The first sentence of the New York Times report on John Bolton’s tell-all memoir about his time in the Trump White House contains a bombshell — but not the one that everybody thinks. The real revelation is that it suggests that President Trump is innocent of the charges on which Democrats are trying to impeach him.
Maggie Haberman and Michael Schmidt reported on Sunday that Trump ‘wanted to continue freezing $391 million in security assistance to Ukraine until officials there helped with investigations into Democrats including the Bidens, according to an unpublished manuscript by the former adviser, John R. Bolton.’ The Democratic narrative is that President Trump should be removed from office for trying to force Ukraine into interfering in the 2020 election on his behalf.
Joe Biden was supposed to be Trump’s target, and the way to weaken Biden was by getting Ukraine to announce an investigation involving Biden’s son. But on Bolton’s account, that isn’t what Trump was doing: the key words in the Times report are ‘Democrats’ — plural — ‘including the Bidens’. Not even Adam Schiff has alleged that Trump wanted Ukraine to investigate Pete Buttigieg or Bernie Sanders. If Trump wanted investigations into multiple Democrats, only one of whom had a link to the 2020 election, it can hardly be said that swaying the election was his clear motive.
Bolton’s account, if the Times report is accurate, in fact supports the evidence that President Trump himself released in response to the initial whistleblower complaint — the write-up of his July 25 call with Ukraine’s President Zelensky. When Trump said during that call, ‘I would like you to do us a favor though’ (in response to Zelensky inquiring about the aid) his next words were ‘because our country has been through a lot and Ukraine knows a lot about it.’ He subsequently makes clear what he means: Trump believes that a wealthy Ukrainian connected with the US cybersecurity firm Crowdstrike may possess a Democratic National Committee computer server that was hacked during the 2016 presidential election. Rudy Giluiani, who is referenced in the call, was Trump’s point man for investigating this — and Giuliani and his shady Ukrainian associates, such as Lev Parnas, were probably responsible for reinforcing the president’s belief in the ‘missing server’, if they weren’t the ones who got him to buy into the story in the first place.
The plural ‘Democrats’ of the Times report on Bolton’s book are the Democrats of 2016 — the Clinton campaign and the DNC. Joe Biden’s role in the dismissal of a Ukrainian prosecutor during the Obama years also comes up in Trump’s call with Zelensky, with Trump claiming that Biden had boasted of having the man dismissed in order to forestall a prosecution of his son. President Trump’s account of all this is garbled. But there is no reason to think that it’s insincere. If Trump just wanted to embarrass a 2020 rival, he sure went about doing it in the most convoluted possible way. If, on the other hand, Trump really did think that Ukraine had meddled in the 2016 election and bore some responsibility for the claims at the heart of the Mueller investigation, then his interest in uncovering multiple ties between Democrats and Ukraine makes good sense. His premises may be flawed, but his conclusion follows from them simply and honestly. And if a foreign government and an American political party were in cahoots, that would merit an investigation, especially before turning over US taxpayer resources to the country in question.
Liberals have to admit that uncovering ties between foreign governments and American politicians is fair game because, after all, that’s what the Mueller investigation was all about. But is it OK to withhold foreign aid to get another country to investigate and turn over what it knows? Just imagine how this scenario would play out if, say, Turkish intelligence had a recording of Donald Trump giving his blessing to Saudi Arabia to kill Jamal Khashoggi. Don’t you think House Democrats would be willing to use America’s military aid to Turkey as a bargaining chip to get Ankara to turn over the incriminating information? Of course they would — nobody can doubt it. What Trump did is something Democrats would do just as eagerly.
The principle that foreign aid can be used as leverage to get another nation to investigate something that the US wants investigated is not something that Democrats would deny in other circumstances. Nor is the possibility that foreign corruption would implicate a Republican leader something that would cause Democrats to hold back from pressing for an investigation. They would insist that politics really had nothing to do with it — they were just honestly pursuing truth in an important matter reflecting on the integrity of, say, US elections. Naturally, with the roles reversed, Republicans would be making many of the arguments we now hear from Democrats. But the idea that suspected corruption should be overlooked because it might have partisan overtones is absurd: one of the very reasons we have a competitive party system is so that each party will check the abuses of the other. If the parties were to agree informally that no awkward questions would be asked about Biden business deals with foreign oligarchs so long as no such questions were asked about Bush or Trump business deals with similarly sketchy figures, that bargain would rightly be called ‘collusion’.
Democrats naturally don’t want to think the worst of the Biden clan — and they insist on thinking the worst of Trump. But even as embittered a figure as John Bolton appears to report that President Trump was concerned about much more than the 2020 election. The collateral damage Joe Biden’s presidential campaign might suffer from Ukraine’s investigations (and if he’s so totally above-board, why would he suffer any damage at all?) would be the price to be paid for guaranteeing that there was no undue influence in the 2016 election. After all, this is the same line Democrats take about the Russia investigation — sure, it might turn out to be a dead end (as in fact, it has proved to be), and yeah, it might cripple a Republican administration for two years and help Democrats in the 2018 midterms, but that’s just the price that must be paid for taking foreign interference seriously.
Bolton is no friend to President Trump or to the America First cause that got Trump elected in 2016. He is the antithesis of what Trump campaigned on: he personifies the hawkish ideologues in the Republican party who start wars they can’t win and continually cry out for more interventions. Like many an Iraq war enthusiast, Bolton is enjoying a reputational inversion thanks to liberals’ Trump derangement: long a stock villain, he’s now become a hero to the resistance. His role in whipping up the Iraq invasion is forgiven and forgotten — including the time he threatened the family of a Brazilian diplomat at the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons who refused to go along the Bush administration’s case for war. ‘You have 24 hours to leave the organization, and if you don’t comply with this decision by Washington, we have ways to retaliate against you,’ Bolton told him. ‘We know where your kids live. You have two sons in New York.’ This is the man Democrats now lionize.
Bolton wants to stop the foreign policy that Trump promised at any cost. He impeded it from within the administration, and now he aims to win attention — and lucrative book sales — by sabotaging Trump in the midst of his Senate trial. But Bolton’s own account, as it has been reported so far, does not back up the Democrats’ charges. This is just another war in which Bolton can add to the general misery while enriching himself, and still not win.