Former US National Security Advisor John Bolton’s book, “The Room Where It Happened”, provides us with a unique glimpse into Trump’s White House and decision-making process. While all memoirs should be viewed as subjective, by pointing out what he calls the “axis of adults”, consisting of his predecessor Herbert McMaster, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and former Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Bolton’s novel shines a spotlight on how certain individuals’ attempts to block Trump’s dangerous inclinations resulted in a distrustful president obsessed with what he saw as a “deep state” intent on hindering his every move. This perception, Bolton argues, further incited Trump’s propensity to increasingly surround himself with “yes-men”.
The book also aims to settle some of Bolton’s personal scores with people with whom he clashed on several occasions. For example, Bolton complains about Mattis’s use of petty bureaucratic tactics. Bolton uses the book to fire back by providing in-depth accounts of the ways in which Mattis was berated by Trump, complete with extensive references. Bolton also criticizes former US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley’s uncoordinated actions, calling her a “free electron”. As could be expected, he also takes the opportunity to question the unqualified involvement of Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner in foreign affairs. Such personal/professional squabbles aside, the book paints a strikingly vivid picture of President Trump and his way of doing business.
Mapping Trump’s Mind
The book can be seen as Bolton’s analysis of Trump’s way of thinking. He asserts that Trump’s thought-process is like an “archipelago of dots” that are neither connected nor comprehensive. In turn, he argues, reconciliations of discrepancies in Trump’s understanding of myriad issues were left to his team. Throughout the book it is claimed that Trump asserts limited, repetitive, and static arguments in response to varying contexts and issues, the logic behind which is seemingly incapable of change or evolution regardless of new developments in the field. Bolton’s account makes it difficult to expect changes in Trump’s approaches should he be reelected for a second term, especially with respect to three main foreign and security policy areas.
First, Trump’s keystone foreign policy aim is the reduction of US military presence worldwide, but primarily in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan. During national security briefings, Trump repeatedly asked why US troops were not being withdrawn, stating that they were dying for the benefit of “enemies”, meaning Russia, Syria, and Iran. Considering this, Trump was not happy about the US’s military coalition with northern Syria’s Kurdish YPG (People’s Protection Units), while he thought the U.S. was the party providing too much in this coalition. Trump’s insistence on military withdrawal regardless of the risks is illustrated in Bolton’s claim that the US president went so far as to say, “I don’t care if ISIS comes back into Iraq”.
Second, one of the most pervasive themes of Trump’s world view is his clear distaste with the European Union (EU). Repeating the line that “the EU is worse than China except smaller”, Trump has increasingly targeted Germany and the Nord Stream II natural gas pipeline that connects it with Russia. According to Bolton, Trump argued that, by way of this energy link, Germany was not only “feeding the [Russian] beast” but also under the control of Moscow. Beyond just Germany, Trump has repeatedly claimed that the US has been “ripped off” by the EU in both trade and in terms of its contributions to NATO. Bolton claims that he and his colleagues worked diligently to prevent the president from declaring “a withdrawal from NATO”. This is quite dangerous as Trump may seek to realize this aim as a part of his legacy if elected for a second term.
Third, Trump endeavors for allies to pay the costs of American troops stationed abroad, particularly in the Arab Gulf region. It seems as though Trump has made it a precondition that Gulf states pay these costs in exchange for US military action against Iran in the region. Trump has suggested that US troops in Syria be replaced with Arab troops, or else someone should pay for the costs of their deployment and maintenance plus 25 percent. This proposal would be even more expensive for South Korea, as Trump deliberates charging the country for all costs associated with the US troops stationed there plus 50 percent. Despite finding these figures unrealistic, Bolton is not opposed to the core rationale behind this approach, writing that former President George Bush Senior endorsed similar ideas during the 1990-1991 Gulf War.
Trump’s Inadequacies and Misperceptions
In the book, we repeatedly see a Trump who focuses on the optics of how he is perceived rather than on the outcomes of potential courses of action. In this vein, Bolton starkly criticizes Trump for devoting too much precious time to media reporting. Bolton also claimed that Trump’s intention behind hiring him was to use him for TV appearances rather than to take his advice in the policy-making process.
The book depicts Trump’s deep mistrust of the American government and his perception that his own staff was entrenched in what he believed to be the “deep state”. Writing about Iran’s alleged attacks on oil tankers near the Strait of Hormuz in June 2019, Bolton emphasizes Trump’s belief that US military, diplomatic, and intelligence services were intentionally withholding information from him. Bolton goes on to claim that Trump wanted to use the crisis as an excuse to strike a deal with Iran that he could spin into a victory. According to Bolton, Trump then accused his own Secretary of State and National Security Advisor for blocking talks.
Another matter discussed in the book is Trump’s over-eagerness to speak with global strongmen, despite such inclinations weakening the US’s hand in negotiations. Bolton notes that Trump defended his infatuation with Russian President Vladimir Putin, North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un, and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif, to name a few, by saying, “I am a talker; I like to talk”. Bolton argues that this quality of the US president was used against Washington, as foreign powers think that Trump’s narcissism allows him to act independently from the American government.
Last but not least, Bolton details Trump’s overall immaturity and pettiness. One such instance, Bolton writes, was when Trump hugged one of his aides in approval after she said Senator John McCain was “dying anyway” in reference to his opposition to Trump’s nominee to head the CIA. Another issue Bolton refers to is Trump’s obsession with prosecuting John Kerry on the basis of his perceived violation of the Logan Act due to his talks with Iran as secretary of state under Barack Obama. For Bolton, Trump’s revocation of former CIA Director John Brennan’s security clearance serves as yet another example of his vindictive frivolity.
Ultimately, “The Room Where It Happened” paints a picture of a president who threatens the future of the US by way of his inadequacies in comprehending and considering complex and multifaceted challenges. Perhaps most importantly, Bolton’s detailed account of his interactions at Trump’s White House show that his fears and reservations are shared by other high-level officials within the Republican Party, and should therefore cause widespread concern about his potential reelection.