Nov 10, 2019

Trump aides fear John Bolton's secret notes

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

John Bolton is the impeachment inquiry's biggest wildcard. People around the president say they are worried about what notes Trump's former national security adviser has kept and when he might divulge them.

Why it matters: These sources, including both current and former senior administration officials, tell me that the former national security adviser was the most prolific note-taker at the top level of the White House and probably has more details than any impeachment inquiry witness, so far, about President Trump's machinations on Ukraine.

  • "Bolton was a voracious note-taker, in every meeting," said a source who attended numerous meetings with him.
  • While others sat and listened in meetings with Trump, Bolton distinguished himself by filling legal pads with contemporaneous notes on what was said in the room.

The intrigue: Bolton's lawyer, Chuck Cooper, caught the attention of impeachment investigators and administration officials on Friday with a provocative line he dangled in a letter to the House's general counsel: that Bolton "was personally involved" in "many relevant meetings and conversations that have not yet been discussed" in the impeachment testimonies.

Behind the scenes: This tease from Bolton's lawyer provoked this warning from a senior administration official:

  • "Typically, anything that could contain classified information is turned over to the White House for review when an employee departs. … One would hope Bolton has considered that before advertising that he has additional information."
  • "It could be that these are notes that the White House has already viewed," the official added. "But if not, it would mean Bolton deliberately concealed them during his offboarding, which could lead to legal repercussions depending on the contents."

To be clear, there is no evidence that Bolton has held onto classified information. But the unease inside the administration has been churning ever since staff learned that Bolton had signed a book deal to tell about his time working for Trump. Bolton's book deal is worth $2 million, per AP, which suggests he's willing to dish.

Between the lines: Unlike most of the impeachment witnesses so far, Bolton talked one-on-one with the president on numerous occasions. He has a degree of insight that the impeachment witnesses we've seen so far simply cannot offer.

  • Bolton and his former deputy Charlie Kupperman — both represented by Cooper — have asked a court to determine whether they should obey the White House's order not to testify or the House Democrats' request for their testimony.

The bottom line: All of this may come to nothing because House Democrats are rushing to vote on impeachment before the end of the year. Democrats have said they don't want to get sucked into a lengthy legal battle, and so they have not subpoenaed Bolton to testify. The courts, however, have shown they're willing to move faster than normal if Democrats were willing to delay their timeline and chase Bolton.

  • If House Democrats maintain their current stance — and there's every sign they will — it's a relief for administration officials who have been nervously contemplating what Bolton knows and what he's recorded in that mountain of legal pads.
  • Even if Bolton doesn't testify, he could still put out information before the election that’s deeply damaging to Trump.

The big picture: Unlike current administration officials who may be motivated not to testify by their loyalty to President Trump, it seems more likely, based on Bolton's background, that he genuinely wanted the courts to resolve whether Congress or the White House has the power to compel or stop him from testifying.

  • Bolton and Cooper worked together in the Reagan administration's Justice Department. They have spent decades contemplating questions about the separation of powers.
  • And if Bolton plans to spend his post White House life professing his devotion to Trump, he's doing a good job hiding it. Since resigning, he has publicly criticized Trump's North Korea policy and has enlisted James Comey's book agents to help him do the thing Trump hates most: write an insider account of his time in the White House.

Go deeper: Bolton signs $2 million book deal

Go deeper

Bolton signs $2 million book deal

John Bolton, then-national security adviser, gives a press conference in Jerusalem in 2018. Photo: Sebastian Scheiner/AFP via Getty Images

Former National Security Adviser John Bolton has signed a book deal with Simon & Schuster "worth about $2 million," AP first reported Saturday. Sources confirmed the deal to Axios' Jonathan Swan, who scooped last month that Bolton had decided to write a book about his time in the Trump administration.

Why it matters: Bolton has largely remained silent on his time in the administration and he did not appear for his closed-door deposition in the impeachment inquiry last Thursday.

Go deeperArrowNov 10, 2019

Official testifies Bolton held 1-on-1 meeting with Trump about Ukraine aid

Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Former White House national security adviser John Bolton met privately with President Trump in August in an effort to convince him to release nearly $400 million in frozen military aid to Ukraine, former National Security Council official Tim Morrison told impeachment investigators last month.

Why it matters: The episode underscores how important Bolton's testimony could ultimately be to determining why Trump withheld security assistance to Ukraine at a time when he was pushing its government to investigate his political rivals — a question at the heart of the impeachment inquiry.

Go deeperArrowNov 17, 2019

John Bolton lays into Trump's foreign policy approach in private speech

Former national security adviser John Bolton at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in September. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Former national security adviser John Bolton suggested in a private speech last week that President Trump's experience as a businessman colors his relationships with foreign leaders — often for the worse, NBC News reports, citing six people who were there.

Between the lines: Bolton suggested that Trump believes his personal chemistry with foreign leaders, including authoritarians like Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, means that the U.S. relationship with those countries is a positive one, a source in the room told Axios' Jonathan Swan.

Go deeperArrowNov 12, 2019