Jul 5, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Bolton's hidden aftershocks

Photo illustration of John Bolton surrounded by wavy lines
Photo illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The news media has largely moved on, but foreign government officials remain fixated on John Bolton's memoir, "The Room Where It Happened."

Why it matters: Bolton's detailed inside-the-Oval revelations have raised the blood pressure of allies who were already stressed about President Trump's unreliability.

What we're seeing: Bolton's account of Trump's disdain toward South Korea — as a freeloader whom the U.S. has no business protecting — was "met with consternation in Seoul," writes the well-sourced Sue Mi Terry in Foreign Affairs.

  • "After all, it is one thing to suspect that the president of the United States doesn’t care about your country and is simply pursuing diplomacy to get his picture in the newspaper; it is quite another to have the suspicion confirmed by one of the president's most senior advisers," she wrote.

Between the lines: South Korea is far from the only country grappling with Bolton's revelations.

  • European officials, who have spent three and a half years fretting that Trump would withdraw the U.S. from NATO, are treated to a hair-raising account of just how close Trump came to announcing he would do just that.
  • The behind-the-scenes maneuverings from Trump's team to stop that from happening suggest it's still a real possibility.

Associates of Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó were also unsettled by the book, according to a source in close touch with his team. And the inner circle of Venezuelan dictator Nicolás Maduro was ebullient about the account, according to a source briefed on their thinking.

  • Though Trump's official position is that he backs Guaidó as the legitimate leader of Venezuela, Bolton reveals that Trump has called him weak. Bolton wrote that only a few months after Trump endorsed Guaidó, he had branded him "the Beto O'Rourke of Venezuela."
  • When I spoke to Trump a few weeks ago, he told me he could have gone either way on Bolton's advice to endorse Guaidó, that he was originally inclined not to, and thought that doing so was a fairly meaningless gesture.
  • Trump also told me he would be willing to meet with Maduro. The statement sent shockwaves through Guaidó's inner circle, and Trump walked it back the day after our story published.

The big picture: We may never see another book like Bolton's. It's hard to imagine a future author who has Bolton's access, his pedantry about note-taking, and his willingness to undermine the commander in chief he served.

  • The Russian bounty story will extend Bolton's relevance. Now he's a primary player in an unfolding crisis.
  • And if Trump wins a second term, Bolton's book will have an even longer shelf life. Bolton goes further than anyone has in describing the tactics that foreign leaders and Trump's own aides use to manipulate him.
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