Transcript of VOA Interview with Former US National Security Adviser John Bolton
By VOA News June 25, 2020
VOA Contributor Greta Van Susteren interviewed former White House National Security Advisor John Bolton. This is a transcript of the interview.
Greta Van Susteren: "Ambassador, nice to see you sir."
Former National Security Advisor John Bolton: "Glad to be with you."
Van Susteren: "It's like old times. We've done many of these interviews over the last 10 or 15 years."
Bolton: "Indeed. For an international audience, though, I think it's particularly important this time. So I appreciate your doing it."
Van Susteren:"Let's start first with -- you were a U.N. Ambassador. What is that?"
Bolton: "Well that's a job that requires protecting American interest in the United Nations which is sometimes not entirely friendly to the U.S. but mostly it involves trying to make the Security Council of the U.N. work. When I was there, we had some success on sanctions against North Korea for its nuclear weapons program, sanctions against Iran for its nuclear weapons program but the U.N. isn't what it was conceived to be in 1945. It's been largely ineffective in its political arms, many of its humanitarian agencies do very good work but on the political side, it has not functioned as it was expected to."
Van Susteren: "Now you did that under President George Bush, number 43?"
Bolton: "Right, that's correct."
Van Susteren: "And then we had President Obama for eight years and now we're into a new president, President Trump and you had a job in the Trump administration. What was that?"
Bolton: "I was the national security adviser. I worked in the White House directly for the President, and my job was to help the President coordinate the development of policy, to provide him with options, and then to oversee the implementation of policy. And part of the story I tell in my book is how that job was very different under Donald Trump than it was under any other American president I've worked for since the National Security Council was created after World War II."
Van Susteren: "You were the National Security Adviser, not the national security decider, fair?"
Bolton: "That's correct, exactly."
Van Susteren:"The decider would be the president who was elected."
Van Susteren:"When did you become the national security adviser?"
Bolton: "In April of 2018, and I lasted seven, 17 months until September of 2019."
Van Susteren: "You were not the first national security adviser under this president?"
Bolton: "I was the third. There's now a fourth."
Van Susteren: "Why did you take that job?"
Bolton: "You know, I felt that despite what people had heard about President Trump, that nonetheless it would be possible to work to implement what I considered to be a mainstream Republican foreign policy. I'd had experience in several different Republican administrations. Every president has his own style and his own priorities. But I felt this would be another opportunity to advance American national interests. And because of the way the Trump presidency works, that proved very, very hard to do."
Van Susteren:"Now, historically, people think, and tell me this is fair or not, is that you are hawkish, that you're much more muscular in diplomacy and more likely to want to use force than diplomacy. Is that fair or not fair description of you?"
Bolton: "Well, I think it's not fair in the sense that that I don't look at 193 countries around the world and think that force is going to be used with respect to a lot of them. I think the credible threat of force provides both an important deterrent against American adversaries, and also the requisite strength from which to bargain advantageously to the United States. So, it's like Sun Tzu, the great Chinese philosopher of war once said, you can get your objective without war. That's the best outcome of all."
Van Susteren: "And President Trump, how would you describe him in terms of his overall ideology in terms of looking at the world?"
Bolton: "Well I don't think the President has a world view. I don't think he has a philosophy or a grand strategy. And he doesn't follow policy. It's, it's about his personal instincts at any given moment, always focused on his re-election. But I've never seen a president, never read about a president, never experienced a president who didn't have some kind of guiding strategy other than his own political fortunes. Every president, every political leader in a democracy takes politics into account, no secret there."
Van Susteren: "So other presidents were also interested in reelection?"
Bolton: "Absolutely. This is the only president, to my knowledge, that has had almost no other interest than his re-election."
Van Susteren: "When you first became National Security Adviser, was the first big issue on your plate?"
Bolton: "Well literally the day I began, we were within 48 hours of a use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime in Syria against opposition forces there. And that use of chemical weapons occurred almost one year to the day after Assad's last use of chemical weapons against his own people. In the year before, the United States had retaliated, but obviously the lesson had not sunk in. So, in my first five days in the White House, we had to decide what response we would give to this horrible use of chemical weapons. Could we get the British and the French to come along with us, which we were successful in doing, had not occurred the year before. And would the response to Assad's brutality be sufficient? So, I lay all that out in the book, but it was certainly an interesting baptism by fire for the first five or six days. That's basically all I did."
Van Susteren: "Now, at that time, the Secretary of Defense was General Mattis, is that correct?"
Bolton: "That's correct."
Van Susteren:"Did you and General Mattis agree on the advice to give to the President about Syria?"
Bolton: "No, we did not, and it was disturbing to me because I thought the President needed to get coherent options, a strong option, medium option, light option if you will. And General Mattis just didn't come up with that in a way I felt satisfactory. So, that was part of my challenge while national security advisor and I think ultimately, the Defense Department came through under General Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Pat Shanahan, who was Acting Secretary of Defense and Mark Esper, to providing options that were more clearly understandable by the President and didn't try and box him in."
Van Susteren: "All right. So, but at the very beginning, the first few days, you and the Secretary of Defensive are at odds as to how to proceed against Syria and both giving advice to the President."
Bolton: "That's correct. The president ultimately picked the decision he did, which was a retaliation against Syria's chemical weapons program itself. Unfortunately, in the time since that attack in April of 2018, Syria has used chemical weapons again. So, I think the conclusion you have to draw is we did not establish deterrence – violence, civil war in Syria, extremely destructive to the country continues as we speak."
Van Susteren: "Why do you think President Trump followed General Mattis, his secretary of defense and not your advice?"
Bolton: "The way the options were struct, were structured almost didn't leave him any choice. And that's a classic bureaucratic ploy – that you lay out what appear to be a range of choices, but they're ordered in a way that really leaves no choice at all. And one of the things I determined was I didn't want to let that happen in the future. I thought the President needed a real range of options and that's what I tried to give him."
Van Susteren: "Second issue on your plate pretty much was that North Korea and the summit in Singapore?"
Bolton: "Well the second issue was getting out of the Iran nuclear deal. So, after finishing with Syria for one week, the next three weeks were very heavily engaged in the decision announced in early May of 2018 that the United States was withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal. Now you're quite right. During that same period, I was also trying to get ready for the Singapore summit with Kim Jong Un."
Van Susteren: "Let me ask you about Iran. You and the President both agreed on getting out of the deal. You were in agreement then."
Bolton: "That's right. And this was, ironically, for the first 14 months in office, I think Trump had wanted to get out of the Iran deal, but his advisors wouldn't let him, in effect."
Van Susteren:"In fact, he ran on that originally in 2016."
Bolton: "He did."
Van Susteren: "And leading up to the 2016 race, he was always saying it was a lousy deal. And he was very aggressive towards President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry for engaging in it, for signing it."
Bolton: "Right. And to those who have said, well the two, Bolton and Trump were a mismatch, they didn't agree on anything. This, I thought was one of the most important decisions that Trump has made in his term so far and we were in complete agreement on the need to get out of that deal."
Van Susteren: "And now it's interesting – in the book you write about Secretary of Treasury Mnuchin, who is involved in this whole Iran deal because of sanctions that the U.S. government was obligated or was considering imposing, re-imposing on Iran. You didn't agree with Secretary Mnuchin's decision to sort of, in your opinion, correct me if I'm wrong, to slow walk the sanctions."
Bolton: "Right. I did not agree with that. I've had a lot of experience with economic sanctions in a variety of different contexts. I think the lesson of history is that sanctions are effective when they're massively applied very quickly, and strictly enforced. When you roll out sanctions over a period of time, countries have a chance to mitigate the downside effects from them so they escape the full weight of the sanctions. Now, all that said, I do think that, contrary to the predictions of many opponents of our getting out of the deal, the unilateral weight of American sanctions have had a crushing effect on the Tehran regime. My point is we could have been even more effective had we rolled the sanctions out more effectively."
Van Susteren: "Okay. So now we get to North Korea. And we've had Syria, where you disagree with Secretary of Defense Mattis and the President went basically with what the Secretary of Defense Mattis said. Then we have Iran, and you and the President agree on Iran and you objected to the way Secretary Treasury Mnuchin is not moving fast enough on reimposing sanctions. We now get to North Korea and the summit in Singapore. Did you think that was a good idea?"
Bolton: "No, and in fact, I had qualms before joining the administration. The decision was clearly moving in that direction. When I heard of the decision the President had made to hold a summit with Kim Jong Un before I joined the White House, I didn't think anything would come of it, because through my experience with North Korea over the years, I became convinced that they would never give up nuclear weapons voluntarily, and that the idea of a summit wasn't going to change that. North Korea has been very successful for a long time in extracting tangible economic benefits from the U.S., Japan, and others in exchange for promising to give up its nuclear weapons, which it never gets around to doing. And I thought we were just going to see another go-round of that scenario, which is exactly what happened."
Van Susteren: "I actually went to that summit as a reporter and covered it. Did you think the summit meeting with Kim Jong Un, I mean nothing's, they didn't get rid of the nuclear weapons after the summit, but did it hurt to have the summit? Or is there any sort of value in at least talking to your opponent?"
Bolton: "Well, I think you can talk to your opponent without having a summit. I think it's fruitless in the case of the North Korean regime. There's not been a single significant agreement they've made with the United States since they were created after World War Two that they've ever adhered to. But I think it's particularly poorly advised to have the American president meet with the head of North Korea. People I've talked to around the world, particularly in Asia, have all said it was a big get for Kim Jong Un to get that photo opportunity with Donald Trump. I think that's right, it's a legitimized step. The United States got nothing for it. And so, it was a real giveaway. It was a great …"
Van Susteren: "Did it hurt the U.S.?"
Bolton: "Well, think it did, because we were at the same time trying to maintain very strict sanctions against North Korea, and yet … "
Van Susteren: "Did we change the sanctions after that?"
Bolton: "They didn't go in as quickly and as strongly as they should have in the following months."
Van Susteren: "Is that Secretary Mnuchin slow or is that President Trump slow?"
Bolton: "Well, I think Mnuchin's overall inclination is to go slow and not impose them. The President could be hot one day and cold the next, or he could be hot in the morning and cold in the afternoon. That was part of the difficulty of sustaining a coherent policy, not just on North Korea."
Van Susteren: "What, besides a photo op – and maybe I don't fully appreciate the advantage of a photo op for Kim Jong Un – what did he get out of this summit?"
Bolton: "Well, I think within North Korea, where there's always, for any dictatorial authority, you've always got to be taking steps to maintain that authority, this was a huge win internally. He had done something by being on the world stage like that, that no North Korean leader and contemporary since, since the existence of North Korea had been able to do. So, I think it strengthened his hand inside the country as well, and it allowed him to appear on a stage that just was incomparable for any other North Korean."
Van Susteren: "So, North Korea still has its nuclear weapons program, but it had it during President Obama, before that President Bush, 43, and before that, President Clinton. So, several presidents have struggled with how to keep a weapons program out of the hands of Kim Jong Un or his predecessor, his father. Is that an insurmountable problem?"
Bolton: "Well, I point out in the book a speech that Winston Churchill gave in the House of Commons in the 1930s. It's not a well-known speech, but he talks about the importance of acting early when a threat is not fully mature…"
Van Susteren: "We're not very early if, I mean, if it started back in 1992ish."
Bolton: "It gets, it gets worse every day. But the point is, the earlier you act, the lower the risk. And Churchill talks about what he describes as the confirmed unteachability of mankind, not being able to learn this lesson. I still think there's time with North Korea. It's very short. There's more time with Iran. But time is always on the side of the proliferator. Every day that goes by, they get a little bit closer to the nuclear capability, and that's what we need to try and avoid."
Van Susteren: "Right. So, President Clinton couldn't do it, President Bush 43, couldn't do it. President Obama couldn't do it. President Trump hasn't been able to do it. What would you do differently?"
Bolton: "Well, I think you need to focus, in the case of North Korea, on what the ultimate U.S. objective should be, and that objective should be the reunification of the Korean Peninsula."
Van Susteren: "Well, that's actually what North Korea wants, only they want it, reunification for DPRK, North Korea."
Bolton: "Exactly. And if they get a nuclear weapons capability, their hand in getting their kind of reunification will be enhanced. People justify taking a low-key approach to North Korea because they say it's only for defensive purposes. I think that's clearly not true. But here's where, if you want an example of creative diplomacy – had we gone to China earlier, and I think it might be past the point where we can do this now, and said, 'Look, you don't want American troops on the Korean Peninsula, neither of us want nuclear weapons in North Korea. There is a way to handle that.'"
Van Susteren: "Are you saying it's too late, or is there something you would do today about North Korea?"
Bolton: "Well, I think the steps that China has taken on a range of other fronts, its substantial increase in its nuclear and other armaments capabilities in cyberspace and anti-satellite weaponry; its misuse of the entire international trade system is precipitating what could be the existential clash of the 21st century so that that diplomatic effort with China over North Korea may be impossible. But I still think the objective of U.S. policy in 1945 was correct: the division of Korea is temporary, it's unnatural, and ultimately it will be resolved. There will be reunification. The question will be, is it going to be on Kim Jong Un's terms, or on the terms that I think the people of South Korea want, which is an open, free society."
Van Susteren: "So, I go back to the question again: what would you do? You say unification of the Korean Peninsula, but reunification with South Korea essentially being the entire Korean peninsula. But, in recognition of where we are today, what would you do?"
Bolton: "Well, I would tighten the sanctions even further than they are. We don't know exactly what the impact of the Coronavirus has been inside North Korea, but I think the fact that Kim Jong Un was foiled in his efforts to get economic assistance from the United States has potentially weakened his hold over the country. And I think …"
Van Susteren: "Do you credit President Trump with that? because he didn't lift any of the sanctions."
Bolton: "No, that's right. But we haven't enforced them as strictly as we could either. And I think the President was much too trusting of Xi Jinping and his assurances that China was enforcing the sanctions. Look, historically, China gives North Korea 90% of its oil. If you turn that tap off entirely, the country's pitifully small economy would collapse. The Chinese have never done that."
Van Susteren: "Well, President Trump doesn't seem to have a great relationship with China, either. I mean, so how would you get China to do basically the heavy lifting for the United States and the rest of the world vis-a-vis North Korea and a nuclear weapons program?"
Bolton: "Right. Well, I think Trump's relationship with Xi Jinping goes up and down depending on the prospects for Election Day. And if Trump wins reelection, I think Xi Jinping will be his big buddy once again. But that also exposes another real problem, I think, in the Trump presidency, which is his confusion of the state of personal relations between two countries' leaders and the fundamental relations between the two countries. He equates one with the other when it's clearly not the case."
Van Susteren: "During this time, or about this time, there were military exercises planned with the United States and South Korea in that region. They were canceled. You objected to that."
Bolton: "Right. This was something that happened as we were sitting in the first summit in Singapore, where the President just, unprompted by anybody, said to Kim Jong Un that he would cancel what he called the war games. And Mike Pompeo, John Kelly and I were sitting at the table, and that was the first we had heard of it. This is the kind of unstructured, giveaway kind of bargaining that unfortunately marked too much of President Trump's international diplomatic efforts. It was a freebie for the North Koreans. They didn't restrain their war games in North Korea. In fact, they continued and even increased them, as they continued to work on their nuclear and ballistic missile programs. So, I think it was a real mistake by the United States."
Van Susteren: "Aside from the fact of how the President did it, sort of sua sponte, or doing it himself without talking perhaps to you and others. Why does the U.S. need those military exercises when the U.S. is so sophisticated from a military standpoint and we can do so much even from our own soil? Why do we need those exercises in the sea there?"
Bolton: "Well, it's, and on land. These are coordinated exercises between South Korea and U.S. forces."
Van Susteren: "And they're expensive."
Bolton: "Yes, but any military that doesn't train won't be prepared if war breaks out. It's like saying baseball doesn't need spring training. You know the motto of U.S. forces in South Korea and in the Pacific is 'fight tonight' because they don't know when an attack will come. And if your motto is 'fight next month', you're in deep trouble."
Van Susteren: "But what does it–I mean, is it really necessary to fight to prepare then, there, in light of what's going on in terms of the tenuous relationship that the United States has in that region?"
Bolton: "It's absolutely necessary to continue both, and my authority for that is Zhou Enlai, Mao Zedong's number two, who once explained to reporters during World War II about the continuing civil war between the communist and the nationalist, even while they were negotiating. Zhou Enlai said, 'This is simply fighting while talking. You can fight as if you're not talking, and you can talk as if you're not fighting.' What we did was talk but not prepare for war. And that, perhaps President Trump didn't understand that, but a decline of readiness of forces both by the United States and South Korea is an incentive to North Korea to engage in more provocative behavior."
Van Susteren: "One of things you write about in your book is a note that you said that Secretary of State Pompeo passed to you that was derogatory about the President. Do you have that note?"
Bolton "No. He had written it down on his own notepad. We were both sitting there taking notes and he sort of slid it over to me and I nodded my head and he, he took it back."
Van Susteren: "So it'll be his note. If it exists, if it still exists, he has the note."
Bolton: "He has the note."
Van Susteren: "And what did he say?"
Bolton: "He said the President was full of shit."
Van Susteren:"Was it about one specific statement the President said?"
Bolton: "It was in response to a particular statement. But I took it to mean a response to the discussion we had had for perhaps 15, 20 minutes or so at that point."
Van Susteren:"What did Secretary of State Pompeo, at about that time, what was he saying about the President to you? I mean, what was his general view of the President?"
Bolton:"Well, we had a lot of discussions about the President on many substantive issues, I'd say Iran, for example, was a good, a good case study of that. Substantively, Mike Pompeo and I saw things much the same way. I think the difference is that he was less willing to disagree with the President and to try and guide him in a different direction. Look, the President makes the decisions. There's no doubt about that. There's nobody in the White House or the administration who didn't understand that. The question is, do you simply acquiesce in a policy that you think is misguided, or do you continue to try and press the President to appreciate the broader significance of his decisions? Look, ultimately, if you're not having success and you're not able in good faith to defend the President publicly, then you should, then you should resign, which is ultimately what I did. But I thought Mike didn't like the policies, but wouldn't, wouldn't challenge him."
Van Susteren: "Well he's come out very hard against you and your book, Secretary of State Pompeo has. I mean, he's basically said that you're making things up."
Bolton: "Right. Well, I have a very clear recollection of these events. I did the best I could to put them down on paper. I think that Mike sees his political future and he has higher ambitions. I think he sees his future is tied to President Trump, and I feel sorry for him for that."
Van Susteren: "Would you suggest he's for sale?"
Bolton: "No, but I think politicians make judgments like that. And I just think it's too bad from his own perspective."
Van Susteren: "During the course of the summit or anytime, did you get any information about what happened to the college student, Otto Warmbier? I mean he went over there on some sort of tour years ago as a student, and I think he swiped a flag or something like that. And he was taken into custody, tried in North Korea, held for a long time, returned essentially dead, in a comatose state, and we never got any more information about what happened to that young man."
Bolton: "And I'm not aware of any further information that's come out. This was an act of brutality, of just senseless violence, that I'm afraid shows a lot about the character of the North Korean regime, including some of the people who were involved in our nuclear negotiations, who are believed responsible for what happened to Otto Warmbier. So, I think when Americans look at the idea of sitting down with Kim Jong Un and exchanging love letters with him about how wonderful things are, think of Otto Warmbier and what really goes on inside North Korea."
Van Susteren: "Which then brings me back to what do you do? You say just tighten the sanctions on North Korea? You would not take any military action against North Korea?"
Bolton: "I don't think that's appropriate. But I do think in South Korea, there are many people with a lot of excellent ideas of things they could do inside North Korea to destabilize the regime. I think when you're running a 25-million-person prison camp, which is what Kim Jong Un is doing, you make a lot of enemies. And I think there are probably ways to fracture the North Korean leadership. It would be helpful if we could get China involved in that, I think it's unlikely at the moment. But that regime is weaker than you think. When totalitarian regimes collapse, it's often remarkable how weak they turn out to be."
Van Susteren: "It seems to me in your book that the President of South Korea was very much involved in trying to coordinate a summit between President Trump and Kim Jong Un. So, it sounds like he wanted to talk."
Bolton: "Well I think he wanted to be in the summit. I described in the book how he would have liked it to have been three-way discussions. You know, public opinion in South Korea is very divided too. There are the advocates of the so-called Sunshine policy approach, like President Moon Jae In. That's about 50% of the population. The other 50% holds views--I won't say they're exactly the same as mine but are much more hard line. So, they face the same debate, for them it's obviously much more important, as we do."
Van Susteren: "One of the things President Trump has raised when he ran for President and he's even said since is, the U.S. has about 29,000 American troops in South Korea, an enormous expense to the American people, and he has made- he has mentioned about the cost of it. Would you advocate, or do you advocate with him any more, keeping it the same, or less American troops in South Korea?"
Bolton: "Well I think the number can vary. I mean there's no one fixed number that's right every given time. What we were trying to do during the Bush administration was move American forces back from the 38th parallel, to position them down around the southern tip of the peninsula so they would be less vulnerable at the opening of a North Korean attack, but would also be available for deployment around East Asia in response to aggression or belligerency by the Chinese. I think that's still a strategy to pursue. I think it's important for America to have troops and assets forward deployed in Asia, particularly as we see China's increased belligerence in a number of fields. It's why I think the U.S.-South Korean alliance remains very important today, and the U.S.-Japanese alliance. All of them, including NATO, have come under enormous strain during the Trump presidency, and I think that's very troubling."
Van Susteren: "What's a bigger threat? Maybe this is not a fair question. What's the biggest threat to the United States, Iran's nuclear program or North Korea's nuclear program?"
Bolton: "Well, I think right at the moment you'd have to say North Korea's because it's much further advanced. But Iran, at least when oil prices internationally are at acceptable levels, is potentially a much wealthier country, a much larger country, and it's centered in in the world's most trouble-ridden region, the Middle East. So, Iran's not far behind in that sense. It's a technological matter of catching up. And we haven't, despite the pressure we've put on Iran, we haven't put enough on yet to get what I think is the only way their behavior is going to change, is to get regime change in Tehran. As the people, dissatisfied as they are in Iran, and they are very dissatisfied, are able to get a new government installed."
Van Susteren: "Do you agree or disagree with the President's policies towards Iran?"
Bolton: "Well, I think I agree certainly as far as they've gone, they just haven't gone far enough. And as I lay out in the book, he is constantly on the verge of succumbing to the temptation to sit down with the Ayatollahs, just as he wanted to sit down with Kim Jong Un. It's tough to match the photo opportunities that the Singapore, and Hanoi, and DMZ summits gave to the President. And he'd have a great photo opportunity of him sitting across from the supreme leader of Iran. So great photo opportunities for the President, not a good idea for the United States."
Van Susteren: "You know, lot of the book talks about your disagreements with the President, disagreements in policies, but I don't have a sense of what to the do is. With the exception of-- that he went to-- he had the summit with Kim Jong Un, and he has a photo op in it. I don't-- I'm not quite sure I agree that photo op has, you know, set the United States back. But I'll set that aside. But what has the President actually done that has, in your opinion, made him unfit for office? Because you've said he's unfit for office."
Bolton: "Right well, I think the way he makes decisions is dangerous. I think when you're inconsistent, erratic, when you don't study the material, when you don't know about the facts, when your priorities change erratically, when you're giving mixed signals to friends and allies alike. What that does is embolden your adversaries, who think that he can be taken advantage of, and it chills your allies, who don't see the strength and stability that they expect from American leadership. Now, don't get me wrong…"
Van Susteren: "So he's unpopular in the world?"
Bolton: "Well, I don't care whether he's popular or not …"
Van Susteren: "But I mean, what's he actually – I'm trying to think like what's been the actual effect? And what's he actually done?"
Bolton: "Well, let's take the allies first. His inconsistent and erratic behavior has made them worried about the continuity of American leadership, and what it says to them is we better look out for ourselves, which in turn creates a cycle of weakening whether it's the NATO alliance, or the series of bilateral alliances we have in other parts of the world. Look, our allies also complain about strong American leadership, because they think we're trying to order them around, but what they really fear is American weakness. And I think they see in some of the President's policies a withdrawal, a kind of isolationism, but more than anything they fear inconsistency, unpredictability, and lack of willpower and persistence."
Van Susteren: "The President has been very critical of the NATO family because they haven't-- the NATO family has not met its commitments financially. Do you disagree with that?"
Bolton: "No. I strongly believe the NATO alliance should live up to the commitment its member countries made to have 2% of their GDP in defense spending. We didn't force them to do that, they took that on voluntarily. Trump's complaints really are no different than Obama's, in the sense that Obama in a famous interview called the other NATO allies deadbeats. The issue is whether you want to get those expenditures up to strengthen the NATO alliance, which I think should be the objective, or whether, as I lay out in the book in one particular example at a NATO summit, I think the President was close to withdrawing from NATO, and I very much fear if he does win a second term, he'll withdraw."
Van Susteren:"But that's again, a do, meaning he hasn't done these things. I mean, he says things, and he tweets things and you know, that's sometimes electrifying to people. But I'm trying to figure out what's he actually done except, you know, brought people up to the line and wondered what he's going to do?"
Bolton: "Well, I think his failure in North Korea has given them two more years to make progress toward deliverable nuclear weapons."
Van Susteren: "Failure in not strengthening sanctions?"
Bolton: "Failure to do anything that puts more pressure on the regime so that they can't continue the nuclear weapons program. And let me let me come to a point, and I think this is important. You say, 'Well he came close to it, but he didn't do it."
Van Susteren:"Well I didn't say close to it, 'he says things', is what's repeated."
Bolton: "Right, but the pattern is frequently that he may not do it the first three or four times he says it, but he finally does do it. Let's take the example of withdrawal from Syria. I lay out in the book how at one point at the end of 2018, as he had said before, he said it again. That's why when Jim Mattis resigned, I stayed in, I didn't think it was a good idea. I finally persuaded him, or actually, I think it was Trump's visit to our troops in Iraq who he could hear from them, what we were doing in Syria that persuaded him. But ultimately the decision was made to keep American forces in northeast Syria. And that lasted until the spring of 2020, when he decided to pull them out again. This is the kind of activity…"
Van Susteren: "What's been the impact of that?"
Bolton: "Well, I think what it does is strengthen the hand of Russia and Iran and Syria. Let me give you another example, is Afghanistan. Where he increased forces in the first year of the administration, gave Mattis and the military more leeway, then decided he wanted to pull out, decided he wanted to cease plans."
Van Susteren: "Which sort of mirrored a little bit what the Obama administration did. They, you know, President Obama said we're getting out, then he adds more forces. I mean, so it mirrors that a little bit."
Bolton: "Right, so we could be equally critical of the Obama and the Trump approach. Now we've got a, quote unquote, peace deal with the Taliban that's failing day by day."
Van Susteren: "A lot of people are dying in Afghanistan right now."
Bolton: "And the strength of the Taliban and other terrorist extremist groups continues to increase. We narrowly averted bringing the Taliban to Camp David, which I viewed almost as sacrilege and that was."
Van Susteren: "Not a do, but I mean but a talk, but a say."
Bolton: "Yea, it's only a matter of time. This herky jerky, back and forth, on and off kind of behavior, does undercut American security, whatever the ultimate action taken is because eventually people don't know what you think, and they can't rely on your word. And, you know there's a famous story from the Cuban Missile Crisis where Kennedy wants to explain to Charles de Gaulle why the Russian missiles are a threat in Cuba. And he sends former Secretary of State Dean Acheson to explain to de Gaulle what's there, and de Gaulle says, 'If the President says that, I simply accept the word of the American President.' There's not a leader in the world today that would say that about Donald Trump."
Van Susteren: "Let me go back to Afghanistan. The President ran on getting out of Afghanistan and we've been there a long time, the United States has been there a long time. Do you oppose getting the U.S. out of Afghanistan?"
Bolton: "Well, there's getting out, and there's getting out. And that's been part of the irregularity of the decision-making process there. Everybody also says that we don't want to see another attack on the United States based on units that are in, terrorist activities that originate in Afghanistan. And under any version of a peace deal with the Taliban that's been seriously considered, an American presence is going to remain in Afghanistan to prevent that. So, when you say total withdrawal or withdrawal from Afghanistan, it's a little bit, you have to know exactly what the meaning is. I would argue that the best insurance for the United States against another terrorist attack is to keep a very strong forward presence in Afghanistan and other places. It's much better to have the capability to deal with the terrorists there than simply try and defend against attacks in the U.S."
Van Susteren: "There are a lot of Americans that are really war weary, especially with Afghanistan and Iraq. Many thinking that it was one thing to go in for a short period of time back in 2001 after 9/11 and when the United States was attacked, but we've been in there now I mean, 18, 19 years. And, you know, was it a mistake just to go in beyond a short period time?"
Bolton: "Well, you know, we've been in Europe 75 years, are we war weary of being in Europe? The president apparently is, as he begins to withdraw forces from Germany. I think you have to evaluate on a continuous basis what the threats to the United States are and how best to deal with them. If that means keeping troops deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan for a long period of time, if that makes us and the innocent civilians here in America safer, then yes, I am in favor of it. Am I in favor of keeping troops based in Japan and South Korea for a long time to help stabilize Northeast Asia? Absolutely, if the alternative is a more unstable world where America's more threatened. We the United States live around the world. We're really the only country that is every place in the world to a significant extent. So, we have interests everywhere. We also have allies and potential allies everywhere. And I think the strengthening of America's alliances is something that does benefit international peace and security, and that in turn, that stability that we alone can help bring enhances American economic growth."
Van Susteren: "Let me go to another continent, South America. Is it any of the U.S. business or should we be in the business of what's going on in Venezuela with Maduro?"
Bolton: "It is absolutely of concern to the United States. This threat of a totalitarian regime in the Western Hemisphere threatens all of us. And I said we had a troika of tyranny in a number of speeches, Ortega in Nicaragua, and the remaining Castro regime, let's call it what it is, in Cuba. But it's not just those regimes alone, it's the Russian influence in all three of those countries. It's the Chinese influence in Venezuela, the Iranian influence, the influence of countries outside the Western Hemisphere using weaknesses in countries, and in this part of the world to exploit their own interests and to threaten the United States. That to me is really what the Monroe Doctrine is about, is about keeping non-Western Hemisphere influences out."
Van Susteren: "Well you bring Russia, but right now, Angela Merkel in Germany has a huge business deal with Russia. One of the things the President's very upset about and has mentioned to her at different summits. You know, so a lot of these countries are dealing with each other who are our friends, like Germany, at the same time you know they're dealing with Russia, and you've got Russia and Venezuela."
Bolton: "Right. Look, Ronald Reagan warned Margaret Thatcher very clearly, 'Don't get involved in getting your oil and natural gas from Russia. Not Britain, not the rest of Europe.' They chose not to follow his advice and this deal Nord Stream 2, the pipeline that's under construction that will come to Germany from Russia, I think is a huge mistake. I think that's the sort of thing..."
Van Susteren:"But isn't the President tough on Angela Merkel about that at the same time, saying, 'Look, you know, we're going to bring U.S. troops out of Germany because it costs a lot of Americans money, and Germany has a lot of money, or has money,' and at the same time you're not making your NATO commitment?"
Bolton: "Yeah, look, then you might ask Steve Mnuchin why we haven't imposed sanctions on the Russians for the Nord Stream pipeline."
Van Susteren: "And the answer would be?"
Bolton: "The President didn't want to do that. So how tough was he really? Look, I think Germany is a key example of a country that's not met its obligations financially to NATO and yet is one of the principal beneficiaries of stability in Europe. Trump inherited a very serious problem from decades of American presidents that didn't do what they should do. So, any efforts to make them live up to their commitment and spend what they should spend are correct. But that's to strengthen the alliance, not to weaken it, not to end it."
Van Susteren: "Your book talks about the present, and we've gone through all these countries but the book, I think your thesis in part is that the President's unfit to be president. Fair, it that fair?"
Bolton: "That's one leg of it. The other leg of it is his lack of philosophy, to me demonstrates he's not a conservative Republican, he's not a liberal Democrat, he's just not anything. And I think that lack of grounding and the lack of mooring is especially troubling given the competence questions."
Van Susteren: "Which is different though. It's one thing to say you don't agree with it, another thing to say you think someone is dangerous for a job."
Bolton: "Well, they're two different things but they have a combined effect."
Van Susteren: "Would you say that he should not be president because he's a threat to the country? Would you go that far?"
Bolton: "I think it's dangerous, yes. And I'm not gonna vote for him. I did vote for him in 2016, I'm not going to vote for Joe Biden, either because I don't agree with his policies. I'm going to write in a conservative Republican in Maryland where I live. I'm very unhappy about the election choices at the presidential level this November, very unhappy."
Van Susteren: "Would you vote for, so I can understand, cause in your book, you're critical of a lot of peoples, if Secretary Pompeo were a candidate, would he be fit?"
Bolton: "I would not vote for him, no."
Van Susteren: "Secretary Mnuchin?"
Bolton: "Well I don't think he's going to run, and, you know, if Joe Biden wins, he won't need a new Secretary of the Treasury."
Van Susteren: "But would he be, I'm trying to figure out who you think is competent."
Bolton: "Well, I think there are a lot of people out there in the Republican Party who could be President. I think Mike Pence could be. But this, for me, I think the country is going to have to have a discussion about where it wants to go once Trump's gone. And I think in the Republican Party, that conversation is especially important."
Van Susteren: "Ambassador Nikki Haley is mentioned in your book, not favorably, and this suggests that she might run in 2024. Could you ever support her?"
Bolton: "Well, look, Mike Pompeo described Nikki Haley as light as a feather, which I repeat in the book. I put many of these anecdotes in because I think it's important for people to see how others react, and they'll draw their own conclusions from that. I've been criticized for a number of these things. You know, truth is always unhappy for some people, but the American voters don't have the advantage of sitting in and watching how decisions are made in the federal government. And so, I wrote in a book review of Secretary of Defense Bob Gates' memoir in 2014, I thought Gates was right to publish, even though the Obama administration was still in office. I thought it was a service to the country. I'm just, just trying to follow that precedent."
Van Susteren: "Why are so many people in the administration - even former press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, as well. They're coming at you pretty harshly, saying that you were disagreeable and not easy to get along with. That you weren't a good person to work with. And so, how do you sort of defend that you're not just a malcontent writing a book?"
Bolton: "Well, I've been in every Republican administration since, since Nixon, with the exception of the Ford administration. I've worked for a lot of different people, have a lot of friends from all those administrations and still in this administration. And I think it's just a question of waiting until Donald Trump leaves the White House. And I think we'll hear a lot about what happened during his tenure."
Van Susteren: "In terms of Ambassador Haley, that when she, when she resigned as ambassador, there was about a two month notice that she would be leaving, and she had this Oval Office meeting with the President. Is there a story behind that? Because I thought – I mean, I watched the press conference, or the conference between the two of them in the Oval Office and it seemed, it seemed unusual."
Bolton: "Yeah, well, I recount a conversation I had with President Trump in the book about whether or not he should replace Vice President Mike Pence on the ticket in 2020. And it was common speculation in the West Wing that there were those who were advocating making Nikki Haley vice president. I thought that was a bad idea. I lay out in the book my explanation to the President. Certainly, I'm not taking credit for, for affecting his decision. He is going to keep the Vice President on the ticket, I think that's a positive thing. And ultimately, I think it became clear that's what was going to happen, and Nikki Haley said 'Well, actually, I was never interested in being the vice-presidential nominee either.' Look, whether Trump wins or loses in November, the Republican Party is going to nominate somebody else in 2024, and the 2024 race for the Republican nomination is already underway."
Van Susteren: "Do you regret taking the job as national security adviser?"
Bolton: "No, no I don't. I don't. I don't look back retrospectively. You can't change anything anyway so why, why worry about it? I believed, perhaps incorrectly, that the reports about how Donald Trump behaved were inaccurate. I figured there must be a way to make this work. The United States faces a significant range of threats and challenges around the world. I thought I could help deal with those. I've spent a lot of my career in government service for the reason of trying to advance American national security interests. I thought it was worth the effort, and I thought writing the book to explain why I did it - if not helpful to me - would be helpful to many other Americans that want to know what exactly happens in the government."
Van Susteren: "You know, in reading your book and reading his tweets and following all this, you know, he has rattled cages without any doubt. But I go back to that - I keep going back this this with you – what has he actually done that – you know, whether I agree with it or not - that puts the United States in a lesser position? That's what I'm trying to focus on."
Bolton: "Well, I've given you a range of specifics where I think he's made mistakes. I think you also have to look at what the economists call opportunity cost, the missed opportunities that he didn't take advantage of. And I think there are a range of those, particularly dealing with Russia and China. The most recent example of missed opportunities is dealing effectively with the coronavirus, which came out of China. The Chinese covered it up, they lied about the effect inside China. They wouldn't give access to people who could have understood the disease more. And in January and February, when people were sounding the warning about the potential consequences of a pandemic, Trump just didn't want to hear about it, didn't want to hear anything bad about China, and he didn't want to hear anything that might affect the U.S. economy."
Van Susteren: "And I have to bring up Ukraine, because that's obviously, I haven't gotten to Ukraine, is that you were there through the bulk of the Ukraine discussion. Can you recount for me, you know, what was Giuliani's job? The president's lawyer, what, what was he supposed to be doing?"
Bolton: "I don't know the full extent of what Rudy was doing because he wasn't part of the government …"
Van Susteren: "So, he's like a satellite for the President?"
Bolton: "It's like an alternative, off the shelf foreign policy that none of us in the government really fully understood. But I think what emerged over a period of time - it didn't come in some blinding revelation - but what emerged over a period of time was that the focus on the Ukraine had everything to do with damaging Trump's political opponents, both Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden. It had nothing to do with the issue of corruption in the Ukraine. It was …"
Van Susteren: "So you, so you totally dismiss that there was – that the President had any issue in trying to stop corruption in Ukraine?"
Bolton: "Look, there are reasons and there are pretexts. The Ukraine corruption mantra was a pretext. The real issue was the President's re-election."
Van Susteren: "And was, was - and Giuliani was communicating with the President? I mean, presumably about this, sort of, outside, sort of, the White House?"
Bolton: "I don't know how often he communicated with him, but my impression was frequently. Sometimes I was brought into those communications and that's how I learned over a period of time, as I described in the book, how this was, how this was playing out."
Van Susteren: "You know, it's - the money for Ukraine had to be delivered by the end of the fiscal year, which was September 30. That ultimately happened. Right?"
Van Susteren: "Why did that happen? If the President was trying to leverage that money to get a political advantage, why do you think that he finally did release the money?"
Bolton: "Because I think there was a case where on a bipartisan basis, members of Congress were saying, 'What's going on here? We authorized this money. You signed the legislation that does that. And everybody believes it's in American national security interest to provide that security assistance. And you need to do it.' Within the White House, there was only one person who ever had doubts about sending that assistance to the Ukraine, and it was Donald Trump. And I think finally, just the force, the political pressure, required him to do it."
Van Susteren: "I assume you know Rudy Giuliani prior to your job."
Bolton: "I've known him for a long time."
Van Susteren: "Everybody's known him – and for the life of me, I can't figure out – and I've interviewed him many times. I can't figure out what his job or role was in this Ukraine thing, because he didn't work in the White House."
Bolton: "Well, I don't myself know everything that he was doing. My guess is only he and Donald Trump knew everything he was doing. And I consider that another danger, when people are acting on behalf of a President for political purposes but seeming to act on behalf of the country. And there is a clear divergence between the President's political interest and the national interest."
Van Susteren: "But the interesting thing is, as unusual as that whole thing was, and I use word unusual lightly, is that ultimately Ukraine got the money. It was one of those situations where it looks like a very, it looks very unusual from, you know from my perspective, what was going on, things that I have since learned. Yet in the end, the money was given to Ukraine."
Bolton: "But that was just the issue at the moment. The more strategic effect is that it's hopelessly complicated U.S.-Ukrainian bilateral relations, number one. And number two, it gave Russia any number of opportunities to continue to cause mischief inside Ukraine. Because the attention of the Ukrainian, and American, and much of Western European leadership was devoted to solving the Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton problem there. That's the kind of missed opportunity that is very hard to calculate, but it's no less real."
Van Susteren: "One last question. Vladimir Putin. What's the President's relationship with Vladimir Putin?"
Bolton: "Well, I think Putin thinks he can play Trump like a fiddle. I think he thinks..."
Van Susteren: "Has he?"
Bolton: "He sees right through him. Well, I think he has made it almost impossible for Donald Trump to admit that the Russians interfered in the 2016 election, tried to interfere in the 2018 election, and undoubtedly are going to try and interfere in the 2020 election. Because Trump believes if he acknowledges that, he's undercutting the legitimacy of his victory in 2016. I happen to think that's wrong. But as the Helsinki Summit press conference demonstrated when it appeared the President took the word of Vladimir Putin over his own intelligence agencies, this has just caused enormous concern, especially among our allies. And I just have to believe - I can watch Putin across the table, and I just think he thinks he's got exactly what he wants on the opposite side when he sits across from Trump."
Van Susteren: "I've been to North Korea three times, never met Kim Jong Un, would like to. What was your impression of him?"
Bolton: "This is a man who is in control, felt very sure about being in control, and thought clearly he could get the kind of deal he wanted from Donald Trump. A partial concession on the nuclear program in exchange for significant economic benefits that would give him an economic lifeline and allow him to continue the nuclear program. He thought he could get that deal. They had gotten it from other American presidents. It didn't happen this time."
Van Susteren: "Is he smart?"
Bolton: "I think he's smart in a very limited way. I mean, if you live in that bubble in North Korea, you're living in a bunker mentality. He has lived in the West, he does have other experiences, there's no doubt about that. He certainly sees more than almost anybody else in his country. But this is a - this is the strangest regime in the world. Think about it. It's a hereditary communist dictatorship. So that is not a normal country."
Van Susteren: "Ambassador, thank you sir."
Bolton: "Thank you.
|Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list|