“Trump then, stunningly, turned the conversation to the coming U.S. presidential election, alluding to China’s economic capability and pleading with Xi to ensure he’d win,” Bolton wrote. The president “stressed the importance of farmers and increased Chinese purchases of soybeans and wheat in the electoral outcome.”
“I would print Trump’s exact words, but the government’s prepublication review process has decided otherwise,” he added.
U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, who was in the Xi meeting, denied that the episode ever took place when asked multiple times about Bolton’s allegation during a Senate hearing.
But the potentially explosive revelation comes amid a monthslong back-and-forth between Bolton and the White House over the contents of the book. The Department of Justice is suing to prevent the 592-page book from being published, and on Wednesday night filed an emergency application in U.S. District Court for a restraining order.
The administration has claimed that Bolton’s memoir contains classified information and could represent a threat to national security. Bolton and his attorney deny that charge, saying that the book went through an arduous pre-publication review with the White House.
Also on Wednesday night, the director of national intelligence, John Ratcliffe, issued a statement saying that “regardless of rank or position, every individual entrusted with access to our nation’s secrets has a legal duty and responsibility to protect classified information.”
In seeking the restraining order from U.S. District Court Judge Royce Lamberth, the Justice Department submitted secret declarations from two top officials: Michael Ellis, the National Security Council’s senior director for intelligence programs, and Michael Evanina, director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center.
Both men claim release of details in Bolton’s book could cause serious damage or worse to U.S. national security. But the government’s court filings on Wednesday acknowledge that the NSC staffer in charge of the review of Bolton’s book, Ellen Knight, concluded on April 27 that the manuscript had been cleansed of any classified information.
Trump’s current national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, later disagreed, finding details still in the book that O’Brien believed were classified, Ellis wrote.
While Justice Department lawyers asked Lamberth to hold a hearing on Friday on the restraining order request, they appeared to be fighting a rear-guard action, especially in light of the excerpts, articles and reviews published by news outlets on Wednesday. In the end, the lawsuit may wind up largely as a battle over whether Bolton gets to keep the advance and royalties from his book.
The book‘s account of the Trump-Xi exchange comes as Republicans seek to portray the president’s presumptive 2020 rival, former Vice President Joe Biden, as too soft on China. The two campaigns have traded accusations in dueling ads, fueled by the public debate over how much blame to place on Beijing for the death and economic devastation wrought by the coronavirus pandemic.
But despite Trump’s claims that “Nobody … has been WEAKER on China” than Biden and his accusation that the former vice president “gave them EVERYTHING they wanted, including rip-off Trade Deals,” Bolton portrays Trump in a similar light, writing that Lighthizer feared what the president would give away to China in one-on-one trade talks.
Biden said on Wednesday that Bolton’s book showed that Trump “sold out the American people to protect his political future.”
“If these accounts are true,” he said in a statement, “it’s not only mortally repugnant, it’s a violation of Donald Trump’s sacred duty to the American people to protect America’s interests and defend our values.”
It closed with a warning: “And my message to China’s leaders, or anyone else who President Trump might invite to interfere: stay out of our democracy. Stay out of our elections. The American people alone will decide the future of this country, and I am confident in the choice they will make.”
Bolton’s accusations about China draw a striking parallel to the events that landed Trump in an impeachment trial earlier this year. Trump was accused of freezing military aid to Ukraine as a means of pressuring the government to conduct potentially politically beneficial investigations involving Biden, and was later acquitted of both articles against him.
According to Bolton, who lays out a damning portrait of a commander in chief eager to appease authoritarian leaders, “Trump’s conversations with Xi reflected not only the incoherence in his trade policy but also the confluence in Trump’s mind of his own political interests and U.S. national interests.”
Furthermore, Bolton claims, “Trump commingled the personal and the national not just on trade questions but across the whole field of national security. I am hard-pressed to identify any significant Trump decision during my White House tenure that wasn’t driven by reelection calculations.”
The president’s actions, he later adds, “formed a pattern of fundamentally unacceptable behavior that eroded the very legitimacy of the presidency.”
The White House has already begun to mobilize against what are expected to be further bombshell revelations contained in Bolton’s book, with the president and his allies already beginning to question Bolton’s trustworthiness and his motivations while pointing out that the former national security adviser declined to voluntarily testify in Trump’s impeachment trial even as he criticized congressional Democrats’ impeachment approach.
Asked about the book on Wednesday, Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany told reporters “the book is full of classified information, which is inexcusable.”
Bolton, a China hawk, claims that Trump repeatedly sought to appease Xi, at one point calling Xi “the greatest leader in Chinese history” after he agreed to resume trade talks that included U.S. agricultural purposes.
In other anecdotes, Bolton writes of Trump’s willingness to overlook Chinese human rights issues, suggesting that Trump wanted to avoid angering Xi and at one point arguing that “we have human-rights problems too.”
Last summer when unrest was mounting in Hong Kong over an attempt by Beijing to crack down on the semi-autonomous territory, Trump acknowledged “that’s a big deal” but added that “I don’t want to get involved,” according to Bolton.
And when resisting putting out a White House statement on the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, the president misstated the timing of the event while responding: “Who cares about it? I’m trying to make a deal. I don’t want anything.”
Bolton also writes that Trump questioned why the U.S. was mulling sanctions on China over its treatment of Uighur Muslims, a minority ethnic group in parts of northwest China who Beijing has been accused of placing in modern day concentration camps.
At the G-20 Summit in Osaka, Bolton claims that during a meeting between Trump and Xi with only interpreters present, according to the U.S. interpreter, “Trump said that Xi should go ahead with building the camps, which Trump thought was exactly the right thing to do.”
Within hours of the excerpt of Bolton’s book publishing, the White House announced that Trump had signed into law legislation condemning treatment of the Uighurs and calling for the United States to sanction Chinese officials and entities over their detention and torture.
Democrats reacted with fury to the revelations detailed in Bolton’s excerpt and in news accounts. Rep. Adam Schiff of California, who led the House impeachment inquiry, tweeted: “Bolton’s staff were asked to testify before the House to Trump’s abuses, and did. They had a lot to lose and showed real courage. When Bolton was asked, he refused, and said he’d sue if subpoenaed. Instead, he saved it for a book. Bolton may be an author, but he’s no patriot.”
And Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), the minority leader, used the occasion to swipe at his colleagues across the aisle, who declined to subpoena Bolton’s testimony during the president’s impeachment trial.
“The revelations in Bolton’s book make Senate Republicans’ craven actions on impeachment look even worse — and history will judge them for it,” Schumer wrote on Twitter
Doug Palmer and Josh Gerstein contributed to this report.