John Bolton shows that in Washington, irony never dies

No role reversal, it turns out, is too extreme

Former National Security Adviser John Bolton (Getty Images)
Former National Security Adviser John Bolton (Getty Images)
Posted January 27, 2020 at 5:42pm

The emergence of John Bolton as a potentially critical witness in Democrats’ case for ousting President Donald Trump from office is deeply ironic.

For years, Democrats almost to a person have depicted the former national security adviser and arch-conservative as practically unhinged. Now, by contrast, Democrats consider him a solid and stable foundation upon which to rest their case for the president’s conviction in his ongoing impeachment trial. 

Republicans have flipped, too, on Bolton — and might flip in greater numbers in the coming days. Bolton has long been hailed in GOP circles as the virtual apotheosis of clear-eyed, credible conservatism on foreign policy, the voice of a worldview grounded in a strong sense of right and wrong and a detail-oriented approach that was supposed to bring discipline to the National Security Council.

Then came Sunday’s revelation that Bolton will say in a forthcoming book that the president himself had acknowledged hinging military aid to Ukraine in 2019 on Kyiv’s announcement of unfounded investigations that could cast certain Democrats in a bad light.

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Since then, the few Republicans who have spoken out about Bolton, including Trump himself, are questioning his reliability and, increasingly, his motives. 

“I NEVER told John Bolton that the aid to Ukraine was tied to investigations into Democrats, including the Bidens,” Trump tweeted Monday,  just after midnight. “In fact, he never complained about this at the time of his very public termination. If John Bolton said this, it was only to sell a book.”

The parties’ gyrations on Bolton represent a peak level of 180-degree turnarounds in an impeachment trial that has already seen both parties utter the exact opposite talking points they made during President Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial in 1999. Monday’s arguments by Trump’s team even included Kenneth Starr, the independent counsel who led the probe of Clinton that resulted in the president’s impeachment, bemoaning “the age of impeachment.”

The trial has arguably intensified a capital constant: the ability to advocate directly opposite positions, depending on what is politically expedient. No role reversal, it turns out, is too extreme.

Political money

There’s no question that Bolton is a major player not just in hawkish policy but also in Republican politics, a fact that only complicates matters in any role he may play in the impeachment trial.

Bolton’s political operation includes a traditional political action committee and a super PAC, which have supported traditionally like-minded Senate Republicans through direct contributions and outside support, respectively.
All told, the super PAC has spent more than $6 million since the 2014 cycle on independent expenditures supporting Republican House and Senate candidates or opposing their Democratic opponents.

On the other side of the ledger, more than half of the current members of the Senate Republican Conference have received campaign funds from Bolton’s PAC operation for their most recent campaigns, dating back to the 2014 cycle, according to a CQ Roll Call review of data maintained by the Center for Responsive Politics.

That includes contributions in the 2020 cycle to Republican Sens. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Cory Gardner of Colorado and Thom Tillis of North Carolina.

Gardner and Tillis are the most notable of that set, since both are in targeted races. Asked about concerns about conflicts from getting money from Bolton’s PAC, especially if the former national security adviser gets book royalty income from criticizing Trump, a Gardner campaign spokesman highlighted the breadth of Gardner’s support.

“There’s a broad coalition of people supporting Sen. Gardner’s reelection, including President Trump, and the Bolton PAC supports Sen. Gardner because of his commitment to a strong foreign policy,” said Gardner campaign communications director Jerrod Dobkin. “All of Sen. Gardner’s supporters know what’s at stake in this election and are standing with him in his fight to defeat the far-left, radical proposals his opponents are campaigning on.”

Andrew Romeo, the communications director for Tillis, went further.

“The fact that Senator Tillis disagrees with Mr. Bolton when it comes to the necessity of his testimony during the Senate trial actually furthers the point that there is no conflict of interest whatsoever,” he said in a statement.

Democratic dance 

When Trump appointed Bolton national security adviser in March 2018 to replace H.R. McMaster, Democrats were virtually apoplectic. 

Bolton had been an outspoken advocate of direct military action against North Korea and Iran.

He was a vocal supporter of the Iraq War when he was a State Department official in 2002, and he has continued to defend the war since. 

House Intelligence Chairman Adam B. Schiff of California, the House’s lead manager of the impeachment prosecution in the Senate trial, said at the time that Bolton’s arrival signaled the departure of serious and sober thinking in Trump’s circle of security advisers. 

“It’s hard to escape the disquieting conclusion that the mass exodus of the ‘adults’ from this Administration is putting our nation’s security at risk,” Schiff tweeted. “Ambassador Bolton’s hawkish and conspiratorial thinking will only make matters dangerously worse.”

On Monday, by contrast, Democrats were eager to place their faith in the man they had long feared and loathed. 

Schiff tweeted “Bolton must testify,” and he was not alone.

Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming, the Republican Conference chairman, in a Monday news conference, called Democrats out on this disconnect. 

Democrats have, “for 25 years, undermined the credibility of John Bolton on item after item and not trusting his judgment, his temperament,” Barrasso said.

Schiff was asked just before the trial got underway Monday about Democrats trusting the word of Bolton.

“It’s not a question of whether I trust John Bolton or the Republican senators trust John Bolton or the Democratic senators. He should be placed under oath,” Schiff told reporters. “This is why we think the testimony should be public. It should be live. Let the American people, along with the senators, evaluate John Bolton’s credibility when he testifies and make their own judgment.”

Republican rumba

Republicans have generally held their views tight since the bolt of Bolton news broke Sunday in The New York Times. But the Republican congressional opinions that have come out contrast with previous GOP praise for Bolton.

When Trump picked Bolton as his national security adviser almost two years ago, GOP national-security hawks were ebullient.

For example, Rep. Lee Zeldin, R-N.Y., said then that Bolton is “extraordinarily talented” and “ridiculously knowledgeable.” He depicted Bolton as a steady and reliable hand.

“The leaks coming out of the National Security Council will end, Obama administration holdovers will be gone, and the team, chemistry and work product will all be improved,” Zeldin predicted. 

Likewise, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said then that Bolton’s appointment was “good news for America’s allies and bad news for America’s enemies.”

When Bolton was fired (he says he quit) in September, Trump tweeted tartly that Bolton’s services “were no longer needed.” Trump added he “disagreed strongly with many of” Bolton’s suggestions.

At the time, Senate Armed Services Chairman James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma called Bolton “one of my closest friends” and “one of the most knowledgeable” experts on national security. 

On Monday, however, Inhofe seemed to suggest that Bolton’s reported willingness to undercut the president in the impeachment case may be due to Bolton’s sour grapes over the circumstances of his departure from the White House.

“But you’ve gotta keep in mind, for the first time in his life, he was fired,” Inhofe told reporters. “That does have an effect on people.”

Georgia Republican Kelly Loeffler, the most junior senator, seemed to allude to Bolton in a tweet blasting fellow Republican Mitt Romney of Utah, who has said the Bolton news could sway him and his GOP colleagues to support having Bolton testify.

“Sadly, my colleague @SenatorRomney wants to appease the left by calling witnesses who will slander the @realDonaldTrump during their 15 minutes of fame. The circus is over. It’s time to move on!” she tweeted.

It remains to be seen how many other Republicans will characterize Bolton’s potentially critical testimony as the product of a disgruntled ex-employee or a man out to sell books.

Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who might be one among the few consistent Republican critics of Bolton, made that very case in comments to the Washington Examiner, saying, “I think he’s doing this for mercantile reasons.”

“I think you can make a strong argument that he’s ginning up his book. That’s his right, but he’s ginning up his book with the hopes of bringing it in for testimony,” Paul said.

Andrew Clevenger contributed to this report.