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Transcript: NPR's Full Interview With John Bolton

John Bolton, pictured in June 2019 in Japan, talked with NPR about his time in the White House as national security adviser.
Brendan Smialowski
AFP via Getty Images
John Bolton, pictured in June 2019 in Japan, talked with NPR about his time in the White House as national security adviser.

Former national security adviser John Bolton talked with NPR's Steve Inskeep on Sunday about his new book, The Room Where It Happened, his time in the White House and President Trump's impeachment.

Steve Inskeep: As you know, ambassador, the judge declined to block publication, but said you opted out of the national security clearance process. And this is a quote from the ruling: "Bolton's unilateral conduct raises grave national security concerns." And another quote: "Bolton was wrong." Do you accept that judgment?

John Bolton: Well, look, to begin with, we're very happy with ruling to stop the unprecedented effort by the Trump administration to prevent the book from being published at all. And we think that it was part of an effort by the president to suppress the book. We'll have a lot more to say to that as the litigation proceeds. And beyond that, because we are in litigation, that's really all I can say.

Although there is another vital point here. The judge reviewed a classified filing from the government in camera, in private, and said the judge is persuaded that defendant Bolton likely jeopardized national security by disclosing classified information. Did you disclose classified information to your knowledge?

I did not. It was never my intention to in writing the manuscript to disclose classified information. I've had years of experience with this and we went through the full prepublication clearance process at the NSC. And again, these are all issues to be discussed. That hearing that you mentioned was ex parte, that is to say, my counsel and I didn't participate in it. So there is a lot more to come here.

Without getting into too many details, because it sounds like you're reluctant to get too detailed, you just said you went through the full process. The judge said you opted out. You did not go through the full process. What's the difference there?

Well, I think it's going to become very clear as events go on here. There's much that needs to be done in the litigation. And this was the result of about an hour and a half, two hour hearing. So there'll be an evidentiary story to develop and a story to tell.

When you say you went through the full process, do you mean all the details were checked and they just didn't give the final clearance? Is that what you mean to say?

The government itself in its papers says that the NSC senior director concluded and told me that there was no classified information in the manuscript. The government said that.

Now the judge did say that the risk here for you, if they were to find classified information in the book, was that you could lose all royalties. You could lose a lot of other things as well. Was there something about this book that is so important that it is worth risking all your income and perhaps a lot more for?

Well, look, in the Trump administration, the rules don't apply in many respects. I wrote this book as a matter of philosophy and belief in the importance of putting the facts about the Trump administration before the American public, for them to make up their mind. I felt I had an obligation to do it. I explain that in the book itself.

And I knew there would be trials and tribulations when you displease Donald Trump. Ask his niece who he's now saying signed a nondisclosure agreement that prohibits her book from being published. So this is all par for the course. And I didn't look forward to it. Don't get me wrong, this wasn't anything I thought would be pleasant. But I have been determined and was vindicated, I think, by the court in laying the story before the American people. They will be the ones who decide.

In retrospect, would have been better to tell some of this story before Congress during the impeachment proceedings?

Well, you know, it's it's an important question. I addressed that in the book as well. My view is that the way the House Democrats set up the impeachment process, that they, in effect, set themselves up for failure, right at the beginning. I considered their strategy to be impeachment malpractice.

They didn't take any of the steps that one would think would make sense, to reach out to Republicans who might be sympathetic to considering the president's behavior. There was nothing akin to an Ervin committee process, as there was during the Watergate days. And the consequence of the very narrow focus that the Democrats adopted without consultation outside their own narrow circle, as far as I can tell, and their rush to get it done so that the impeachment proceedings didn't interfere with the Democratic presidential nomination had the effect of pushing House Republicans into a corner.

And so what ended up was a bitterly partisan debate that prefigured essentially what was then going to happen in the Senate. So if the objective of the process really was to seek impeachment and conviction, the entire strategy going in was misguided. If it was simply to do some virtue signalling, well, that probably was accomplished. But when the advocates of impeachment adopted this flawed strategy, that doesn't require the rest of the country to go along with it. And I think their failure actually makes it harder to talk about some of the conduct I try and lay out in the book.

But just so that I'm clear on this, though, ambassador, you eventually decided you were willing to testify before the Senate, which, of course, did not want your testimony. The Senate Republicans did not want to take testimony. By saying that you were willing to testify, doesn't that undermine your arguments for refusing the House, which did want your testimony?

Not at all. No. 1, and I lay this all out in a statement at the time, in January, I reprint the full statement in the book. I won't for the benefit of your listeners recite it from the text of the book. But the point was that this conduct by the House and how they treated Charlie Kupperman, the deputy national security adviser, whom they subpoenaed and then withdrew the subpoena. And the instructions that he received from the White House counsel's office was a demonstration that anything that might throw the Democrats' impeachment schedule out of kilter, they weren't willing to consider.

And I understand what their problem was with their presidential nomination. But let's be clear: Impeachment is probably the gravest constitutional responsibility the House has. And I'm sorry that that grave responsibility was affected by their own political calculus. But in effect, that's what the Ukraine allegations about Trump were all about, torquing legitimate government power around his own political interest. So this is part of the impeachment malpractice that I've complained about.

Now, let's talk about what you write about the president of the United States and about the process that you tried to impose or follow inside the White House. You talk about your hiring by the Trump administration and you write that no one could claim by this point, 2018, no one could claim by this point not to know the risks, "but I thought I could succeed." Why did you think that?

Because I felt from prior conversations with Donald Trump when he was a private citizen during the transition, briefly during the campaign, during transition, during his first year in office, I thought it was possible that you could have a more normal, more organized, more coherent, more consistent policy formulation and implementation process. That was my view. I think that I went in with my eyes open, but maybe I went in too optimistically. And so the story of the book really is what I found, actually obtained in the day-to-day life at the White House.

What was wrong on a day-to-day basis with the president's decision making process?

Well, this really, in a sense, is a book about how not to be president. The decision making process was not coherent. It followed episodically and anecdotally on what the president thought. At any given time, decisions could be made and reversed and then reversed again in very rapid fashion. Decisions were made without ultimate objectives and strategies in mind. And I think it was very frustrating and I don't think it was just frustrating for me. I think it was frustrating for, certainly in the national security area, all of the senior advisers, each of whom reacted in different ways and left at different times or remained.

You write about some of those advisers quite critically, and you say that the original adults in the room who were supposed to help guide the president early in the administration failed because they simply opposed the president and frustrated his desires. Do you feel you did any better?

Well, I think part of the problem at the beginning was that they — not all of them, to be sure — but enough of them, made it clear they thought they were the axis of adults, they were the only ones in the room that could keep things under control.

And that had an effect on Trump, who probably exacerbating his feelings going in, began, I think, not to trust most of the — ultimately came to trust most of the senior advisers. And I think a lot of opportunities were lost at the beginning. I tell in the book about a trip to the United Kingdom where the president was shown an exercise by British military together with U.S. military forces. He had never been to one, with just American forces before that. And there were areas that I felt could have been explored earlier that were very hard to go back on. So the early failures, I would say, made it worse. But ultimately, Trump is Trump, and that's where the responsibility lies.

Although did you end up in the same position as some of those early adults in the room? I think about North Korea to give one example that you write about a lot. You also ended up struggling desperately to keep the president from sabotaging his own goals or making bad concessions.

Well, and I think that as that policy and his actions evolved over time, the Korea issue was a major factor in my decision to resign. I try and explain in the book how this develops. You know, a lot of people on the outside look and say, well, "How could you have gone into the administration to begin with?" or "How come you didn't resign at this point?" or "How come you didn't resign at that point?"

And I would say, and I think this applies to many others in the administration as well, we thought we were trying to help out, pursue policies that protected American national security. And if you resign or think about resigning every time a presidential decision doesn't go exactly your way, you wouldn't last 24 hours in most administrations. It's part of the process is appreciating that it is the president's decision. And you work at it as long as you can, as long as you think you're making a contribution.

But you were frustrated again and again when it came to North Korea. I'm thinking of one particular incident in the run up to the Singapore summit, one of the summits between President Trump and Kim Jong Un. The summit is on. The summit is off. The summit is back on. The summit is off. And at one point, you say the president compared his courtship of Kim Jong Un to his dating life. In what way?

Well, he said that he always, back in the day, as they say, he always wanted to be the one who broke up with the girl first. He didn't want the girl to break up with him. And he used that to describe whether he would cancel the summit with Kim Jong Un first or whether we would risk the North Koreans canceling it. And I thought it was an insight into the president, candidly given, that showed how he approached this. As opposed to looking at it from the perspective of what our ultimate strategic interest was, in my view, would have been better not to agree to the summit to begin with.

And I might say, as we've seen just in recent weeks, where North Korea has literally blown up the office building that had been used as a liaison with the South Koreans, that this entire two-year-long effort with North Korea ended in diplomatic failure. But that allowed the North Koreans the time that they need to continue to pursue nuclear weapons and ballistic missile delivery systems.

Did the president have a kind of romantic approach to numerous dictators? He was, in your telling, always concerned about his personal relationship with it, with the individual dictator.

Yeah, I think that's an accurate description, and I don't discount the importance of personal relations between the top leaders of the countries, whether they're friends or adversaries. It's true at the secretary of state level, the secretary of defense level as well. But I think the president had a continued problem in discerning the difference between having a good personal relationship with Xi Jinping, let's say, and the U.S. having good relations with China in the sense of advancing American national interest. And I think it was this confusion that led us into a number of problem areas and are still causing us problems today.

Is this the reason that the United States has become reluctant to criticize China's human rights record, for example, or to criticize Russia?

Well, you know, I think that this is an example of how the president's policy is so often incoherent and how it responds to domestic political pressure. So, for I recount several incidents in the book with respect to the Uighurs, with respect to the anniversary of the 1989 massacre at Tiananmen Square and a number of other issues where the president said, "Well, you know, we have human rights problems, too."

Now, just recently, he signed legislation designed to clarify his power to exact sanctions on China against the Uighurs. But even as recently as Sunday afternoon, he was pointing out that doing so could interfere with trade negotiations with China. So it sounds like he's tough on one day, the next day he's not. And I think once the November election is behind us, if he wins, I think it's entirely possible he'll be right back to the trade negotiation.

Meaning that he'll drop the human rights concerns as soon as he's concerned about something else?

Well, I think once he's free of any reelection pressure, it's going to be revealed. What one of my greatest concerns is, is that he's not a conservative. And that's one reason I wrote the book. I think it's important to make it clear to Republicans and to Democrats that this is not the future of the Republican Party. And these are issues, whether Trump wins or loses in November — and I still think he has an excellent chance to win — that we're going to have a significant discussion over what the direction of the party should be.

Why do you write that the president seemed to be practicing, quote, "Obstruction of justice as a way of life?"

Well, I think there were numerous instances where he did things involving American national interest, sometimes in the judicial context, sometimes in other contexts, that mixed impermissibly his personal political interests with the national interest. I think that was true in Ukraine and a number of other areas, Halkbank, Huawei, ZTE. These are issues that I think are very troubling.

I think it's a contrast with the way that prior administrations have acted. In the case of Ukraine, for example, compare what happened in 1992 when a number of Republican members of Congress suggested to President George H.W. Bush and Jim Baker that they ask Britain and other countries to look into the travels of the young Bill Clinton when he was at Oxford and Bush 41 and Baker said, "We are absolutely not going to ask a foreign government for help," whereas Trump did exactly that.

Trump did that in Ukraine. You feel that he was constantly doing favors for Xi Jinping in order to impress Xi Jinping. And you also write about a favor that he seemed to ask of China's President Xi involving the elections. What was it?

Well, it was stunningly clear, and I describe it in paraphrase in the book, because the government's preclearance, prepublication review process indicated that that's the way they wanted it. But there was a clear linkage between increased Chinese purchases of American agricultural products and Trump's reelection by benefiting farmers in key agricultural states whose electoral votes he needed.

He was asking for China to increase its farm purchases, U.S. farm purchases, in order for him, Trump, to get votes.

Yeah. Look, this was a long-standing discussion about picking up additional purchases of agricultural products by the Chinese to reduce the trade deficit, which was something that Trump focused on constantly. But I think it was clear from that and other comments that the real motivation was political. Now, again, every president has political considerations in mind, not just in national security decisions, but in domestic decisions as well.

The issue is whether the political factors are among those being considered or whether they are the driving, dominant force. And I think, really, that's why President Trump doesn't doesn't want to, didn't want this book published. It's not because he fears that foreign governments are going to read it. He's worried the American people are going to read it.

Robert Lighthizer, the trade negotiator, U.S. trade negotiator, when told about that revelation in your book, said, "It's completely crazy." That's a quote. And that he doesn't remember it happening. Was Lighthizer present when this conversation took place?

He was at that conversation in Osaka. I can tell you I feel very confident my recollection is correct, and that wasn't the only time it came up.

I want to ask about — oh, you mean the president of the United States asked for that kind of favor multiple times with Xi Jinping?

Well, they talked frequently about Trump's reelection, Xi Jinping saying that he wished that there weren't a two-term limit. And the president said, "Yeah, I've had people say to me that it's too bad about the two-term limit." I just thought this was the kind of back-and-forth with authoritarian leaders that did not reflect well on Donald Trump himself or the presidency or the United States.

Since your credibility has been questioned, I just want to note that throughout the book you give the dates and exact times of a lot of meetings. You give so many exact dates and times that the New York Times reviewer didn't like reading it for that reason. Were you writing from detailed contemporaneous notes when you put this book together?

Well, look, this, the book is my best recollection. It has gone through some editing because of prepublication review process, but it's a nearly 500 page book and there's a lot in there. I'd like to see what ultimately people specifically disagree with and what their characterisation is. And again, I'm sure this is something that others may want to write on, too. Ultimately, historians will be the judge of a lot of this. One day when the archives of the Chinese government are open to the people — they had as many observers on their side of the table as we did. They heard what the president said. I think they understood it.

But what I wonder is, at the end of the day, were you taking notes, taking home your notes, writing your recollections in real time, and then referring back to those notes when you wrote this book a year or two later?

All of the notes that I took were destroyed before I left the government.

So this is your recollection in every case?

I'm just going to leave it at that.

OK. Secretary of State Pompeo has also denied, I believe, a story in which you say that Pompeo passed you a note using a profanity to describe the president. Do you have anything to back up that other than your recollection?

No. Other than, we were sitting right next to each other at the table. And I think he wrote it on his notepad, put it in front of me. I nodded my head and he took it back.

You didn't write anything back going the other way?

No, no.

Was that kind of normal to be passing notes in class in a meeting where the president was talking?

Well, I think sometimes you pass notes directly to the president or have a word in his ear as the meeting is going on, of course, because in aid of the course of the discussion, you want to be prepared. And I think this is entirely normal. There's a small meeting and the conversation was predominantly almost exclusively between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un. But no, I think that's perfectly normal.

Is the president fundamentally unfit for the job?

I don't think he's really competent to be president. It's put me in a very difficult dilemma. I voted for him in 2016 because I thought given the choice between him and Hillary Clinton, that that was the choice to make. But having seen him in operation for 17 months, I just cannot vote for him again. I'm planning to write in the name of a conservative Republican identity to be determined yet. But I will not be voting for Donald Trump and I will not be voting for Joe Biden.

You won't be voting for Joe Biden, why not?

Because I disagree with his policies. I've known him for many years. This is not a question of integrity, in my view. It's a question of philosophy. This is a very unhappy election for me. As I say, I face the same dilemma as I think many people did in 2016. And I chose at that time because I thought it was the best thing to do for the country to vote for Trump. But given my experience, I just can't see doing it again.

I am obliged to waste a few of our remaining seconds checking here, because The Daily Telegraph is just in the last few minutes reported, you said you're voting for Biden. I think you're telling me they're wrong.

That was — I don't know what the source of the confusion is there, but I can tell you that as I've said to you, I've said it in other interviews, that I'm neither voting for Biden nor Trump. I'm going to write into another name.

OK. A couple of other questions, ambassador. As it's become very clear, in recent months, critics of the president strongly disagree with you for not testifying at impeachment. I've heard scathing words about you when I mentioned that we're getting ready for this interview. Secretary of State Pompeo called you a traitor. Clearly, the supporters of the president are not happy with this book. Do you mind being hated by people on all sides?

Well, you know, it's not something I set out to do. Feelings are very strong on the question of Donald Trump. And I think that's one of the problems with the distortion of our politics, is that everybody's in their corners lined up and everything Trump did is right or everything Trump did is wrong. And if you don't side with the way I want to do things, your morality comes into question. I think people need to calm down.

In the case of the Democratic criticism, with respect to impeachment, I thought their strategy was fundamentally flawed. And with all due respect, they failed to convict the president. They said, well that nonetheless, having impeached him, it will determine the future. I think they're 180 degrees backwards. The fact he was acquitted will empower him, not deter him.

And as far as the Republican critics are concerned, we're going to have a conversation within the party and within the society as a whole after the November election, whether Trump wins or loses, about the future of the party. And I think we ought to reserve judgment until we get to that point and then have the conversation to make sure the American people don't mistake the conservative Republican philosophy as being identical with Donald Trump, because it is not.

I want to ask about one other thing, where you seek to correct the record from your point of view. You write of disbanding an office within the National Security Council that was focused on pandemics. That received a lot of criticism when the pandemic arrived. You argue that, in fact, a different part of the NSC took over that task and that the NSC worked fine and even gave an early warning of the pandemic. And then you write this: "The internal NSC structure was no more than the quiver of a butterfly's wings in the tsunami of Trump's chaos." Is that one way to summarize your whole time at the National Security Council?

Well, it would certainly not be far from the truth. I mean, specifically in the case of coronavirus, and I do think this is important, whether it's in the context of the 2020 election or how somebody runs the presidency, in January and really even beyond that, Trump simply did not want to hear anything bad about the situation in China. He didn't want anything that could be seen as critical of Xi Jinping. He didn't want to hear anything about the extent of the virus or whether the Chinese had lied about its effects or covered up the spread of the disease. And he didn't want to hear anything about negative effects on the Chinese economy that could undermine the trade negotiations, No. 1.

And No. 2, he did not want to hear anything that could suggest trouble for the American economy, which he saw as his, but not unrealistically, he saw as his ticket to reelection. And that empty chair in the Oval Office is one of the things I think that explains the early failure to respond adequately. Not bureaucratic structures in the Centers for Disease Control or the National Institutes of Health or the Department of Health and Human Services or the National Security Council staff or the State Department. The fault lies in the Oval Office.

Would you give any advice to people who are still in the administration and perhaps are thinking now what you thought at one time, that you could do some good, good in there despite the failings of the president, as you saw it?

You know, having been through this myself and having seen others go through it the before and after me, I can't really offer them advice. This is an intensely personal decision. But I do think this: I don't think people should be criticized for believing in good faith that hanging in there in tough circumstances somehow is an abdication of their morality or their philosophy. I think people tried hard to do things right. Some had better success than others. But I don't think that, you know, unless you've walked in their shoes, it's — that criticism is not fair. As each person comes out, you know, as the alumni society grows, and I think this will be part of the conversation we have post-November, whether Trump wins or loses.

Ambassador John Bolton is the author of The Room Where It Happened. Thanks so much, ambassador. Enjoyed talking with you.

Glad to be with you. Thanks for having me.

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