Opinion

John Bolton will have his cake and eat it too

Why the former national security adviser might testify against President Trump

Former National Security Adviser John Bolton might soon testify before the House impeachment inquiry — and there is a chance his testimony could help bring down, or at least undermine, the Trump administration. What would such a development mean for Bolton's controversial legacy?

Investigators connected with the House impeachment effort said Wednesday that Bolton's testimony had been requested in the case. Bolton's lawyer said his client would not appear voluntarily, but didn't specify whether Bolton would fight a subpoena. If Bolton testifies — and if his testimony corroborates other officials' assertions that he was alarmed about President Trump's effort to pressure Ukraine into investigating the family of former Vice President Joe Biden — he could be a powerful witness against the man who was his boss just two months ago.

One remarkable feature of Trump's presidency is that his personal vulgarity and corruption have been so pervasive and thoroughgoing that traditionally unsympathetic figures have come to seem less villainous by comparison. Take Jeff Sessions, Trump's first attorney general: He pulled back the Department of Justice's investigations of civil rights violations by local police departments, tried to reinvigorate the war on drugs at a time when everybody else was sensibly withdrawing, and enabled Trump's family separation policy for migrants apprehended at the border.

In ordinary times, his record in the position would earn an unambiguous black mark in America's history pages. But he did the right thing by recusing himself from the Russia investigation and then, by all appearances, protected the integrity of that investigation despite an unprecedented public bullying campaign by his boss, the president of the United States. Those were acts of courage — and if they don't redeem his legacy entirely, they at least complicate it.

At first glance, it appears Bolton could be in line for the same treatment.

Throughout his history of public service — particularly to the Republican Party's 21st-century presidents — Bolton has earned a reputation as a diplomat disdainful of diplomacy, as a hawk's hawk who never met a potential war he didn't like.

But it also appears he helped trigger the current impeachment process by refusing to play along with Rudy Giuliani's shadow Ukraine policy on Trump's behalf. A former White House official has already told impeachment investigators that Bolton was so disturbed by the effort to pressure Ukraine to investigate Biden's son that he told an aide — Fiona Hill — to bring it to the attention of White House lawyers.

"Giuliani's a hand grenade who's going to blow everybody up," Bolton reportedly told Hill.

If Bolton's testimony to House investigators falls in line with such reports, there will be an attempt to reassess his legacy: He may be a warmonger — but he's a warmonger with a heart of gold.

Maybe. But it is also true that Bolton has long been known as a master bureaucratic infighter, uniquely able to undermine even higher-ranking officials if he disagreed with their policy goals. During the George W. Bush administration he became known for undermining then-Secretary of State Colin Powell on relations with Iran and Iraq, Syria and North Korea, and did much the same with Powell's successor, Condoleezza Rice.

Bolton's term in the Trump administration wasn't much different. He and Trump were often at odds over the president's conciliatory approach to North Korea and its nuclear arms program. And his longstanding enmity toward Iran even prompted Trump to joke frequently that Bolton was trying to push him into war. Trump finally got tired of the conflict and fired Bolton in September.

So if Bolton ends up testifying against the president, it is not necessarily a tale of a mustachioed bureaucrat taking a brave stand against power. Instead, it is probably another in a long trail of anecdotes about John Bolton doing John Bolton things — and making life miserable for his bureaucratic rivals. It's just that his rival, in this case, is the president of the United States. Refusing to testify without a subpoena helps him have his cake and eat it too — allowing him to stay in good graces with fellow hawkish Republicans who hate Trump's vacillating on Syria, while also allowing him to insist that his truthful testimony was legally required.

We like to divide the characters in such stories neatly into "hero" and "villain" camps, but the truth is that when powerful people find their power threatened, it is because somebody with questionable motives decided to turn ranks. "Deep Throat," the infamous anonymous source during Richard Nixon's Watergate scandal, turned out to be Mark Felt, a career FBI official who was bitter at having been passed over for promotion to the agency's top job. In retrospect, he doesn't look very heroic.

So no, Bolton won't end up known as the warmonger with a heart of gold. He most certainly is not, as NPR put it, an "ally" to Democrats. But he is a witness to history. And history sometimes has a sense of humor.

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