Opinion - Politics

Op-ed: John Bolton put himself before the country and the presidency

Mick Mulvaney
Key Points
  • John Bolton's cardinal sin is that he put himself before the president, before service, and before the country, writes former Trump chief of staff Mick Mulvaney.
National Security Advisor John Bolton answers questions from reporters as he announces that the U.S. will withdraw from a treaty with Iran during a news conference in the White House briefing room in Washington, October 3, 2018. 
Jonathan Ernst | Reuters

I cringed during the entire hour of John Bolton's ABC News interview last month. Not because I am a Trump supporter, or because I am a Republican. I cringed because I have been fortunate enough to be one of a very small group of people who serve as the closest advisors to a president of the United States.    

I imagine that my colleagues, from both parties and all administrations, cringed as well. Because what John Bolton did is perhaps one of the most classless and despicable acts of betrayal possible by someone allowed inside that inner circle. And it may change the presidency forever.

Bolton's greatest transgression is not publishing a tell-all book, or even doing so while the president is still in office. Nor is it that he was apparently writing the book while still serving in the West Wing. 

Bolton's cardinal sin is that he put himself before the president, before service, and before the country. He forgot that he was staff, and that he was not the president. In doing so, he just confirmed what those who worked with him already knew: that Bolton was eager to advance his own interests to the exclusion of everything else.

In fact, most of Bolton's book apparently focuses on how he thought he would be a better president than the president. He was stunned that the president was "giving too much" to the North Koreans; disturbed that the president "didn't understand" how to deal with Putin. It seems Bolton believes that those matters are best left to the national security advisor, rather than the president. 

That Bolton doesn't like the president's policies should surprise no one. Bolton would likely welcome U.S. military intervention in Venezuela and North Korea, expansion of American military presence in Europe and elsewhere overseas, and perhaps even full-scale war with Iran. The president would prefer none of those things, and has been both clear and consistent in that policy. Importantly, the president got elected on his policies. Bolton did not.

Some have criticized the president for hiring Bolton in the first place. But the blame for the mismatch falls mostly with Bolton. Other members of the administration have advocated policies, only to see the president ultimately settle on a different plan. I know because it happened to me on spending issues more than once. But most were able, after having had the chance to argue the point, to support the president's final decision.The few who were not had enough class to leave the Administration. Only Bolton stayed to actively undermine the president.    

Bolton says that he feels compelled to publish the book now in order to save the country from Donald Trump. His "Exhibit A" is the president's meeting with Chinese President Xi in Osaka, where Bolton alleges the president solicited illegal foreign support for his re-election. Yet, to my knowledge – and the NSA works under the chief of staff – Bolton made no complaint to anyone about the matter at the time. And no one else "in the room where it happened" – including Secretaries Mike Pompeo, Steven Mnuchin, Wilbur Ross, Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer or I – saw anything even approaching inappropriate behavior. 

Let me be clear: I support Donald Trump and consider myself loyal to him as president. I was his chief of staff and a member of his Cabinet. But my oath was to the Constitution, not the president. And if I ever saw what I considered to be illegal activity emanating from the Oval Office, if I ever saw anything that I considered an impeachable offense, or if I saw anything that would violate the Constitution, I would not stand quiet. For that matter: neither would Mike Pompeo or Steven Mnuchin. Or John Kelly or Jim Mattis, both of whom have been critical of the president. But among them, only John Bolton is alleging criminal activity. Of course, only John Bolton is trying to use the president to sell books.

Bolton closed his interview by saying he would not vote for President Trump, or Joe Biden, but that he would try to find someone else. Unspoken was something else: that he hopes to work for some other person in some future administration. But any future president would have to wonder, if John Bolton is sitting across the desk from him or her in the Oval Office, whether Bolton was truly there to serve the nation, or just adding a chapter to his next book.

That is the fate that Bolton deserves. What is truly sad, however, is that, with this precedent set, every president of any party will most likely have a nagging thought in the back of his or her head: is the person sitting across from me now the next John Bolton?

John Bolton may feel good about what he has done. And he well may benefit financially. But the Presidency, and this nation, are worse for it. 

Mick Mulvaney is a former congressman from South Carolina and recently served as acting chief of staff to President Donald Trump. He is the United States' special envoy for Northern Ireland.