John Bolton has written the harshest book about a sitting president by one of his former top advisers that anyone has ever seen — or should hope to see.
Bolton is a longtime friend of this publication and we take his honesty as a given. Any credibility contest between him and Donald Trump is laughably lopsided.
That said, Bolton is facing legitimate questions about the propriety of taking a sensitive, high-level job in an administration and then immediately turning his experience into a best-selling book when back out of office. He’s also getting dinged for having information that he believed would have made the case for impeaching the president more compelling, yet not sharing it while impeachment proceedings were ongoing (although there would have been complications — including disputes over what material was classified or privileged — and nothing he said would have changed minds in the Senate).
The White House has done everything in its power to delay the release of the book, and the Department of Justice has filed an injunction against its scheduled publication early next week on grounds that it contains classified information and violates various non-disclosure agreements.
The government’s motive is clearly pretextual. The president hates Bolton and the book is damaging, so Trump wants it buried. Squashing the publication on this basis would be a flagrant violation of the First Amendment. Besides, the book has already been reviewed by and reported on by major publications, excerpted in the Wall Street Journal, and sent to bookstores. The cat is out of the bag.
The government may be able to embroil Bolton in litigation going forward, but his best defense is that he submitted the book for pre-publication review by the National Security Council and extensively revised it after several rounds of back-and-forth.
None of this, though, is as important as the story that Bolton tells about the president. No one who has been paying attention will be shocked by the picture of a president who is mercurial, poorly informed, prone to flattery, reflexively hostile to our alliances, and bizarrely drawn to foreign strongmen. It is still stunning to see it rendered in detail.
There has been much discussion of Bolton’s excerpt on Trump and China in the Wall Street Journal. Bolton says that Trump openly talked with Xi Jinping about how a Chinese agreement to buy more of our agricultural products would help his reelection bid. Trump isn’t the first president to want a trade deal or foreign-policy achievement to boost his electoral chances, but talking about this desire openly with a foreign adversary is still gross. The more damning charge is that an interpreter in a Trump–Xi meeting said the president blessed the Chinese government building prison camps for the Uighurs. With something so explosive, we would prefer to see the exact words that were spoken, but it’s damning enough that anyone would take Trump to have said such a thing and that it’s impossible to reject out of hand that he did indeed say it.
There have been plenty of depressing episodes during the Trump presidency — this is among the most dispiriting.