Bolton: Trump And China's Xi Talked 'Frequently' About Trump's Reelection

Jun 22, 2020
Originally published on June 22, 2020 4:38 pm

President Trump and his Chinese counterpart spoke about Trump's reelection prospects "frequently," former national security adviser John Bolton told NPR.

According to Bolton, Chinese President Xi Jinping lamented that Trump couldn't run for a potential third term, to which Trump "said yes," Bolton recounted.

"I just thought this kind of back and forth with authoritarian leaders did not reflect well on Donald Trump himself or the presidency or the United States," Bolton told NPR Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep on Sunday evening for an interview to be broadcast Monday.

Bolton is promoting a new book in which he accuses Trump of being uninformed, incompetent, ignorant of basic facts and almost solely focused on his own reelection.

Trump has blasted Bolton in recent days, calling him a liar. Trump ousted Bolton in September 2019.

According to Bolton, at a G-20 meeting in Osaka, Japan, Trump pressed Xi to buy agricultural products from U.S. farmers, who are an important voting bloc to Trump. Bolton writes that Trump also encouraged Xi and China to go ahead with prison camps for the largely minority Uighur dissidents.

Writing in his vote

In the book The Room Where It Happened, Bolton writes that in his year and a half in the White House, he could barely think of any decisions Trump made that weren't driven by reelection calculations.

"Having seen him in operation for 17 months, I just cannot vote for him again," Bolton told Inskeep. "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 [presumptive Democratic nominee] Joe Biden."

Bolton said he still thinks Trump has an "excellent chance" to win in November. He said, whether Trump wins or loses, the GOP needs to come together to determine the future of the party. He warns that Republicans will likely soon understand that Trump's priorities are not in line with their own.

"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," Bolton said. "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."

When pressed about his own role overseeing a National Security Council that made changes to an office overseeing the administration's response to pandemics, Bolton tried to refocus the blame back on the Oval Office.

Bolton said Trump simply didn't want to hear anything bad about the situation in China or that could be seen as critical of Xi, such as the coronavirus — even though Bolton had left the administration by that point.

"And he didn't want to hear anything about negative effects on the Chinese economy that could undermine the trade negotiations," Bolton said.

Bolton said Trump also didn't want to hear anything that could suggest trouble for the American economy, "which he saw as his ticket to reelection."

Publication legal battle

The Justice Department made a last-ditch effort to block the publication of Bolton's book.

Prosecutors alleged the book violates nondisclosure agreements Bolton signed as part of his employment as well as compromises national security.

On Saturday, a federal judge ruled Bolton can move forward with publishing the memoir but also admonished Bolton's conduct in releasing the book, saying doing so "raises grave national security concerns." U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth suggested that Bolton could still be prosecuted.

"Bolton has gambled with the national security of the United States," Lamberth wrote. "He has exposed his country to harm and himself to civil (and potentially criminal) liability. But these facts do not control the motion before the court. The government has failed to establish that an injunction will prevent irreparable harm."

Trump made clear that the administration would do whatever it could to prevent Bolton from benefiting financially from the book.

"Whatever he makes, he's going to be giving back, in my opinion. Based on the ruling, he's going to be giving back," Trump said Saturday before leaving the White House for a campaign rally in Tulsa, Okla.

Bolton said the threats and lawsuit are not unexpected but he said he felt "vindicated" by the court's decision. He said an NSC official concluded that there was no classified information in his manuscript.

Bolton said he knew there would be "trials and tribulations" when someone displeases Trump.

"So this is all par for the course," Bolton said. "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 by the court in laying this story before the American people. They will be the one to decide."

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Former national security adviser John Bolton says he was right to publish a memoir. A judge says Bolton was wrong to publish without completing a review for classified information. Bolton's book comes out this week. The judge rejected President Trump's effort to block publication of "The Room Where It Happened." It's a detailed, up-close portrait of a president who is described as erratic, incompetent and interested only in himself. But the judge says Bolton, quote, "likely jeopardized national security by disclosing classified information."

When he came to the phone for one of his first interviews, we asked Bolton about the judge's decision.

JOHN BOLTON: We're very happy with the ruling to stop the unprecedented effort by the Trump administration to prevent the book from being published at all.

INSKEEP: Did you disclose classified information to your knowledge?

BOLTON: 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 pre-publication clearance process at the NSC.

INSKEEP: Bolton says an NSC official told him the book was fine, though the judge finds that Bolton unilaterally opted out before getting formal permission to publish.

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 it?

BOLTON: 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. And I knew there would be trials and tribulations when you displease Donald Trump. But I have been determined and was vindicated, I think, by the court in laying this story before the American people.

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

BOLTON: Well, you know, it's an important question. I address 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.

INSKEEP: Bolton avoided testifying in the House impeachment proceedings late last year. He left himself open to criticism that he was reserving his story for a profitable book. Now that book is here, offering a portrait of the president reaching far beyond events in Ukraine.

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

BOLTON: Well, this really in a sense is a book about how not to be president.

INSKEEP: In Bolton's telling, the president sabotages meetings by jumping randomly from one question to another. He's constantly changing his mind, and it's nearly useless to give him intelligence briefings because he talks instead of listening. He's desperate to impress foreign dictators, like North Korea's Kim Jong Un.

I'm thinking of one particular incident in the runup 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?

BOLTON: Well, he said that he always - back when he was - 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, it would have been better not to agree to the summit to begin with.

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

BOLTON: Yeah. I think that's an accurate description. And I don't discount the importance of personal relations between the top leaders of countries, whether they're friends or adversaries. 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 interests.

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

BOLTON: Well, I - 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.

INSKEEP: 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?

BOLTON: Well, it was stunningly clear, and I describe it in paraphrase in the book because the government's preclearance pre-publication 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.

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

BOLTON: Yeah. It was - look; this was a longstanding 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.

INSKEEP: 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?

BOLTON: 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.

INSKEEP: Oh, you mean the president of the United States asked for that kind of favor multiple times with Xi Jinping?

BOLTON: 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.

INSKEEP: Is the president fundamentally unfit for the job?

BOLTON: 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.

INSKEEP: You won't be voting for Joe Biden. Why not?

BOLTON: 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.

INSKEEP: 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 in there despite the failings of the president as you saw it?

BOLTON: 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. That criticism is not fair. As each person comes out, you know, the alumni society grows. And I think this will be part of the conversation we have post-November whether Trump wins or loses.

INSKEEP: John Bolton submitted his letter of resignation in September 2019. When the pandemic arrived early this year, Bolton faced fresh criticism. He had eliminated an office focused on pandemics at the National Security Council, which he oversaw. Bolton contends the NSC still gave an early warning of the pandemic, and he instead blames the president, who downplayed the coming crisis.

BOLTON: 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.

INSKEEP: An empty chair - that's how John Bolton describes the president he once voted for and says he once thought he could serve.

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