The New York Times was used in this report.