Book Review: John Bolton’s ‘The Room Where It Happened’


Bolton still seems incensed at this unexpected display of caution and humanity on the part of Trump, deeming it “the most irrational thing I ever witnessed any President do.” In the book, Bolton is vague about the targets themselves, though it was later reported that he wanted one of them to be the Iranian commander Qassim Suleimani, killed on Jan. 3 by American airstrikes, four months after Bolton left the administration. On Jan. 6, Bolton finally agreed to testify at the impeachment trial if the Republican-controlled Senate subpoenaed him — which, as predicted, it never did.

As for what Bolton might have said at the trial, his chapter on Ukraine is weird, circuitous and generally confounding. It’s full of his usual small-bore detail, but on the bigger, more pointed questions, the sentences get windy and conspicuously opaque. He confirms what Fiona Hill, a White House aide, recalled him saying to her when she testified at the House impeachment hearings (including his memorable comparison of Rudolph Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer, to a “hand grenade”). But Bolton declines to offer anything comparatively vivid in his own book, taking cover in what he depicts as his own bewilderment.

He recalls a meeting in the Oval Office during which Trump said he wanted Giuliani to meet with Ukraine’s then President-Elect Volodymyr Zelensky “to discuss his country’s investigation of either Hillary Clinton’s efforts to influence the 2016 campaign or something having to do with Hunter Biden and the 2020 election, or maybe both.” Yet Bolton — known for what a 2019 profile in The New Yorker called his “tremendous powers of recall” — said it was too much for him to fully understand. “In the various commentaries I heard on these subjects, they always seemed intermingled and confused, one reason I did not pay them much heed.” He resorts to making noises of concern about what he refers to as “the Giuliani theories.”

In an epilogue, Bolton tries to have it multiple ways, saying that while he may have found Trump’s conduct “deeply disturbing,” it was the Democratic-controlled House that was guilty of “impeachment malpractice.” Instead of a “comprehensive investigation,” he sniffs, “they seemed governed more by their own political imperatives to move swiftly to vote on articles of impeachment.” He says they should have broadened their inquiry to include Halkbank and ZTE, but then neglects to mention that nothing was stopping him from saying as much, or from testifying if he was so terribly concerned.

“Had I testified,” Bolton intones, “I am convinced, given the environment then existing because of the House’s impeachment malpractice, that it would have made no significant difference in the Senate outcome.” It’s a self-righteous and self-serving sort of fatalism that sounds remarkably similar to the explanation he gave years ago for preemptively signing up for the National Guard in 1970 and thereby avoiding service in Vietnam. “Dying for your country was one thing,” he wrote in his 2007 book “Surrender Is Not an Option, “but dying to gain territory that antiwar forces in Congress would simply return to the enemy seemed ludicrous to me.”

When it comes to Bolton’s comments on impeachment, the clotted prose, the garbled argument and the sanctimonious defensiveness would seem to indicate some sort of ambivalence on his part — a feeling that he doesn’t seem to have very often. Or maybe it merely reflects an uncomfortable realization that he’s stuck between two incompatible impulses: the desire to appear as courageous as those civil servants who bravely risked their careers to testify before the House; and the desire to appease his fellow Republicans, on whom his own fastidiously managed career most certainly depends. It’s a strange experience reading a book that begins with repeated salvos about “the intellectually lazy” by an author who refuses to think through anything very hard himself.

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