I never thought I would ever feel sorry for Nikki Haley.
But John Bolton, in his infamous new book, “The Room Where It Happened,” is so unrelenting in his snide comments about Haley, President Trump’s first ambassador to the United Nations, that you have to draw back and think, Wait a minute, why is he so pissed off about her?
“The Room Where It Happened,” in case you are still catching up with the news, is Bolton’s scathing account of his short stint as Donald Trump’s national security adviser, from April 2018 to September 2019. The book’s main message is that no matter how you feel about Trump, you will be stunned by how he behaves behind the scenes.
Republican members of the Senate are still saying with a straight face that Bolton, with his sensational stories, is just trying to sell books and that they don’t believe a word of what he says. But they typically add that they haven’t read the book and don’t intend to. If you read this book, the many meticulous accounts of White House decision-making will leave you with no doubt about Trump’s mendacity, incompetence, cruelty, corruption, laziness and ignorance about foreign policy, diplomacy, rational thought, science and the US Constitution. Bolton is a legendary note-taker, and it shows.
I’ll get back to Haley. But what about Bolton’s larger exposé?
First, don’t be put off by the flood of details and footnotes: the mind-boggling chapters dealing with China, North Korea, Iran, Afghanistan and Ukraine will come along — eventually.
Before then, we learn that Trump has his set of beliefs and that beyond them he simply lacks curiosity, showing little patience for readings, briefings or all but the thinnest of discussions. He also, it seems, has a hard time making up his mind, abandoning “final” decisions with . . . um, abandon, such as his reversal just minutes ahead of launch of a retaliatory strike on Iran over the shooting-down of a United States drone.
Bolton called the decision “the most irrational thing I ever witnessed any President do.”
While the right bureaucratic structures were in place in the White House, “it was the chair behind the Resolute desk that was empty,” he writes.
One particularly dismaying aspect of life in the current White House is the plight of a staff regularly obliged to ask whether to stick with the job or to resign, Bolton reports. He mentions the regular discussions he had with colleagues, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and former Chief of Staff John Kelly, among them, as to whether the latest Trump outrage had finally convinced them to get out. Meanwhile, the president is constantly questioning Bolton about the performance of others.
Bolton takes this as a sign that the president is also regularly complaining to his colleagues about Bolton’s performance. It’s one reason behind the extraordinary White House game of musical chairs and the sheer, unprecedented number of top aides who have either been fired or resigned.
As those familiar with Bolton well know, he too is prone to attacking colleagues behind their backs, but he does so in the open with relish here, from Pompeo and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to ex-Defense Secretary James Mattis and Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s former acting chief of staff. Unsurprisingly, Bolton fails to address his own conduct and doesn’t seem to understand that his negativity reflects poorly on his own performance.
Perhaps the biggest question raised by the book is why he declined to spill the beans to House investigators or US senators weighing whether Trump should be impeached or removed from office. Bolton was present for the acts at the core of the case for Trump’s ouster and was appalled by them but chose public silence instead.
“I thought the whole affair was bad policy, questionable legally, and unacceptable as presidential behavior,” Bolton writes. “Was it a factor in my later resignation? Yes, but as one of many ‘straws’ that contributed to my departure,” he writes. He says he reported the president’s conduct to Attorney General Bill Barr and White House counsel Pat Cipollone and discussed it with Pompeo and Mnuchin. Yet he said nothing to Congress.
“I believed that I would have my say in due course . . . and I was content to bide my time,” he writes before bizarrely accusing the House impeachment investigators of “malpractice” in their inquiry.
Sadly, Bolton also leaves unchallenged his own unorthodox approach to foreign policy.
I got to know about Bolton and his hawkish tendencies as a Reuters correspondent at the United Nations during Bolton’s tenure as US ambassador, from August 2005 to December 2006. He raised hell there, running his own mini-Department of State from New York. He regularly lashed out at multilateralism, US critics and unsupportive nations while eagerly seeking cuts in the UN’s powers and budget.
Apart from NATO, he has rarely met a multilateral treaty or organization he liked, striving throughout his time in Washington to withdraw the US from, among others, the Iran nuclear agreement, the Paris climate deal, the Treaty on Open Skies, the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test Ban Treaty and the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. He succeeded in some cases while other efforts are still underway.
He is a big believer in using military force to make a point; he’s also a huge fan of regime change, advocating new leadership at one time or another for Iran, Syria, Libya, Venezuela, Cuba, Yemen and North Korea. He was an early and enthusiastic champion of the 2003 war in Iraq.
Sounds a lot like Nikki Haley, right?
So why is he so angry with Haley? He sprinkles unflattering anecdotes and sneering criticisms throughout the pages of “The Room Where It Happened,” tarring her as a dim bulb and an ambitious prima donna with an oversize ego. True, Haley is no intellectual match for Bolton, who dots his book with Latin and whose knowledge of history, diplomacy and politics is extraordinary.
But Haley is also a fawning fan of Trump who is popular with Republican voters and striving to emerge as a top Republican presidential contender in 2024. So is Bolton worried about her possible presidential run? Or is it a guy thing? His bleats often reflect female stereotypes.
From the start, he recounts chuckling with Trump’s first Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, over the “ticking time bomb” he would have to deal with in Haley. UN ambassadors — and often presidents — tend to forget there is just one secretary of state, Bolton lectures the reader, claiming it was a big mistake to grant cabinet status to a UN ambassador, as Trump did with Haley.
All too often, Bolton writes, Haley acted “as a free electron,” making policy on her own without consulting with him or Pompeo. She’s a sucker for photo opportunities. She would also confer directly with Trump on, for example, a US statement to the Security Council. (Haley is one of the few top Trump aides to step down while remaining in the president’s good graces.) She didn’t even let Pompeo and Bolton know that she would announce her resignation in October 2018.
“Pompeo and I saw it exactly the same, that her successor, whoever it turned out to be, would not operate that way,” Bolton writes. And that, Bolton says, is why he and Pompeo came up with Kelly Craft, the wife of a coal billionaire and Trump campaign donor who lacks cabinet status and is content to regularly retweet Pompeo and praise Trump and nothing more.
Pompeo dismissed Haley, the free electron, as “light as a feather,” Bolton says.
And Tillerson, Trump once told Bolton, also disliked Haley, adding that the two once had an argument that led Tillerson to let out a stunning burst of profanity. “Don’t ever talk to me that way again,” the president quoted Tillerson as telling her. “You’re nothing but a cunt, and don’t ever forget it.”
“In most administrations,” Bolton writes, “that would have gotten Tillerson fired, so I wondered if he ever actually said it. And if he hadn’t, why did Trump tell me he had?”
(Note: Trump is not always celebrated for his adherence to the truth.)
One of Haley’s brashest moves involved her appearance on a weekend TV talk show, in April 2018, when she said the Treasury Department would announce on Monday that it was imposing new economic sanctions on Moscow.
Unfortunately, Haley was unaware that Trump had changed his mind, Bolton writes. And why had she felt she could disclose the sanctions rather than wait for Treasury to make the announcement, he wondered.
“She just slipped,” Haley’s political adviser said, leaving it to Bolton to call the Russians and explain the mix-up. Larry Kudlow, the director of Trump’s National Economic Council, then fudged over her misstep, stating publicly that Haley “got ahead of the curve” and “there might have been some momentary confusion.” To which Haley famously snapped back, “With all due respect, I don’t get confused.”
Her brave statement was widely reported and ended up as the title of her latest book, “With All Due Respect.” But Bolton uses his book to get the final word: “[W]ith all due respect, Haley wasn’t confused. She was wrong.”
Bolton was, of course, deeply problematic as the national security adviser to this president. But Trump was clearly even more of a problem. While Bolton was full of advice, most of it went over Trump’s head or in one ear and out the other.
Then there were the many instances when the president would either be unable to make up his mind or seize on some cockamamie diversion, only to quickly forget or reverse whatever decision he had made. For Bolton, such chaos meant — often with help from Pompeo, he says, but rarely with a hand from Mattis or Haley — the job of either ignoring the Trump pronouncements he dismissed as disastrous or working around them artfully to get to a reasonable result.
Bolton’s clean-up job all ended last September, when Trump called him to the Oval Office to complain about the media coverage of a number of his top initiatives. “A lot of people don’t like you,” Bolton quotes Trump as telling him. “They say you’re a leaker and not a team player.”
A bitter discussion ensued, at the end of which Bolton told Trump he’d step down “if you want me to leave.” Trump responded, “Let’s talk about it in the morning.”
Bolton delivered his letter of resignation the next day, only to have Trump insist he had fired Bolton first.
And so it went. “Wacko John Bolton’s ‘exceedingly tedious’ (New York Times) book is made up of lies & fake stories,” Trump tweeted on June 18, 2020. “Said all good about me, in print, until the day I fired him. A disgruntled boring fool who only wanted to go to war. Never had a clue, was ostracized & happily dumped. What a dope!”
Haley has not weighed in, as far as I know. Maybe she is holding onto the good stuff for her next book. Let’s see if she took notes.
“The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir,” by John Bolton; 9781982148034
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Irwin Arieff is a veteran writer and editor with extensive experience writing about international diplomacy and food, cooking and restaurants. Before leaving daily journalism in 2007, he was a Reuters correspondent for 23 years, serving in senior posts in Washington, Paris and New York as well as at the United Nations (where he covered five of the 10 years that Sergey Lavrov spent in New York as Russia’s senior UN ambassador). Arieff also wrote restaurant reviews for The Washington Post and Washington City Paper in the 1980s and 1990s with his wife, Deborah Baldwin.