Why we must defend John Bolton’s right to publish his self-serving book

The former national security adviser may not have testified under oath, but he deserves the freedom to publish.

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As you may have heard, John Bolton, Donald Trump’s former national security adviser, has written a book. It is called The Room Where It Happened, which means that it was possibly (and embarrassingly) named after a song in the Broadway hit Hamilton. In that song, founding father and original treasury secretary Alexander Hamilton successfully trades the location of that nation’s capital for the establishment of a federal bank. In Bolton’s book, he, by the The New York Times account, discusses what he was not able to do, and the deals that Trump was not able to make

John Bolton had previously been US ambassador to the United Nations, which is only ironic if you think that people working at places they criticise constantly is ironic. He was for the war in Iraq. He was against the Iran nuclear deal, and has been accused of trying to “goad” Iran into war with the United States. He thinks there should be more pressure put on North Korea.

Shortly after his name was floated for the position of national security adviser, I was at a party speaking to a French journalist who reacted to the news by putting her hand on her heart, yelling, “John Bolton?!”, and throwing her head back. That was the end of the exchange, for what else was there to say?

Bolton did indeed become Trump’s national security adviser, until he either resigned or was fired – depending on whether you believe Bolton or Trump. He decided not to testify before the House of Representatives during Trump’s impeachment hearing, despite the fact that the subject at hand – whether Trump withheld military aid to Ukraine in order to pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky into announcing an investigation into Joe Biden, whom Trump, apparently and rightly, assumed would be his election opponent – was directly relevant to Bolton’s work as national security adviser, and despite the fact that other National Security Council staffers put themselves under an unwanted spotlight and testified. (Bolton said he would testify in the impeachment trial if subpoenaed by the Senate, which instead decided not to call witnesses.)

But Bolton, rather than freely give the information away and subject himself to congressional scrutiny, has written this book. In fact, in the book he writes that the scope of the hearing in which he declined to participate should have been broader.

It’s not that we don’t learn anything in the book – or at least in the excerpts that have been made accessible to the public; one does indeed learn what transpired, or Bolton’s version of it, in the titular room where it happened.

We learn that (according to Bolton) Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed that the United States has too many elections. We learn, perhaps most gallingly though least surprisingly, that Trump allegedly gave Xi his blessing for Uighur concentration camps. We learn that the National Security Council’s top Asia staffer, Matthew Pottinger, apparently told Bolton that Trump had said something similar two years prior (that Pottinger, in this telling, remained to work for Trump after the original remarks is perhaps less an indictment of Trump than of his staffer).

Bolton writes that Trump doesn’t like sanctions on Russia and that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was unclear why Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and adviser, was leading on the Middle East peace process.

If that were all there were — a book with revelations kept secret until now so that John Bolton could make some money and make the rounds on news programs — this piece would end with a scathing indictment of a man who privileged profit, and a moment in the spotlight on his terms, over country.

But that is not all there is. There is also Trump. Trump is now arguing that Bolton was a washed-up man whom he gave a second chance, as though we were talking about a Hollywood comeback and not the National Security Council, and blamed Bolton for the failure of his administration’s talks with North Korea. More problematically, Trump has tried to block the publication of the book. US Justice Department lawyers will argue today, Friday, that the book cannot be published as it contains classified material (Trump has also said that any conversation with him is classified).

Unfortunately for Trump – and for me, since I am the person who must now defend Bolton’s right to publish his selfish book – the issue here is not national security. It’s Trump’s own embarrassment.

I would also not want someone to publish hundreds of pages about how ignorant I am, but they would have the right to do so. The fact that Bolton has shared that Pompeo wrote that the president is “full of shit” is not a matter of national security, but of the president’s ego.

In the United States of America, a person is allowed to write things that are embarrassing to the president; it is a right quite literally enshrined in the constitution. Separately but relatedly, and worth noting given Trump’s penchant for libel lawsuits, something isn’t libellous if it’s true, as Alexander Hamilton argued while defending a man who had printed a story critical of Thomas Jefferson in 1804 (that’s not in the musical, but there was a room in which that, too, happened).

Bolton could have testified under oath; he didn’t. He could have helped uphold the norms of our constitution; he did not do that. But just because John Bolton cares about selling books more than upholding norms is no excuse for others to abandon those norms, and thus the rest of us should do our part and insist that John Bolton has every right to publish his selfish, self-serving, and reportedly not very good book.

*Amended to correct typo in title of Bolton's book.

Emily Tamkin is the New Statesman’s US editor

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