In recent days, President Donald Trump has casually asked administration officials and close advisers if John Bolton—his former national security adviser who is releasing a new, tell-all book about working in the Trump administration—is prison-bound, three sources with knowledge of his private inquiries tell The Daily Beast.
“Do you think he’s going to go to jail for this?” Trump said, according to one of the people who’ve heard him ask this.
The book, titled The Room Where It Happened, portrays a president motivated solely by re-election concerns, acquiescent to authoritarians, and generally uninterested in and unknowledgeable about the world he faces. In the book, Bolton relays that Trump asked Chinese President Xi Jjinping to help him win the election by purchasing agricultural goods and that he gave his nod of approval for the Chinese government’s internment of the Uighur population in Xinjiang.
The president’s aides have argued that the work is filled with lies. They’ve also insisted that it’s filled with classified information, prompting a mad dash effort to stop its publication. Trump’s reaction to the allegations, including the casual pondering of imprisonment, underscores the stakes that he believes are at play. It comes as federal prosecutors are reportedly weighing criminal charges against Bolton. It is highly unlikely that any prison time will result, regardless of what the president asks or demands. But that hasn’t stopped the administration from denouncing their former colleague in what has become the latest incident of Trump loyalists fuming at and working to undercut former officials who publicize private disagreements, conversations, and grievances.
For years the White House has aggressively sought to expose and hold accountable administration officials who, loyalists believe, have leaked to the press in an effort to advance their own agenda or make the president look bad. There’s perhaps no better explanation or characterization of the president’s thinking on leakers than the one scribbled on the pages of Bolton’s book. Bolton writes that during a meeting last summer in New Jersey, Trump called journalists “scumbags” and said they should be arrested, jailed, and forced to reveal their sources.
Bolton, however, isn’t a journalist. And the Trump administration now faces a new, unprecedented task: Going after a former official who was there for some of the most pivotal foreign policy discussions and who, quite infamously, took meticulous notes.
Behind closed doors, current and former administration officials are confirming some of Bolton’s allegations, including the claim that President Trump is indifferent to what has been described as crimes against humanity and cultural genocide taking place in China’s western Xinjiang province. Three current and former national security officials say it was well-known that the president was predominantly interested in maintaining a good relationship with Xi to garner commitments from China for purchases of U.S. agricultural goods, which Trump believed would help his reelection.
One senior official told The Daily Beast it was an “open secret.”
“Part of the reason Bolton’s excerpts were not surprising is because everyone who does China trade stuff knew and thought that all the president cared about was agricultural purchases,” said one former Republican national security official. “And it was very clear why they mattered to him.”
But within the halls of the West Wing, Bolton’s book excerpts have caused a massive scramble to not only wage a public relations campaign aimed at discrediting the former adviser but to bottle up his work. On Thursday, the Department of Justice filed a lawsuit to stop Bolton’s book from being released to customers—a move that the federal judge in the case quickly questioned on grounds that it would be impractical to call back a book that had already been widely distributed.
The White House, meanwhile, has moved ahead with a campaign focused on painting Bolton as a disgruntled former official seeking to profit off of lies and whose penchant for warmongering was fearlessly beaten back by a more level-headed president. The campaign is being carried out by officials inside the White House, including those working with the National Security Council, who have in recent days drafted talking points to combat some of the book’s toughest allegations.
“President Trump has demonstrated repeatedly that he protects those who cannot protect themselves—both here and abroad—and that’s clear in this latest bold action to impose travel restrictions on those who detain or abuse the Uighurs,” said John Ullyot, spokesman for the National Security Council. “The United States is more respected than ever on the global stage.”
For hours after Bolton’s book excerpts were published by the press, no one, including the president, said anything. Indeed, it wasn’t until Thursday night that a Cabinet member, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, came out with a statement, in which he called Bolton a “traitor who damaged America by violating his sacred trust with its people.”
The Bolton book comes at a delicate time for Pompeo, who is portrayed by Bolton as being disloyal to and dismissive of the president. In his book, Bolton says Pompeo once passed him a note during a high-level meeting that said Trump was “full of shit.”
“Pompeo...viewed him as a snake trying to hijack the administration’s foreign policy and replace it with his own,” said a source who’s discussed Bolton with Pompeo. “It’s hard to read the excerpts from his book as anything but petty score-settling from a warmonger frustrated he wasn’t being allowed to carpet-bomb the planet.”
Two officials familiar with Pompeo’s thinking told The Daily Beast that his aggressive pushback was also driven by his distaste for leaking.
“He and the president are like-minded about information that gets leaked to the press,” one senior official said. “I don’t know if the stress about leaks comes from the top down. But [Pompeo] is hyper-focused on those that impact his position in the department.”
Pompeo is currently engaged in a hunt for leakers in his own department. Over the last nine months, the secretary has sought to find the sources of a September Daily Beast story that previewed a report from State Department Inspector General Steve Linick . The story previewed one main finding of an IG report that in part looked at Brian Hook, the administration’s top Iran hand. Linick’s office was investigating Hook and other senior members of the State Department for a series of incidents that took place under former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
According to recently released transcripts of Linick’s testimony to the House Foreign Affairs and Oversight Committees about his firing, Pompeo was “very upset” about The Daily Beast article and demanded Linick investigate his own office to find who leaked the information to the press. The investigation was passed off to the Pentagon inspector general, who cleared Linick’s office.
But according to a report by ABC News, a top advisor to Secretary Pompeo has requested the State Department’s IG office conduct another review of the leak allegations.
Pompeo is hardly the only foot soldier in Trumpworld who wants Bolton severely censured, if not punished.
Rudy Giuliani, whose efforts as Trump’s personal attorney in digging up dirt on the Bidens and Ukraine set off a chain reaction that resulted in the president’s impeachment at the hands of House Democrats, similarly reacted with grave annoyance this week at news of Bolton’s “tell-all,” messaging The Daily Beast that the former national security official was simply “desperately trying everything to defeat” Trump in an election year.