The title of John Bolton’s book, “The Room Where It Happened,” is inspired by a “Hamilton” song.
But there’s little lyrical, and little inspiring, in this sordid story. Its characters are more like Aaron Burr than Alexander Hamilton — including the author himself and his subject, President Donald Trump.
That much is clear from early excerpts published in the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and New York Times. The book is available Tuesday — that is unless a federal court allows the Justice Department to block it.
That seems unlikely, and in any case the most searing material is already in the news. Whether it stays there is uncertain. Just a day after the book’s bombshells detonated, the Supreme Court’s decision on “Dreamers” (which was a nightmare for Trump) changed the news narrative. And soon that story will be eclipsed by coverage of Trump’s Saturday Tulsa rally and face the headwinds of headlines about the pandemic, protests and prolonged joblessness.
But if the Bolton book, already a bestseller before its release, resonates beyond the short shelf life of most Trump tell-alls, it could be telling when votes are counted next November.
And it just might. The excerpts are a striking indictment from someone who was, yes, in the room as a firsthand witness to what got Trump impeached in the first place. And much more, Bolton alleges, which is why he believes that the narrow scope of the effort was “impeachment malpractice.”
After all, wrote Bolton, there were patterns that “looked like obstruction of justice as a way of life” for the president.
Not that he thinks Trump’s Ukraine actions in their own right were well, right. Along with other officials, Bolton repeatedly tried to persuade the president to release military aid to the besieged nation. But Trump, Bolton wrote, “said he wasn’t in favor of sending them anything until all the Russia-investigation materials related to [Hillary] Clinton and [Joe] Biden had been turned over.”
Overall, Bolton states, “I thought the whole affair was bad policy, questionable legally and unacceptable presidential behavior.” And evidently part of the pattern pointed out by Bolton, who alleges that Trump tried to get help from China, too. In fact, after promising President Xi Jinping that he would intervene in a case involving ZTE, a telecom conglomerate accused of evading sanctions on Iran and North Korea, Bolton writes that Trump “then, stunningly, turned the conversation to the coming U.S. presidential election, alluding to China’s economic capability to affect the ongoing campaigns, pleading with Xi to ensure he’d win.”
The president’s intervention in the matter was a matter of course, wrote Bolton, citing solicitations for cases like Turkey’s Halkbank as a favor for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. All part of a pattern, Bolton claims, of Trump’s tendency to “give personal favors to dictators he liked.”
But for allies, alienation was more the norm. Including, Bolton claims, a closer call than most know on Trump following through with this threats on NATO membership. However, he was easier on adversaries, Bolton asserts, including Trump concurring that “concentration camps,” as Bolton rightly calls them, that Xi constructed for up to 1 million Muslims, were OK. “According to our interpreter,” Bolton wrote, “Trump said that Xi should go ahead with building the camps, which Trump thought was exactly the right thing to do.”
That wasn’t the only time Trump was cavalier about lives abroad. Invading Venezuela would be “cool,” Bolton recalls Trump saying. And he reportedly told Bolton that his unrepentant defense of Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman over the slaying of Saudi dissident and journalist Jamal Khashoggi was to deflect criticism of his daughter, Ivanka, who had used personal e-mail for government business — the same charge that led to chants of “lock her up” about Hillary Clinton in the 2016 campaign.
“This will divert from Ivanka,” Trump said, according to Bolton. Never mind that the world recoiled at the brutal, brazen killing of Khashoggi, who was a U.S. resident. But Trump didn’t stop there regarding reporters. Bolton writes that Trump said that the U.S. should be able to jail journalists to force them to reveal their sources. “These people should be executed,” Trump said. “They are scumbags.”
Like Hamilton’s era, Bolton describes some internal debates. But there’s nothing as consequential as the existential questions explored by the larger-than-life figures back then. Instead, today’s leaders seem small in comparison, even though the cabinet backbiting was evident in Hamilton’s day, too. Although no one would mistake Bolton, the secretaries of state, the president or other protagonists (or antagonists, as Bolton casts them) as a current version of the Founding Fathers (however flawed they proved to be, a fact made ever more apparent in today’s more enlightened times).
What White House figures say about each other in the book, and now, in response to the book, is damning — for their reputations and the country’s.
On Thursday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, whom Bolton claims repeatedly mocked the president, called Bolton a “traitor” on Twitter. Trump, never one to be outdone, sent a series of tweets that called Bolton “incompetent,” a “dope,” a “disgruntled boring fool,” a “wacko” and a “sick puppy.” Not exactly Hamilton’s high-minded Federalist Papers rhetoric, but maybe enough to discredit Bolton and shore up Trump’s base, which Bolton claims is the president’s one driving principle.
“I am hard pressed to identify any significant Trump decision during my tenure that wasn’t driven by re-election calculations,” Bolton wrote.
Bolton seems plenty calculating as well, and is facing harsh criticism for the timing of his tome. Especially since he wouldn’t testify during impeachment without a court battle that would have taken months. But even more fundamentally, if his charges are true (which Trump and other administration officials dispute), why didn’t he call them out in real time in real conversations (confrontations, most likely) with those he criticizes, including the president himself?
Or, as “Hamilton” creator Lin Manuel Miranda tweeted on Thursday, taking creative license with his “History Has Its Eyes on You” lyrics:
“Let me tell you what I wish I’d known
When I was young and dreamed of glory
You have no control Who lives, who dies, who
[borrows your song title to write a cash-in book when they could have testified before Congress] tells your story ...”
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:10 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.