John Bolton: Trump doesn’t understand ‘the gravity of responsibility’

The World
Then-National Security Adviser John Bolton listens as US President Donald Trump holds a Cabinet meeting at the White House in Washington, DC, on April 9, 2018.

US President Donald Trump made controversial remarks Tuesday about the nature of a major explosion in Beirut. The blast has been blamed on several tons of ammonium nitrate stored in a warehouse in Beirut’s port.

But Trump indicated the explosion was an attack. 

“I met with some of our great generals and they just seem to feel that it was not some kind of manufacturing explosion type of event. This was a — it seems to be according to them, they would know better than I would — but they seem to think it was an attack. It was a bomb of some kind,” Trump told reporters at the White House on Tuesday.

This type of convoluted, often erroneous messaging is detailed in a book by Trump's former national security adviser, John Bolton, released in June titled, "The Room Where it Happened: A White House Memoir.

The volume, published over objections from the White House, provides an insider account of Trump’s “inconsistent, scattershot decision-making process,” according to the publisher. Bolton was fired by Trump last September amid simmering differences on a wide array of foreign policy challenges.

The World's host Marco Werman spoke with Bolton about Trump's response to the Beirut crisis; his order to pull 12,000 troops out of Germany, and the geopolitical consequences of Trump's decision-making style. 

Related: Nicholas Burns: Bolton allegations on Trump 'as damaging as any in modern American history'

Marco Werman: Are you surprised when you hear your former boss make that sort of comment that doesn’t later align with what seem to be the facts on the ground?

John Bolton: I don't think that the gravity of the responsibility really weighs on him that much. I don't think he fully understands it. So, it's perfectly natural that he makes comments like the comment about the destruction in Beirut, or saying that maybe Microsoft should pay a fee to the US Treasury if he allows them to proceed with the purchase of TikTok’s US assets, or what he said this morning in an interview that it could be years before the November election is decided and his earlier comment that maybe the election should be delayed. 

These are incredible things for a president to say. And whether they are motivated by his own personal interest or just an inability to discipline his comments, it's still very disturbing.

Well, let's come back to that in a moment, how he functions and behaves. I want to get to the troops in Germany and President Trump's order to pull 12,000 of them. You said the decision showed “a broad lack of strategic understanding.” What do you think the president does not understand about these troops, about what they represent in that part of the globe?

If anything, we should be increasing our deployments in Europe and in different places because of the threat that Russia poses in Eastern and Central Europe and the Baltics. The president himself gave his reasons for moving these troops, over half of whom will come back to the United States. And it was to penalize Germany for our trade deficit with Germany and for Germany not making progress toward the NATO target of spending 2% of its GDP on defense.

Do you see that as a legitimate move, to pull troops to punish Germany?

Of course, it's not legitimate, but it's the way Donald Trump operates. He's not able to in many, many cases to distinguish his own personal interests and feelings from the national interest. He sees them essentially as the same thing. So for him, it's legitimate to do. And apparently his advisers were not successful in talking him out of that.

So, if Trump wants to reduce troop numbers, US troop numbers in Germany, where else is he thinking about doing that? In South Korea? There are more than 23,000 troops there.

Well, I think if he wins a second term and is free of the political constraint of having to be elected again or depending on Republican majorities in Congress, really it's hard to predict what he would do. He has said in recent days that the number of troops in Afghanistan is going to go below even the 8,600 that he announced when he announced the so-called peace deal with the Taliban. I think his number was between 4,000-5,000. And that's on the way to zero. I think that's a huge mistake that causes real risk for the United States if Afghanistan returns to its pre-9/11 status under the Taliban as a host for terrorist groups who could strike us or our friends around the world.

This is not anything like a well-thought-out strategy, and it's not necessarily going to happen all at because he doesn't think systematically. But it's indicative of what may happen if he succeeds in winning a second term.

So, just how the White House functions with Trump: Does he see others around him as being the ones responsible for grasping the geopolitical implications of big decisions and just giving him bullet points on his options? Or is it that he can't grasp them? You wrote that Trump once asked if Finland was part of Russia.

Well, I don't think he’s very well-informed. And I think that means almost automatically he doesn't really see the bigger implications. But even more disturbing than that, he's not especially interested in learning. What you expect from a president is that he will become familiar with the issues and the background in areas that were not part of his own personal experience so that his decisions can be as fully informed as possible. And Trump just shows no interest in that.

It's, I think, demonstrated by his disdain, almost, for intelligence briefings and his feelings that his gut really is the place where the decisions are made. He sizes people up. He sees decisions in personal terms, doesn't need extensive briefings, and he gets things quickly and he makes his decision. And, you know, further study really isn't necessary.

He gets things quickly. Does he always get them right?

Well, no, of course not. And I think it's dangerous to think that, let's say, in connection with the nuclear talks now underway with Russia to decide what to do as the New START treaty comes to an expiration point next year, if he's still in office, what his thoughts are on what the appropriate strategic weapons capability for the United States ought to be because he doesn't study that either.

Do you view his response to the pandemic as a national security concern?

I do. I think he's failed. I think he in the early days did not want to hear anything critical of China, even though NSC staffers and the Centers for Disease Control staffers in early January were sounding the alarm because he didn't want to concede that the pandemic, as it turned out to be, could have a dramatically negative impact on the US economy and therefore his ticket to reelection. I think we've all suffered the consequences as a result. And you know, his attitude toward China, his rhetoric, at least now, is very harsh. The administration has taken some tough steps, but I wouldn't be surprised if he wins a second term. After the election, he'll be right back on the phone with Xi Jinping talking about the trade deal.

And now the current national security adviser, Robert O'Brien, has tested positive for COVID-19. Does it surprise you that the virus has traveled that close to the Oval Office?

It doesn't because I think they weren't taking adequate protections. We have to hope it doesn't spread further. You don't want the top decision-makers of the country incapacitated.

Finally, you've said on several occasions that Donald Trump is unfit to be president. What do you mean by unfit? And where does that concern take you?

Well, I don't think he fully understands the office or what it entails. He doesn't consider the consequences of his decisions. He doesn't proceed on the basis of philosophy or grand strategy or even consistent policy. And I think in the national security space, that's very, very dangerous. I think the country can recover from the damage that Trump has done in his first term, actually fairly quickly. But I'm more worried about the corrosive effects of two Trump terms.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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