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John Bolton's book on Trump is a dirty-deeds dossier

Then-national security adviser John Bolton with President Donald

Then-national security adviser John Bolton with President Donald Trump in May 2018 in the Oval Office. Credit: AFP via Getty Images / Saul Loeb

The art of self-dealing?

It's not just one bombshell. It's shock and awe. John Bolton's tell-all memoir on working as Donald Trump's national security adviser for 17 months accuses the president of bad and worse: ignorance and cluelessness about the world, plus an unprincipled eagerness to explicitly solicit help from foreign leaders to boost his domestic political standing.

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

In an episode that Bolton portrays as akin to Trump's attempt to get Ukraine to muddy up Joe Biden, the president "pleaded" with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping, who wanted tariffs lowered, "to ensure he’d win" the election by having China buy more soybeans and wheat from U.S. farmers.

Bolton wrote that he would print Trump’s exact words, “but the government’s pre-publication review process has decided otherwise.” The White House sued Bolton to try to stop publication of "The Room Where It Happened," arguing it still contains classified material, but The New York Times and The Washington Post, among others, obtained copies. The Wall Street Journal posted an excerpt on "the scandal of Trump's China policy."

Trump told the Journal in an interview: “He is a liar,” and “everybody in the White House hated John Bolton.” To Fox News' Sean Hannity, the president said, "he broke the law … this is very classified information." But the administration's contention that so much of the book was classified appeared to be a tacit admission that many Bolton’s allegations were accurate — as inaccurate information could not be classified, The Associated Press noted. (Bolton is known to be a meticulous note taker.)

Aside from questions about his conduct, the revelations will make it harder for Trump to press his argument — more urgent since the coronavirus pandemic raged out of control — that he has been tough on China. In his meeting with Xi last year, according to Bolton, Trump praised him as “the greatest leader in Chinese history.”

When Xi explained to Trump why China was building concentration camps in Xinjiang province, where about a million Uighur Muslims have been confined by Beijing, Trump responded that Xi should go ahead and it was exactly the right thing to do.

Not world-class

As Bolton tells it, Trump is "erratic" and "stunningly uninformed." Some examples:

  • Trump did not know that Britain was a nuclear power (it has been since 1952) and asked if Finland was part of Russia.
  • At one point, Trump said invading Venezuela to oust President Nicolás Maduro would be “cool” and that the South American nation was “really part of the United States.”
  • Trump was reluctant to counter Russian aggression and was influenced easily by Vladimir Putin, who backed Maduro and "largely persuaded Trump" by comparing Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó to Hillary Clinton.
  • In a preview of an ABC News interview airing Sunday, Bolton said, "I think Putin thinks he can play him like a fiddle." Whereas Putin "made his life understanding Russia's strategic position in the world," Trump "doesn't enjoy reading about these issues or learning about them." The result: "It's a very difficult position for America to be in."
  • Trump was obsessed with sending a CD of the song "Rocket Man" signed by Elton John to Kim Jong Un. The president wanted Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to personally hand it to the North Korean leader, but Pompeo didn't see him.
  • Pompeo is among the top advisers who position themselves as unswervingly loyal but mock Trump behind his back, according to Bolton.

Favors for dictators

Bolton described several episodes where the president expressed a willingness to halt criminal investigations “to, in effect, give personal favors to dictators he liked,” citing cases involving major firms in China and Turkey.

Trump sought to intervene in U.S. investigations into Halkbank to curry favor with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and into telecommunications manufacturer ZTE, with the aim of pleasing Xi, the former national security adviser said.

Another story described by Bolton indicated that Trump showed a dictator's impulses regarding the news media. Trump told him journalists should be jailed so they would have to expose their sources. "These people should be executed. They are scumbags," Bolton quoted Trump as saying.

Bolton's book also claimed that one reason Trump stood by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the aftermath of journalist Jamal Khashoggi's murder was to distract reporters from covering his daughter and senior adviser Ivanka Trump's use of a private email server for official business.

Bolton's no hero to Democrats

Bolton argued that the Democrats blew their effort to impeach Trump by focusing only on Ukraine. The Democrats shot back by pointing out how Bolton played hard-to-get when House Democrats wanted to interview him. The Senate's Republican majority kept Bolton from being called as a witness in the impeachment trial.

House impeachment manager Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) said Bolton "may be an author, but he’s no patriot … he saved it for a book."

Multiple Republicans largely shrugged off Bolton's claims, reasoning that the former national security adviser had an ax to grind with his former boss, The Hill reported.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican and a key swing vote during the impeachment trial, said he had no regrets about deciding against removing Trump from office. Alexander said that in the case of Ukraine, he believed Trump did what he was accused of, but it "didn’t rise to the level of high crimes and misdemeanors," and "I don't need to rethink my decision."

Janison: Not his first medicine show

Trump's hype of hydroxychloroquine as a coronavirus "game changer" finally appears to be fizzling, though too late to stop the federal government from getting stuck with 66 million stockpiled doses and no known plan of what to do with them.

Medical matters often seem to produce the strangest of Trump tales — from a doctor's rave about his health in a 2015 letter the then-candidate apparently dictated to a crackpot theory about wind farms causing cancer, writes Newsday's Dan Janison. One chapter from Trump’s pre-White House career in particular seems to have foreshadowed his hallucinatory pronouncements.

It began in 2009 when he lent his brand name to a venture, called the Trump Network, that offered urine tests to determine which of the company’s vitamin products customers should take. Medical experts apparently saw no scientific basis for the gimmick. A specialist in dietary supplements called it a "scam."

The company ended up drawing Federal Trade Commission complaints and lawsuits. Claims against the "network" included fraud by its sales force and false medical assertions. The company, founded before Trump's stewardship, was bought out in 2012.

Where Trump doesn't see racism, most do

A series of polls that came out Wednesday suggest Trump's downplaying of systemic racism and excessive force in policing is increasingly out of step with public opinion.

An AP-NORC poll finds 61% of Americans now think police in most communities are more likely to use deadly force against a black person than a white person, up from 49% in July 2015. Police violence in general is rated a very serious or moderately serious problem by 79% of adults — 97% of black adults and 74% of white adults. By nearly 2-to-1, Americans felt police are treated too leniently by the criminal justice system.

A Quinnipiac poll showed that by 67% to 28%, voters supported the national protests responding to the murder of George Floyd, and 57% have a favorable opinion of the Black Lives Matter movement.

The slogan "defund the police" was rejected by 57% to 29% in a Politico/Morning Consult poll of voters. But 59% say police departments across the country need either an overhaul or major reforms.

Bring back Kaepernick?

Trump has signaled a willingness to bend, if not kneel, on whether Colin Kaepernick — the first NFL player to protest police brutality and racial inequality in the U.S. during the national anthem — should be allowed back in the game.

Kaepernick, a former San Francisco 49ers quarterback, hasn't played in the league since the 2016 season — the same season he first sat during the national anthem. The protest evolved into kneeling, with others joining along, after a sympathetic player told Kaepernick the change would be more respectful to the military. But Trump's attacks on the players, accusing them of disrespecting the military and the flag, became a rally applause line.

On Wednesday, in an interview with Sinclair Broadcast Group, the president skirted the issue that has kept Kaepernick off the field since then. But asked if Kaepernick deserves another shot, Trump said, "If he deserves it, he should. If he has the playing ability. His playing wasn't up to snuff." 

And if he still kneels? Trump wasn't clear. "The answer is absolutely I would, as far as kneeling, I would love to see him get another shot but obviously he has to be able to play well," he continued.

In August 2019, Trump also expressed openness to Kaepernick's return, but not "because somebody thinks it's a good PR move." Housing Secretary Ben Carson, the only black member of Trump's Cabinet, said earlier this week that he is urging the president to reconsider his position on keeling and predicted, "He'll get there."

Coronavirus news

See a roundup of the latest pandemic developments from Long Island and beyond by Newsday's reporting staff, written by Bart Jones. For a full list of Newsday's coronavirus stories, click here.

What else is happening:

  • Biden on Wednesday accused Trump of “surrendering” to the coronavirus pandemic and failing to stay prepared for a resurgence that could endanger a U.S. economic recovery. “Just like he couldn't wish COVID away in March, just like he couldn't tweet it away in April, he can’t ignore it away in June,” Biden said during a speech in a Philadelphia suburb.
  • White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said attendees at Trump's Saturday rally in Tulsa will assume some "personal risk" because of the coronavirus and that's "just part of life." Masks will be given out, but wearing them won't be required.
  • Trump is wallowing in self-pity about his news coverage since the beginning of the pandemic and has resisted warnings that his incendiary behavior has put him on a path to defeat in November, The New York Times reports. "I have to be myself,” he replied. His self-destructive behavior has many advisers wondering if he truly wants to serve a second term, according to the story, which is based on interviews with more than a dozen people who interact with the president.
  • Also according to that Times story, Trump is demanding that officials find and prosecute those responsible for information getting out about his abrupt trip to an underground White House bunker on the night of May 29 while Floyd protests were raging outside.
  • Biden has opened up a 13-point lead over Trump — the widest margin this year — in the latest nationwide Reuters/Ipsos poll.
  • Trump’s presidential campaign is enticing big-spending donors to the Republican Party’s convention in August by offering packages that cost almost $1.2 million per couple, Bloomberg News reported.

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