Why the Trump White House Is Right to Fear Meticulous Note-Taker John Bolton

Donald Trump, John Bolton, Senate, trial, witness
This file photo shows President Donald Trump speaking to reporters as then-National Security Adviser John Bolton listens in the Oval Office of the White House on August 20, 2019 in Washington, D.C. Alex Wong/Getty Images/Getty

The only thing more improbable than John Bolton's presence as National Security Adviser in Donald Trump's White House is the idea that, as the president asserted Sunday night, he never told his NSC adviser that he wanted to tie aid to Ukraine to investigations into Joe and Hunter Biden. If Bolton has written in his forthcoming memoir that the president did in fact tell him that—as press reports say—it's almost certainly true.

Forget Bolton's reputation as a detail-oriented foreign policy hawk in an administration headed by a not-very-well-informed neo-isolationist. What matters now is Bolton's well-earned reputation as a vicious bureaucratic infighter—a "bureaucratic black belt," as George H. W. Bush's chief of staff Andrew Card, who dealt with then-UN Ambassador Bolton, put it.

A Yale-trained lawyer, Bolton is a meticulous note-taker, recording the details and his impressions of virtually every meeting he attends. White House sources have said Bolton was alarmed by presidential lawyer Rudolph Giuliani's "shadow" foreign policy ventures regarding Ukraine and the Bidens. Bolton does not share Trump's apparent affinity for Russian President Vladimir Putin and believes the Russian leader's ultimate goal is to reassemble as much of the Soviet Union as he can. A hold on aid to Ukraine, based on information Trump was getting from Giuliani, would have put the former New York mayor in Bolton's crosshairs. "He wanted to know everything that was going on there," says an NSC source not authorized to speak on the record.

Being in Bolton's crosshairs on a policy or personnel matter is not a place you want to be. During his time in the George W. Bush administration, he fought a bitter bureaucratic war to undo the State Department's policy on North Korea—which was rooted in an agreement known as the "Agreed Framework," intended to limit Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program in return for energy assistance. That had been negotiated by the Clinton administration, and was still in place when Bolton arrived at the U.N. in 2005. The U.S. intelligence community had by then produced information that Pyongyang was proceeding in secret to try to develop a uranium-based nuke.

The State Department—and the dovish regime in South Korea, then led by President Kim Dae Jung—didn't want to upset the status quo with the North. This infuriated Bolton. It was the ultimate, he would later write, in the disease that always afflicts the State Department: "clientitis." So he went to war and eventually, from his perch as Undersecretary of State for arms control, managed to kill the Agreed Framework. "It was a months-long policy struggle against the [State Department] bureaucracy," he later said, but ultimately he persuaded President Bush to end the deal once and for all.

To Bolton's admirers this was simply a commonsense decision in response to new facts. To his detractors, his tough bureaucratic infighting had profound consequences. A few years later, after the North had gone ahead and produced several nuclear weapons, I asked the South Korean government's point man on the nuclear issue, Chun Yung-woo, what he thought of Bolton. "John Bolton," he said, "is the reason North Korea has nuclear weapons today."

read his account of his time in the Bush administration, "Surrender is Not an Option." It is 456 pages of detail about how foreign policy got made during the tumultuous Bush years. "I had worried about whether I was getting too deep in the weeds," Bolton told Newsweek later.

Now the Trump White House will likely get taken deep in the weeds on the Ukraine policy that managed to get Trump impeached. Bolton's recollections could force reluctant GOP senators to call for witnesses, upending the expectation that Trump will be easily acquitted. The president conceded over the weekend that he and Bolton did not part on the best of terms. And being crosswise with the former NSC chief, says a former security council colleague, "is not a place I'd want to be."