The biggest question hanging over the impeachment inquiry may be whether John Bolton details what he witnessed about a plot to extort Ukraine to benefit President Donald Trump.
Bolton is reportedly willing to testify against the wishes of the White House, the Washington Post reported Thursday, and spill about conversations he had with Trump. But he’s waiting on a court order sought by a lawyer working for Bolton and his former deputy at the National Security Council that will determine whether the pair must talk to Congress or abide by the White House’s opposition on the grounds of executive privilege.
If he shows up as Democrats have asked, Trump’s former national security advisor is capable of dealing a devastating blow against his old boss, according to two former Bolton foes who saw up close how he fights.
“I would be very, very worried if I were Trump and the White House right now,” said Greg Thielmann, who served in the State Department with Bolton two decades ago.
That’s because Bolton opposed — or at the very least did not join — efforts by the Trump administration to pressure Ukraine. A former Bolton aide testified last month that he likened the effort to withhold military aid to Kyiv in exchange for investigations of Trump’s political rivals as a “drug deal” of which Bolton wanted no part.
“I don’t think he’ll be motivated by loyalty to the president. I think he’ll be motivated by making John Bolton look good.”
“I don’t think dirt-digging would offend Bolton. What would offend Bolton is interrupting military supplies to a country in a deadly battle with Russia. Doing something that for whatever reason appeases Putin,” Thielmann said.
Tom Fingar, who like Thielmann clashed with Bolton while working for him in the State Department, agreed with his former colleague’s assessment.
“Given the way [Bolton] exited from his job and the way he disagreed with the president and objected to this situation, I don’t think he’ll be motivated by loyalty to the president,” he said. “I think he’ll be motivated by making John Bolton look good.”
Thielmann and Fingar both served in the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, which analyzes and vets intelligence for department officials. Bolton was the undersecretary of state for arms control when the Bush administration was making the case for invading Iraq because it claimed Baghdad had weapons of mass destruction. Thielmann and Fingar said Bolton “cherry-picked” intelligence in 2002 to make a faulty case for war, including a false claim that Iraq pursued uranium from Niger for a nuclear bomb. (An internal investigation of Bolton’s involvement in the claim has never been released.)
Thielmann left State in 2002 and immediately began to call out Bolton and others within the Bush administration for lying the U.S. into war. Fingar went on to serve in various roles in the intelligence community until 2008.
Both said that Bolton’s lifelong pursuit of his hawkish worldview should worry Trump, who did not apparently agree with Bolton’s desire to attack Iran or to get tough on North Korea. If exposing Trump over Ukraine helps further those views, Bolton won’t think twice, said Thielmann and Fingar.
“He really wants to see his policy preferences prevail,” said Thielmann. “He really hates the idea of a North Korean agreement that doesn’t crush them; he hates the idea of the Iranian regime surviving; he doesn’t want to do anything to help Russia. He’s a real unilateralist when it comes to punishing what he sees as America’s enemies.”
After a brief and controversial stint as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in the mid-2000s, Bolton spent the next decade out of government until Trump tapped him to be national security advisor in 2018. It was Bolton’s best chance to influence U.S. foreign policy, but his disagreements with Trump over myriad issues — especially Iran and possibly Ukraine — apparently resulted in his dismissal. Trump fired Bolton in September, announcing on Twitter he had asked for Bolton’s resignation — only for Bolton to immediately reply on Twitter that he had offered to resign himself.
“What the president said about [Bolton] when he left I’m sure was pretty galling to John,” Fingar said.
The last time Bolton sat in front of a House committee in 2006, he was peppered with questions about his alleged manipulation of intelligence on Iraq by Rep. Henry Waxman, then one of the top Democrats in Congress. Waxman told GEN that Bolton was a hard target.
“[Bolton] is an able witness at a hearing in obfuscating the facts, not answering the questions, or taking responsibility for his actions,” Waxman said.
Democrats may encounter resistance from Bolton thanks to his belief in broad executive privilege. In Bolton’s 2007 memoir, titled Surrender is Not an Option: Defending America at the United Nations, he recounted a battle against Congress during the Reagan administration.
While he was a Justice Department official in the 1980s, Bolton fought Democrats’ efforts to obtain memos from then-Department of Justice official William Rehnquist to President Richard Nixon. (Democrats sought the memos during a debate to confirm Justice Rehnquist as chief justice.) Bolton wrote that he wanted to “repair the damage” to the executive branch “caused by the combined ravages of Watergate and the anti-Vietnam protests of the 1970s.”
Fingar said he didn’t expect Bolton to answer questions about whether or not Trump’s conduct was appropriate, only if it was legal.
“I’m not surprised by what has been reported about his discomfort with the situation and his attempt to distance himself from it,” Fingar said. “I clashed with him on a lot of things but I don’t question his patriotism or commitment to due process or the Constitution — I mean he’s a lawyer.”