What Role Did John Bolton Play In Trump's Ukraine Efforts?

Nov 7, 2019
Originally published on November 7, 2019 8:06 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

All right. So one witness Democrats are incredibly eager to hear from is John Bolton. That's Trump's former national security adviser. But it's not clear they are going to hear from him. Bolton was called to appear today, but he rejected the invitation for a voluntary interview. According to testimony from other people, Bolton had real concerns about a possible quid pro quo and also pushed to reverse that decision to withhold military aid from Ukraine.

Andrew Weiss is with us. He served at the Pentagon, State Department and National Security Council, working under two presidents, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. His specialty is Russia and the former Soviet state. Thanks for being here.

ANDREW WEISS: Hey. Great to be here, David.

GREENE: So what could we learn, do you think, from John Bolton if he decides to appear at some point?

WEISS: So we have this bigger construct that everyone's talking about, which is that there was a rogue foreign policy, and then there was the real policy, which is what Ambassador Taylor was describing in his deposition. John Bolton, as national security adviser, was sitting at what is, I think, the nerve center of the titular or the formal foreign policy process. But it looks like many other people - Donald Trump doesn't really care about that part. He cared about what he was working on with Rudy Giuliani.

GREENE: So in a broader sense, you're saying if someone could articulate what was the actual administration policy and if Democrats and the president's critics are suggesting that he was changing foreign policy, making foreign policy decisions based on political motives, Bolton could play a real role there.

WEISS: He could. But what happens in this important meeting at the White House with Gordon Sondland - the Trump ambassador to the European Union - and the Ukrainian national security adviser is when Sondland says, hey, let's talk about those investigations and what the Ukrainian president needs to do to unlock access to Donald Trump. Bolton shuts it down and says, we don't do politics here. The NSC is ostensibly to do the nation's business. Donald Trump's foreign policy was about doing Donald Trump's business. It wasn't about national interests. It wasn't about advancing U.S. foreign policy goals in Ukraine.

So there's a real, I think, limit on what John Bolton was able to accomplish. And I think there's a lot of questions about his effectiveness as national security adviser. How could you serve in such an important role and not be able to control U.S. national security decision-making? And it just comes back to the idiosyncratic, highly personalized nature of how Donald Trump handles foreign policy.

GREENE: You're saying you don't think Bolton could've done more. I mean, this is a guy, whether you agree with his philosophy or not, is known for being such a strong voice over the years. You're saying if he really was opposed to anything that seemed political happening, there was nothing he could do to intervene?

WEISS: What I'm saying is I see a level of ineffectual foreign policymaking from the part of our national security apparatus that's supposed to be in charge of stuff. Neither Mike Pompeo nor John Bolton was willing to challenge what was being done here head-on. And so what comes across in William Taylor's deposition, it comes across in the deposition of Ambassador Michael McKinley, who's a key aide to Mike Pompeo, is that they would ask for things.

They would - Taylor would say, hey - to Bolton - I need your help here. I need to basically stop what Rudy Giuliani's doing. And then these requests would basically fall into a deep silence. There was no response from either Secretary Pompeo or John Bolton in terms of, can you turn this off?

GREENE: What's it like on the inside? I mean, I know every president is different, but it - I mean, I assume it's intimidating to take on the president. Would it have been possible in the administrations you served in to go and say, look, we really disagree with what you're doing here, this is really troubling?

WEISS: That's the role of the national security principals, or the Cabinet members. I think the best analogy I've heard for how things work comes from the movie "The Lord Of The Rings," where there's this disembodied eye, the Eye of Sauron, that hovers over everything. In the Trump administration, if the eye is looking at you, it's basically all hope is lost.

GREENE: Andrew Weiss served in the Pentagon, State Department, National Security Council under two different administrations. He's now vice president at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Thanks for being here.

WEISS: Great to be here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.