The Room Where It Happened review: John Bolton fires broadside that could sink Trump

John Bolton’s near-600-page tome is the most damning written account by a Trump administration alumnus, the one that stands to haunt the president come November. In the author’s judgment, “I don’t think he’s fit for office. I don’t think he has the competence to carry out the job.” Joe Biden couldn’t say it better himself.

Finally, Donald Trump’s third national security adviser is spilling his guts. Trump begging for China’s assistance in 2019 makes his waltz in 2016 with WikiLeaks almost comical. “Make sure I win … Buy a lot of soybeans and wheat and make sure we win,” said the MAGA King, abasing himself before Xi Jinping, successor to the Dragon Throne, in the uncut version of Bolton’s narrative.

The president’s loyalists know they are staring at a problem that isn’t disappearing. Insult is the only available weapon. Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, called Bolton a traitor. Peter Navarro, the White House trade hawk, labeled The Room Where It Happened “deep swamp revenge porn”.

On Saturday, a federal judge declined to block the book’s publication. Make that three big losses in one week for Bill Barr’s justice department. First, LGBTQ workforce rights, then Daca and the Dreamers, now this. And that’s not including the standoff with the US attorney for the Southern District of New York that didn’t got quite as planned for Trump and Roy Cohn 2.0.

Trump trails Biden by double digits. His consigliere, Rudy Giuliani, is begging for more than three debates in the fall. Tulsa was a bust. The president’s tailspin is pronounced, showing no sign of let-up.

The Room Where It Happened is laden with proximity and credibility, which makes it a book to be believed. Putting things into perspective, Trump’s justice department never went after A Warning, an insider-wannabe’s account of Trumpian bedlam penned by “Anonymous”. Likewise, no one will confuse Bolton with Omarosa or Sean Spicer. There is no reality TV in Bolton’s past or future. Just the public’s verdict.

Not surprisingly, Trump bashes Bolton as a liar and threatens him with criminal prosecution. But Bolton retains his famed notepads. Trump beware.

The president’s public persona is little different from the man behind the Resolute Desk. The Room Where It Happened chronicles, for example, Trump’s animus toward the late Senator John McCain. Bolton describes the president’s “vindictiveness, as evidenced by the constant eruptions against John McCain, even after McCain died and could do Trump no more harm”.

Back in the day, Bolton was recruited by James A Baker III, like McCain a Republican lion, Ronald Reagan’s chief of staff and George HW Bush’s secretary of state. To quote Baker, “John’s an extraordinarily bright guy.”

Baker didn’t say wise.

In 2018, when the president was looking to offload HR McMaster, his second national security adviser, Bolton was on Fox News auditioning. Trump liked what he saw and heard. The rest is spectacle.

Bolton is neither hero nor martyr. It’s not in his DNA. A staunch proponent of the Iraq war and an implacable Iran foe, he sees death as something for others. In his Yale University 25th reunion yearbook, he wrote: “I confess I had no desire to die in a south-east Asian rice paddy. I considered the war in Vietnam already lost.” Think of Dick Cheney saying the quiet part loud – in Dolby sound.

Late last year, during impeachment proceedings against Trump, the nation focused on the congressional testimony of Fiona Hill and Lt Col Alexander Vindman, members of Bolton’s own National Security Council. Bolton himself sat mum, despite the fact he had already left the White House. Like Nero, he fiddled when things got hot.

During the impeachment trial, Bolton said he would respect a Senate subpoena demanding his testimony – knowing that writ would never arrive. Even as The Room Where It Happened is published, Senate Republicans persist in claiming Bolton’s revelations would not have changed a thing.

Bolton witnessed the president trading national security for dirt on Biden, bartering the US justice system for Turkey’s benefit, turning into Xi’s lapdog. But when it counted, Bolton elected to hold his peace. Belatedly posing as virtuous brings limited rewards.

For the price of a publisher’s advance, Bolton now opines that the House Democrats committed “impeachment malpractice” by not broadening their investigation. He may have come to loathe the president, but “owning the libs” took precedence.

In case anyone forgot, once upon a time Bolton was a client of Cambridge Analytica, the now defunct Breitbart affiliate and Robert Mercer-owned company that hoovered up personal data and illicitly interfered in the Brexit vote.

In 2014, Bolton’s Super Pac contacted with the company for “behavioral microtargeting with psychographic messaging”. That meant plundering Facebook users’ data.

According to whistleblower Christopher Wylie: “Bolton Pac was obsessed with how America was becoming limp-wristed and spineless and it wanted research and messaging for national security issues.” In his book, Bolton’s description is more modest: “In late 2013, I formed a Pac and a Super Pac to aid House and Senate candidates who believed in a strong US national security policy.”

Jared Kushner, Steven Mnuchin, Trump and Bolton, in the cabinet room at the White House in September 2018. Photograph: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

He also shares world leaders’ impressions of Trump Inc’s policy chops. The Room Where It Happened records the doubts of Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, about Jared Kushner’s ability to deliver Middle East peace.

Says Bolton, Netanyahu was “enough of a politician not to oppose the idea publicly, but like much of the world, he wondered why Kushner thought he would succeed where the likes of Kissinger had failed.” Delusion? Hubris? Either will do.

On that score, the author observes the relationship between the Israeli prime minister and Kushner’s family had spanned decades. In a non-denial denial, Netanyahu has said he “has complete faith” in “Kushner’s abilities and rejects any description to the contrary”.

Bolton’s prose is lackluster. But that’s a relatively minor shortcoming. More egregious is the book’s title, which is lazy and self-aggrandizing. Bolton has ripped-off Lin-Manuel Miranda and compared himself to Alexander Hamilton, founding father and first treasury secretary. Talk about overreach.

In Miranda’s Broadway smash, Hamilton, Aaron Burr laments his lack of nexus to power, as opposed to the play’s protagonist, who is negotiating a grand compromise on the federal government’s assumption of the states’ debt. In song, Burr complains: “I wanna be in the room where it happens.”

When an American president is caught giving a thumbs-up to concentration camps for Muslims – an allegation the White House has not denied – and his son-in-law is the grandson of Holocaust survivors, that’s one heckuva story.

Just before the book oozed out, Steve Bannon, another Cambridge Analytica partner, predicted China would be the “centerpiece” of this year’s campaign. How right he is.

Except it will be Trump, not Biden, who will be catching grief for being the Middle Kingdom’s poodle. Vladimir Putin, move over. The Room Where It Happened is the best opposition research dump. Ever.

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