I've never understood Donald Trump’s foreign policy, other than to negotiate from a position of strength, even if the position disregards what comes after. The Trump Doctrine is like a drawing up a football play in the dirt.
The veneer of stability, however, settled a little in my mind about this time three years ago. Oddly, the man who propped Trump up then, John Bolton, is the man tearing down Trump now in a new tell-all book that reportedly tells a much different story. That summer night in Denver, I was in the room where it happened.
“My view is that if the safety of the country is at risk, all the other issues are secondary,” he said.
Now he says America's safety is threatened by a second term for Trump. Bolton resigned in a letter shorter than Trump's typical tweet last September, a day before military aid to the Ukraine was released.
"I don't believe he's a conservative Republican," Bolton told ABC's Martha Raddatz Sunday night.
Trump's one-time ally is a "washed up" incompetent, a "wacko" and a "liar," replies the president, who held off on hiring Bolton because he didn't like his mustache. Look it up.
Here in Bolton, there is plenty for liberals to hate: a man who talked tough and swung a big conservative stick on the international stage. Bolton was 5-foot-7 in his loafers when I saw him backstage at the Western Conservative Summit at the Colorado Convention Center.
Here in Bolton was a hawkish former UN ambassador of impeccable pedigree. He served every Republican president from Reagan on, worked at Fox News, pined for war with Iran and North Korea and was a defender of the Iraq war, a four-star general of conservatism.
Here in Colorado, Bolton still had that future in front of him, 17 months at the elbow of Trump in 592 pages of his new book, “The Room Where it Happened.” The New York Times said in its review that Bolton “dumps his notes and smites his enemies.”
The White House says Bolton skirted the law by not getting approval to cite classified information, yet Trump considers any conversation with him to be classified, but a judge said otherwise.
“The book is bloated with self-importance, even though what it mostly recounts is Bolton not being able to accomplish very much,” reviews the Times' Jennifer Szalai last week. “It toggles between two discordant registers: exceedingly tedious and slightly unhinged.
“Still, it’s maybe a fitting combination for a lavishly bewhiskered figure whose wonkishness and warmongering can make him seem like an unlikely hybrid of Ned Flanders and Yosemite Sam.”
That night in Denver, Bolton swaggered onto the stage to the opening chords of ZZ Top’s “LaGrange,” a nod to fellow facial hair legends.
“The last administration had weakened America, had reduced our position in the world, had turned inward and left the world, as a result, in a more chaotic state,” he charged.
Chaos was the norm in the White House, Bolton claims. Decisions were made to benefit Trump, not the nation, writes the longest serving of Trump's four national security advisers.
Trump is malleable for the sake of a deal that benefits him. That's hardly a revelation. Bolton is an unbending ideologue. Neither is that.
Bolton, you recall, was willing to testify to the Senate, but Republicans voted against hearing new evidence. That included Colorado’s Cory Gardner but not Utah’s Mitt Romney.
"The House didn't think it was important," Gardner explained to CNN as news leaked out about what Bolton's book revealed. Asked about Bolton's allegation that Trump endorsed concentration camps in China for a political favor, Gardner, who chairs a key subcommittee on Asia, said, "I haven't read the book."
Of note, when Bolton revived his Republican super PAC. Gardner was one of the first senators he backed.
The fatal knock on Bolton’s confessional, of course, is why did he wait so long to step forward if the nation was at risk of a madman and a crook? Bolton is all talk and no cross-examination.
In Denver, he called Russia's election interference an act of war. In the White House, he did nothing about it.
“The evidence is unmistakable Russia tried to interfere in our election,” he said on July 21, 2017, in the mile-high air.
He went on for 20 minutes. “We believe efforts to interfere in American elections constitutes an existential threat to the idea of America,” Bolton said, not saying who constituted we. “We are an exceptional country because we are the only country founded on the idea of individual liberty and control over our government.”
He was worried that night about terrorists using nuclear weapons, possibly one smuggled across the U.S.’s southern border.
“The president, I think, understands the nuclear threat,” Bolton said of his future boss. “It’s an imminent danger for the United States.”
So far, so good on the nukes from Reynosa.
His red meat line was aimed at the last administration’s role as the world's peacekeepers.
“This is like looking in the wrong end of a telescope,” Bolton said. “It’s not American strength that’s provocative. It’s American weakness that’s provocative.”
He paused for five seconds, to straighten his wire glasses and soak in the applause.
Republicans aren’t clapping now.