Interview: John Bolton talks alleged Russian bounty plot, new book and more

RADIO.COM Staff
June 30, 2020 - 11:50 am
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Multiple reports say President Donald Trump was briefed early last year about an alleged Russian plot to offer bounties for the Taliban to kill American troops in Afghanistan.

The Associated Press reports then-national security adviser John Bolton told colleagues at the time that he briefed Trump on the intelligence assessment in March 2019.

The White House denies the president was ever briefed on the matter. 

In a wide-ranging conversation with WCBS 880's Steve Scott, Bolton said that he cannot confirm that he personally briefed the commander in chief about the alleged Russian plot.

Bolton also spoke about the impeachment hearings, his new book "The Room Where It Happened," and the upcoming election.

Steve Scott: So did you brief the president about this alleged Russian threat?

John Bolton: You know, the Associated Press wrote that story and called for comment last night, and I responded, "No comment." And that's what I'll do with you. And I'll explain why. You know, I, as a general proposition in writing this book, was very, very determined not to reveal any classified information. I worked hard to do that. I even went through this four month long prepublication review process to get all the classified information out, which the government eventually agreed that I had. That issue remains to be discussed further, but, you know, I don't want to be in a position and even in interviews where people can say that we've discussed something that could be classified. But I would say on the substance of the issue that the Russians have wanted us out of Afghanistan for a long time. They want us out of Syria, out of Iraq, out of eastern and Central Europe, out of the Baltic Republics out of the Middle East, more broadly.

Vladimir Putin is a former KGB agent. He plays a weak economic hand very well when it comes to politics and geo strategy. So this is obviously something some Republicans were able to get a little glimpse of this yesterday, the Democrats are at the White House this morning, I'm sure there's going to be much more discussion of this, and there should be. How you stand up to adversaries like Putin and the Russians, the Chinese, the Iranians, the North Koreans are critical issues in the presidential election.

Steve Scott: Let me remove the question of did you brief the president and ask, was this threat known in the highest circles of national intelligence in Washington?

John Bolton: Well, again, I don't want to get into the specifics, but I think part of the problem here has been the president's own policy in his determination to try and find a way to negotiate with the Taliban when this is a very disparate group of people who haven't kept significant agreement with us in 20 years and whose credibility to say the least and trustworthiness isn't anything I would waste a lot of time over. But because the president has repeatedly not been able to see the importance in safeguarding America from another 9/11 or other terrorist attacks, of making sure the Taliban doesn't take over again, a lot of these things he just puts out of mind. And it's unfortunately not unusual that when something comes up, whether it's intelligence or publicly available information, that isn't what he wants to hear, he just turns a blind eye to it. He just won't focus on it. I think a lot of that was true in the coronavirus. He didn't want to hear bad things about China in January and February of this year, and I think that's cost us a lot because he wouldn't face up information that was displeasing to him.

Steve Scott: Without revealing topics, were there times where you briefed the president and it later seemed like he hadn't been told about anything?

John Bolton: Well, there were lots of times where we went over the same ground over and over again. I could give you a good example that has nothing to do with classified information — trying to explain why the Korean Peninsula was partitioned in 1945 at the end of World War II, when Japan collapsed and we partitioned between Russia and the United States, hoping for reunification later, he just never seemed to focus on why that had happened. And I think this inability or unwillingness to learn, to grow, to take new information into account has been a problem that has manifested in inadequate decisions, inconsistent decisions, decisions that are made one day and change the next. That I think, has been a real problem in the president's first term, and if he gets a second term, which I think politically is still very much up in the air, I think it may even be worse in a second term.

Steve Scott: Why this book at this time? I think you know that a lot of people would have preferred that you testified before Congress during the impeachment hearings.

John Bolton: Yeah, look, it's a complicated story. I do talk about that in the book, "The Room Where It Happened," but I can summarize it very quickly by saying, I think the Democrats committed impeachment malpractice. I think their narrow partisan attack essentially guaranteed that Trump would be acquitted by the Senate. I think they saw that if they could impeach Trump, that they thought that would deter him from the kind of behavior they objected to. But it was a very misguided approach because once acquitted by the Senate, as he was, Trump was not deterred from that kind of conduct. He was emboldened to think that he could do it and get away with it. So ultimately it was just very poorly handled, not at all like the Watergate scenario of the 1970s, when Democrats worked with Republicans. In this case, they worked actively to make it partisan, and that was the result they got. So the timing of the book after this lengthy prepublication review process is what it is. But you know, if the middle of a presidential election campaign isn't a good time to talk about a president's character and credibility, you know, I don't know what the best time is.

Steve Scott: Do you regret not testifying and had you testified, might your testimony have changed the course of history?

John Bolton: Look, I don't regret what I did. I don't regret going into the Trump administration. I think it's important to try and make a contribution to the country when you have the opportunity. But I'm convinced, given the way the Democrats mishandled the entire impeachment process, that it would not have made any difference. And I think a lot of people who know what was going on share that circumstance. Look, if I were the Democrats and made such a mess of it, I'd be looking at other people to blame, too.

Steve Scott: So there's nothing that you could have said, you believe, that would have swayed any minds either way?

John Bolton: Well, let me give you one example. You know, I think the Democrats made a strong argument about the quid pro quo in the Ukraine situation that the president was withholding security assistance in exchange for the government of Ukraine investigating Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden. I don't think anybody particularly doubted that. One reason that failed in the Senate was the White House argument, which Republicans essentially adopted, that even if all that were true, even if every single part of that were true, it did not rise to the level of an impeachable offense. That is to say, the facts didn't amount to a high crime or misdemeanor. Now, obviously, a lot of people disagreed with that. But if you're convinced it's not an impeachable offense, it doesn't matter if Mother Teresa were giving the testimony, it wouldn't have affected their vote.
Steve Scott: We know about the election meddling in 2016. You are the former national security adviser. Are you worried about what could happen four months from now with meddling in our election?
John Bolton: Well, I have no doubt whatever that Russia, China, Iran, North Korea and perhaps others are going to try and meddle, both in the specifics of the election. But in the case of China, even more broadly in trying to affect our overall national political discourse. Vice President Pence gave a speech a year or so ago where he laid out a lot of the evidence for this enormous Chinese effort. I think that's something to consider. I think what a lot of the adversaries the U.S. faces around the world want to do is not so much interfere in a particular election, but sow discord and distrust among Americans, call the integrity of our institutions and the Constitution itself into question, because if they can undermine our own confidence in the legitimacy of our governmental system, that's much more important and much more dangerous for us than just affecting in one election. I will say we took a number of steps to try and strengthen defenses against the interference from foreigners and others who don't wish us well, and I hope those efforts are continuing. Whatever the president's thinking about them.

Steve Scott: We know about the election meddling in 2016. You are the former national security adviser. Are you worried about what could happen four months from now with meddling in our election?

John Bolton: Well, I have no doubt whatever that Russia, China, Iran, North Korea and perhaps others are going to try and meddle, both in the specifics of the election. But in the case of China, even more broadly in trying to affect our overall national political discourse. Vice President Pence gave a speech a year or so ago where he laid out a lot of the evidence for this enormous Chinese effort. I think that's something to consider. I think what a lot of the adversaries the U.S. faces around the world want to do is not so much interfere in a particular election, but sow discord and distrust among Americans, call the integrity of our institutions and the Constitution itself into question, because if they can undermine our own confidence in the legitimacy of our governmental system, that's much more important and much more dangerous for us than just affecting in one election. I will say we took a number of steps to try and strengthen defenses against the interference from foreigners and others who don't wish us well, and I hope those efforts are continuing. Whatever the president's thinking about them.

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