Opinion

What Bolton's book reveals about Trump — and America

Damning new allegations reveal the true scope of the president's apparent autocratic inclinations

We already knew that President Trump is ignorant, inept, and corrupt. The allegations in former National Security Adviser John Bolton's new book reveal why that matters: The United States can no longer plausibly claim to lead the so-called "free world" — not if its president is bargaining away the rights of oppressed minorities, pining for the execution of American journalists, and horse-trading with autocrats to undermine free and fair elections in his own country.

Excerpts from the new memoir by Bolton became public on Wednesday and were an immediate sensation. Bolton made several alarming allegations about his time with the president:

  • Trump on several occasions apparently indicated to Chinese President Xi Jinping that he wouldn't oppose that country's construction of prison camps to imprison and re-educate Uighur Muslims. "According to our interpreter, Trump said that Xi should go ahead with building the camps, which he thought was exactly the right thing to do," Bolton wrote. Trump's comments meant "we could cross repression of the Uighurs off our list of possible reasons to sanction China, at least as long as trade negotiations continued." (The president on Wednesday signed a bill that criticizes the Chinese treatment of the Uighurs, but that is clearly a case of too little, too late.)
  • Efforts to pressure Ukraine in helping Trump muddy former Vice President Joe Biden's reputation — the basis of the impeachment effort against Trump — were far from the only time the president misused his official powers. For example, he allegedly offered to call off federal criminal investigations involving Chinese and Turkish firms as a personal favor to the leaders of those countries. "Had the House not focused solely on the Ukraine aspects of Trump's confusion of his personal interests," Bolton writes, "there might have been a greater chance to persuade others that 'high crimes and misdemeanors' had been perpetrated."
  • One one occasion Trump allegedly sought re-election help from Xi, asking the Chinese leader to purchase soybeans to boost his standing with American farmers during the 2020 campaign. "Trump then, stunningly, turned the conversation to the coming U.S. presidential election, alluding to China's economic capability and pleading with Xi to ensure he'd win," Bolton writes. "He stressed the importance of farmers and increased Chinese purchases of soybeans and wheat in the electoral outcome. I would print Trump's exact words, but the government's prepublication review process has decided otherwise."
  • Trump reportedly mused about having journalists jailed for unflattering stories about his administration. "These people should be executed," the president said, according to Bolton. "They are scumbags."

The ramifications of these allegations will be far-reaching. But most apparently, they will critically affect how the world views the United States as it moves toward a more confrontational relationship with China. They should also encourage Americans to cast a newly skeptical eye on that confrontation — which augurs a New Cold War — as well as efforts to scapegoat China for the coronavirus outbreak.

China's leaders are no democrats. Along with their treatment of the Uighurs, they have recently sought to crush what democracy is left in Hong Kong. But Bolton's book also affirms that China isn't wrong to charge hypocrisy — as its leaders have so gleefully, propagandistically done — in the American government's posturing as an avatar of liberty. Indeed, U.S. claims to moral leadership in the name of "freedom" have always been problematic, but the book exposes the widening gap between how America sees itself and what it really is. The president's apparent autocratic inclinations will make it much more difficult for American leaders to make the case to potential allies that the U.S. confrontation with China is a struggle between liberty and oppression, or good and evil. To many countries choosing which side to take, the conflict will appear much more banal: an old-fashioned face-off between two "Great Powers" for resources and influence. Americans must decide, too, if that is how they want to spend their resources — or, potentially, the blood of their sons and daughters.

The other allegations are shocking, but unfortunately, not altogether surprising. Trump's disdain for a free press and fair elections have long been prominently on display. Until Wednesday, though, Americans didn't know Trump had happily traded away the rights of Uighurs, or that he had sought the help of Chinese autocrats to effectively bribe U.S. farmers for their vote.

But Xi Jinping knew. So did others in Trump's leadership circle. Now the whole world knows.

America in the 21st century has been on a path of steady decline relative to the world, even as China rises. John Bolton, who brought a disdain for diplomacy and alliances to U.S. leadership while in the service of the last two Republican presidents, has been a key figure in accelerating that decline. He is no hero, despite the revelations in his book. It should be absolutely clear, though, that President Trump has forfeited much of what remained of the country's moral leadership for his own purposes. We may find there is no getting that credibility back.

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