The Room Where It Happened
Before I read it, I wondered about the title of this book by John Bolton. The “room” is most likely the Oval Office, although important meetings were held elsewhere, such as the Situation Room. But what is “it?” A singular corrupt event? Perhaps the word is meant to encompass several incidents. I assumed as I read through the book the meaning of the title would become clear.
It did not.
So what does the title refer to? Perhaps it implies that something important was said in a private area where Bolton was present, or that the reader is getting the inside story. There is some of that, although remarkably much is left unsaid.
The book is generally an indictment of President Trump but Bolton is highly critical of other officials, including Rudy Giuliani, Nikki Haley, James Mattis, Steven Mnuchin, Kirstjen Nielson, and Rex Tillerson. Although the book is largely negative on Giuliani, the opening chapter discusses a number of leading contenders for top positions in the administration, asking: “Why not have Giuliani as Attorney General, a job he was made for ?” It is difficult picturing Giuliani performing that role in acceptable fashion.
Many of the book’s 494 pages of text provide detailed treatment of U.S. policies involving Afghanistan, China, France, Iran, Iraq, Japan, North Korea, Russia, South Korea, Syria, Turkey, Ukraine, and Venezuela. Bolton explains that the State Department often began drafting positions “before they even sat down with real, live North Koreans.” That sounds better than sitting down with dead North Koreans. With regard to U.S. military actions, Bolton states on page 213 that with regard to “endless wars” the United States “hadn’t started the wars.” We certainly started the war in Iraq in 2003 and took military initiatives elsewhere, as in Libya in 2011.
Bolton also describes watching Michael Cohen testify before a House committee. However, Bolton says nothing about the substance of that testimony, including Cohen explaining how he was involved in sending checks to certain women to have them keep quiet about sexual affairs they had with Donald Trump. Early in the book Bolton mentions “non-disclosure agreements with the likes of Stormy Daniels” but quickly moves on to another topic.
The book does not mention Trump’s use of the National Emergencies Act to shift funds from the Defense Department to build his wall along the Mexican border. There has been substantial litigation on that question. In essence, Trump argued that if he promised during his presidential campaign to build the wall and after election presented to Congress a specific amount to satisfy that pledge, Congress was obliged to provide the full amount. If it fell short, as it did, Trump could take money from other accounts and reprogram them to build the wall. Such an argument unconstitutionally shifts the power of the purse from Congress to the President and would merit impeachment and removal from office. Bolton makes brief mention of the government shutdown for 35 days but provides no analysis of the type of constitutional claims presented by Trump.
In the Epilogue, Bolton states that a President “may not misuse the national government’s legitimate powers by defining his own personal interest as synonymous with the national interest.” Although the book has a number of references to William Barr, nowhere does Bolton acknowledge that Barr promoted a theory of broad and exclusive presidential power.
It would have been instructive for Bolton to discuss Barr’s views as a private citizen before joining the Trump administration. Why? Because Trump’s own impulses are imperious, and Barr’s legal advice has enflamed Trump’s megalomaniacal view of his authorities.
On June 8, 2018, Barr submitted a 19-page letter to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and Assistant Attorney General Steve Engel. Page after page he found fault with the analysis of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, concluding that his report “would do lasting damage to the Presidency.” After conceding on the first page that a President can commit obstruction, Barr took the opposite position on page 10: “The Constitution itself places no limit on the President’s authority to act on matters which concern him or his own conduct.” No limits? Does that mean what President Nixon did with the Watergate tapes was entirely his own business and it was wrong to force him out of office? In his letter, Barr offered a sweeping defense of presidential power, referring to the “illimitable nature of the President’s law enforcement discretion.” No constraints at all. No institutional checks.
Page 12 of Barr’s letter describes Mueller’s investigation in a manner that would greatly please Trump and his supporters: “The new President knows it is bogus, is being conducted by political opponents, and is damaging his ability to establish his new Administration and to address urgent matters on behalf of the Nation.” Left unsaid was this implied message: “Mr. President, if you are unhappy with Attorney General Sessions and need a trusted replacement, keep me in mind.” Given the values expressed by Barr in this letter, there should be little surprise that the Trump administration would revert to a policy of confrontation regarding legislative oversight and statutory controls.
When Barr appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee as nominee to be Attorney General, Senator Dianne Feinstein criticized his letter to the Justice Department the previous year: “Under his theory, the president is above the law in most respects. That’s stunning. To argue that the president has no check on his authority flies in the face of our constitutional system of checks and balances.” Those points about Barr’s views on the presidency do not appear in Bolton’s book.
All of which prompts the question: does John Bolton actually care about the Constitution and its separation of powers? The reader of this lengthy book comes away without a clear answer.
Louis Fisher is Visiting Scholar at the William and Mary Law School. He served four decades with Congress as Senior Specialist in Separation of Powers with Congressional Research Service (1970-2006) and Specialist in Constitutional Law at the Law Library of Congress (2006-2010). Many of his articles and congressional testimony are placed on his personal webpage, http://www.loufisher.org/.