Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 27 September 2020

John Bolton's book has no shockers, but is the writing on the wall for Donald Trump?

The tell-all comes out amid a series of setbacks for the US President as well as his re-election bid

US president Donald Trump has had some bad weeks before, but the past seven days delivered a series of especially damaging and often inter-connected blows to his re-election prospects.

A Supreme Court decision written by his own appointee, Neil Gorsuch, effectively bans discrimination against people based on their sexual orientation. This directly counters Mr Trump's persistent targeting of transgender Americans regarding military service and health care.

It has shocked and horrified some of his conservative supporters. Prominent evangelical Christians rationalised their support for the notoriously libertine Mr Trump on grounds that his judicial appointments would advance their conservative social agenda. Mr Gorsuch was viewed as the prime example. That argument is now in tatters.

In this May 2018 file photo, US President Donald Trump speaks alongside then national security adviser John Bolton in Washington. AFP
In this May 2018 file photo, US President Donald Trump speaks alongside then national security adviser John Bolton in Washington. AFP

The court quickly delivered another stinging blow, blocking the President’s unpopular efforts to deport hundreds of thousands of migrants who, although now upstanding members of society, were as children brought to the country illegally.

Mr Trump can keep trying to deport them on some other basis. But given the timeline he will have to get re-elected first.

Those prospects are not exactly bolstered by a memoir by his former national security adviser John Bolton, which the administration tried but failed to suppress. Last week, it was shipped around the country, widely reviewed and even posted online.

Mr Bolton writes that Mr Trump pursues "obstruction of justice as a way of life", and cares only about his re-election prospects. I have consistently argued in these pages that Mr Trump is always focused on politics and never policy. Mr Bolton confirms that is exactly right.

In addition to corroborating the worst allegations from the Ukraine scandal that led to Mr Trump’s impeachment, Mr Bolton adds numerous other outrageous accusations.

The worst, perhaps, is Mr Bolton claiming that Mr Trump asked Chinese President Xi Jinping to help him secure re-election, including by buying more American agricultural exports. Mr Bolton says another senior official, Matthew Pottinger, informed him that the President had said similar things to the Chinese leader in the past.

If true, Mr Bolton's allegations confirm Mr Trump's striking ignorance of international affairs, wondering if Finland is part of Russia and surprised that Britain has nuclear weapons.

Mr Bolton is widely viewed as an extremist, and now almost universally as an unpatriotic, self-serving cynic as well. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other administration officials and supporters brand him a traitor. Democrats are disgusted that he withheld this information, which could have greatly pressured the Senate to remove the President, to sell a book.

But, unlike some others, he has no history of compulsively telling extravagant lies. The Trump administration's accusations that his book is full of falsehoods are contradicted by their simultaneous claims that it reveals plenty of classified information, since there is no such thing as a classified lie.

US President Donald Trump poses for pictures with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the Nato summit in London in 2019. AFP
US President Donald Trump poses for pictures with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the Nato summit in London in 2019. AFP

Mr Bolton's book probably would not make much of a difference on its own. Anyone surprised by these disclosures must have been asleep for the past three years. But the book is not floating in a vacuum.

For example, it describes another incident of apparent past misconduct linked directly to an additional major new controversy. Mr Bolton says that in 2018, Mr Trump promised Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that he would dismiss a federal prosecutor in New York who had indicted a bank owned by the Ankara government and quash that bothersome investigation. On Friday at 9pm, the Justice Department announced that very prosecutor had indeed been suddenly fired under extraordinary and highly suspicious circumstances.

The prosecutor, Geoffrey Berman, was responsible for convicting the President's former attorney, Michael Cohen, of corrupt acts on behalf of Mr Trump (identified in that case as “Individual 1”), including paying hush money to two former paramours. His office has also been investigating, among others, the President’s current lawyer, Rudy Giuliani. Precisely what necessitated this unexplained, abrupt and dead-of-night dismissal remains unknown. But it was obviously urgent and drastic, and that paints a powerful picture of panic and potential corruption.

To overcome his persistent and mounting woes, particularly stemming from the coronavirus public health and economic crises, Mr Trump was counting on a dramatic political turnaround starting with a huge rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma on Saturday night. But his campaign bungled the job. They claimed a million people requested tickets and planned a full house of 19,000 and an overflow area of 40,000 more. Yet it was sparsely attended and seemed anything but the promised triumphant display of "American comeback". If the event was meant to serve as a visual representation of economic and social rejuvenation and dynamism, it flopped spectacularly.

One highlight involved the President at length and with considerable fanfare demonstrating his ability to drink a glass of water without using two hands. He may regret saying that he ordered a slow-down in coronavirus testing to depress infection-rate statistics. As often after such damaging statements, Mr Trump’s aides implausibly insisted he was just "joking".

But even among those who accept that, with more than 120,000 Americans dying of Covid-19 in recent weeks, it is unlikely to prompt many chuckles. It will be even less amusing if the rally gives rise to a correlated set of new infections, as many public health officials fear.

Meanwhile, former vice president Joe Biden, who is barely campaigning or visible, is registering double digit leads in many polls. Five months is a long time in politics and underestimating Mr Trump is demonstrably ill-advised. But in many ways, the presidential race is now essentially Mr Trump versus Mr Trump. And he seems totally unable to re-create the magic, such as it was, of four years ago.

It is going so badly that some of his aides are quietly wondering if a self-sabotaging part of him would welcome leaving the White House.

Whoever wins in November must primarily shepherd the US through a slow, painful recovery. There is little glory likely in that for a President exclusively fixated on personal adulation and aggrandisement. For Mr Trump, winning could prove even more painful than losing.

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States ­Institute in Washington

Updated: June 21, 2020 07:05 PM

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