Nicholas Burns: Bolton allegations on Trump ‘as damaging as any in modern American history’

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.

John Bolton’s memoir from his time as the national security adviser in the Trump White House is set to publish Tuesday, but advance copies are already making waves. 

In the book, Bolton says explicitly that President Donald Trump is unfit for office. 

“I am hard-pressed to identify any significant Trump decision that wasn’t driven by reelection calculations,” Bolton writes.

Trump fired Bolton this past September after roughly 17 months as his national security adviser.

The Trump administration is suing to block the book’s publication, claiming it contains classified information and would compromise national security. 

Nicholas Burns, a former career foreign service officer who served as undersecretary of state for former President George W. Bush, knows John Bolton from his years in government. He’s now professor of the practice of diplomacy at Harvard University and an adviser to the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden. Burns spoke to The World’s host Marco Werman about the most disturbing allegations in Bolton’s book.

Related: Nicholas Burns: US’ ‘unusual’ absence on world stage is bad for Americans

Marco Werman: First of all, how do you know John Bolton? What’s he like? 

Nick Burns: Well, truth be told, I’ve had my share of differences with him in the past. We worked very closely together at one point in the George W. Bush administration. It was not always a pleasant experience, I’m sure, for either of us. He is an arch-conservative, a loyal Republican, highly intelligent. Lots of experience at the high levels of government, a true national security expert. And he’s a patriotic person. Despite my differences with John, I have to credit him with all that. 

How do you judge the veracity of the claims he’s making in his book? 

Well, these allegations are about as damaging as any in modern American history. I mean, it’s explosive, when John Bolton says that President Trump agreed with President Xi Jinping of China that Xi should build concentration camps for Uighurs, the Muslim population of western China. President Trump encouraging President Xi to buy US farm products in order to help President Trump win the 2020 election. And I think the most explosive revelation in the book is that John Bolton is confirming the charge by House Democrats back in the impeachment trial that President Trump withheld military aid to Ukraine until the government in Kyiv would provide political dirt on Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton. 

And you remember, Marco, the Republican defense of President Trump back in the impeachment trial in January was: “Well, all these people who testified, they were secondhand sources. They never met or engaged with the president.” John Bolton was in the Oval Office with the president every day and had lots of discussions about this specific issue. And I think that is the most meaningful charge in the book. 

So, if John Bolton had so much damning information, why did he not come forward during the impeachment inquiry? What was his motivation? 

I can’t know what his motivation was, but he should have come forward. Back in December and January, during the impeachment inquiry, he had information, really, that no one else had that was central to the question being debated by the House and the Senate: Was the president guilty of impeachable offenses on the issue of Ukraine? Bolton knew the history. He had the details. He should have come forward. 

I mean, it’s not unusual, really, for any president to always be thinking about election prospects. It sounds like what you just said is what makes this administration different. 

It is what has distinguished the tenure of President Trump in office. What underlies all of these different revelations in the Bolton book — and Bolton says this, specifically — the president was always looking out for his own self-interest or his family’s self-interest, rather than the national interest. And we elect the president to represent all 330 million of us, to put aside his family’s financial interests, which this president has not done. And that, to me, is the most disturbing aspect of this. Of course, a lot of us — I certainly suspect that this is the way the president operated. But this is not from a journalist. This is not from a Democrat who might be opposed to the president politically. These are revelations from a true conservative and a true Republican who has never broken with his party in the past. 

We should note, Nick, that the Trump administration says the book is all lies. But it’s also asking the courts to prevent the publication on the grounds that it’s full of classified information. So, how can lies be classified as vital national secrets? 

That’s what a lot of people are asking. And it’s a contradictory statement. And the president, of course, said publicly the other day, every conversation with me is classified — which, of course, is patently untrue. It’s never been the case. It never will be the case. Some conversations are classified. Many are not. 

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. Reuters contributed reporting.

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