Exclusive: John Bolton says Trump's White House was 'like living inside a pinball machine'

WASHINGTON – If he had been a senator during President Donald Trump's impeachment trial earlier this year, John Bolton says he probably would have voted for a conviction.

There's a certain irony in that, given that Trump's former national security adviser, out Tuesday with an explosive new book about his former boss, refused to testify in the House impeachment hearings and then offered to testify in the Senate trial if subpoenaed; Senate Republicans predictably declined before voting to acquit.

But on that, as on most things, Bolton is unapologetic about his decisions. He is not a man given to second thoughts or particularly worried about provoking the person generally seen as the most powerful in the world, the one who went to court to try to stop publication of the book and seize his proceeds.

Witness what happened when his interview with USA TODAY on Thursday was over: Bolton stood to pose for a photograph holding a copy of "The Room Where It Happened," the memoir being published by Simon & Schuster. "Shall I hold it like this?" he asked with a broad grin, lifting it over his head.

He was unmistakably mimicking Trump's controversial photo op this month when the president held aloft a Bible in front of St. John's Church after protesters had been cleared from his way in Lafayette Square in Washington.

It is not revealing classified information to report that relations between the former national security adviser and the president he served have gotten a little rocky.

Bolton: Prosecutor firing could be 'consistent' with what he saw

One tantalizing passage in the book suddenly seemed prescient this weekend when the Trump administration fired Geoffrey Berman, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York. When Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan complained in December 2018 about the office's investigation into a Turkish state-owned bank, Bolton wrote, "Trump then told Erdogan he would take care of things" once he replaced Southern District prosecutors with "his people."

"I don't think we know at this point" whether the precipitating event for the firing involved the Turkish bank, called Halkbank, or something else, Bolton said in a brief follow-up interview Sunday. But he said "it could be consistent" with the president's attitude toward investigations that he observed when he was in the White House.

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Four months before the election, Bolton, 71, is out with a book that portrays Trump as incompetent, uninformed, incurious, erratic, enamored with foreign strongmen, obsessed with his reelection and driven solely by self-interest – in a word, unfit to be president. "He's almost proud of not learning much about the subject matter of national security," Bolton said. He called working in the Trump White House "like living inside a pinball machine."

Former national security adviser John Bolton, at a USA TODAY interview about his White House memoir, mimics the controversial photograph of President Trump holding a Bible aloft in front of St. John's Church after protesters had been cleared from Lafayette Park.
Former national security adviser John Bolton, at a USA TODAY interview about his White House memoir, mimics the controversial photograph of President Trump holding a Bible aloft in front of St. John's Church after protesters had been cleared from Lafayette Park.

The president has responded to accounts of Bolton's book with a volley of insults. He told Politico that his former top aide was a "sick customer" and someone seen by his White House colleagues as "totally nuts." To Sean Hannity on Fox News, he called Bolton "a washed-up guy." On Twitter, he described "Wacko John Bolton" as "a disgruntled boring fool," adding, "What a dope!"

Bolton's response?

"You know, whoever hired Bolton should get fired," Bolton said dryly. That, of course, would be Trump. "I've been accused of a lot of things over the course of my career. I've never been accused of hiding my views. So I think he knew what he was getting" when he named Bolton to one of the most powerful jobs in the White House in April 2018.

He would last for 17 months until Bolton resigned (says Bolton) or Trump fired him (says Trump).

'To John, Great job!'

Bolton's downtown office has evidence of happier times. On one wall hangs an oversize print of a Wall Street Journal illustration – a gift from Ivanka Trump – that shows Trump, Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo astride a chess board across from Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani.

"To John," Trump has written on it with a black Sharpie above his distinctive signature. "Great job!"

The Trump administration has done more than just talk about the book. The Justice Department last week asked a federal judge to halt its publication, a request the judge rejected Saturday. "For reasons that hardly need to be stated, the Court will not order nationwide seizure and destruction of a political memoir," U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth wrote. The publisher had testified that 200,000 copies of the book had already been shipped, and its contents have been reported in news outlets around the world.

But the judge also said Bolton "likely jeopardized national security" by including classified material and could be legally liable for failing to complete the pre-publication review process to which he had committed when he received his security clearance. Bolton says the administration, after initially clearing the book, misused the review process to delay publication for political reasons.

So far, the president's ferocious reaction seems to be boosting Bolton's proceeds. "The Room Where It Happened," which got Bolton an advance reported at $2 million, has shot to No. 1 on Amazon.com. Advance sales have made it the top-selling book in the country.

'Impeachment malpractice' by the House

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has also denounced the book, but not because Bolton makes damaging allegations against the president. It's because he didn't make them sooner.

"He chose royalty over patriotism," she told reporters, calling his decision not to testify at the House impeachment hearings "arrogant." That said, Pelosi noted that several Senate Republicans have said Bolton's account wouldn't have changed their minds about whether to vote to remove Trump from office.

Lawmaker reaction:'Author, but he’s no patriot': Lawmakers react to Bolton's new book on Trump

Bolton now confirms the basics of the Democratic case against Trump on Ukraine. He says the president explicitly tied the release of U.S. military aid to an investigation by Ukraine into his political rivals. That allegation persuaded the Democratic-controlled House to impeach the president, although the Republican-controlled Senate acquitted him.

"I think I probably would have" voted to convict, Bolton said, "although, honestly, we still don't know everything there is to know about Ukraine. A lot of conduct can be reprehensible without being impeachable."

Bolton accuses the House of "impeachment malpractice" for not launching a broader and longer investigation, one that might still be going on today. For instance, in an episode reminiscent of Ukraine, he says, Trump solicited election help from China.

According to Bolton, at a summit dinner in Japan last year, Trump asked Chinese President Xi Jinping to increase purchases of American soybeans and wheat to help his reelection prospects in farm states. He was "pleading with Xi to ensure he'd win," Bolton writes, to use China's economic clout for his political benefit. Bolton says he recorded Trump's exact words but was ordered to delete them from the text during the government's review process.

Bolton's depiction of Trump behind the scenes ranges from the shocking to the comic. At one point, Bolton says, Trump seemed unaware that Great Britain was a nuclear power. (It has been since 1952.) At another, he asked if Finland was part of Russia. (It's not.)

While books about Trump have become a cottage industry in the publishing world, Bolton is the highest-ranking former Trump official to depict the president in such a scathing light. He carries the credentials of a conservative who has served in the previous three Republican administrations, including as U.N. ambassador for President George W. Bush.

Bolton argues that the electoral damage from his book is more problematic for Trump than his testimony before Congress would have been, and more appropriate. "Impeachment is the guard rail in the Constitution that's supposed to be used only in extreme circumstances," he said. "The real guard rail in the Constitution is the election."

Bolton said he voted for Trump in 2016 but won't vote for him in November. Nor will he vote for Joe Biden, calling the presumptive Democratic candidate and his party unacceptable on national security policy.

Instead, he said, he plans to write in the name of a conservative leader yet to be determined.

Would he have walked across Lafayette Park?

Bolton packed up his office and left the White House on Sept. 10.

A lot has happened since then. That was a week before the first reports of a whistleblower complaint that had been filed about Trump's phone call with the Ukrainian president. It was two months before China confirmed the first case of the novel coronavirus. The nationwide wave of protests against police violence and racial injustice wouldn't begin until this spring. Trump wouldn't walk across Lafayette Square, cleared of protests, and hold aloft a Bible until this month.

Bolton sees that moment, now iconic, as one more example of the fundamental thesis of his book. After the photo op, Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said they had been wrong to participate in it, opening an extraordinary public divide between the president and the leaders of the nation's military.

"Everything in the administration is at risk of being torqued around Donald Trump's personal needs," Bolton told USA TODAY. "This happens over and over again, this fusing of legitimate government interests with Donald Trump's personal interests." He can stage any photo ops he wants, Bolton says, but "if the president wants a photo op, stand there by yourself."

If he had still been in the White House, would he have walked across the square with him?

"I have to say in all honesty, I probably would have," Bolton said. It was the only moment when he seemed rueful. "And I would have regretted it later."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Bolton interview: Trump White House 'like living in a pinball machine'