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John Bolton's Place In Ukraine Policy


Now let's examine one of the characters in the story of the Ukraine affair. Investigators in an impeachment inquiry into the behavior of President Trump have heard from U.S. diplomats and from former White House officials about the president's efforts to have a political rival investigated in Ukraine. Some witnesses have described a former official who pushed back, National Security Adviser John Bolton. NPR's Mara Liasson reports.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Back in September when President Trump fired Bolton with a tweet, Bolton's enemies - and there were plenty of them - described him, anonymously of course, as abrasive, self-promoting, a warmonger and disloyal. There was also a clash over policy. Bolton wanted a tougher line on Iran, Venezuela and North Korea. The president disagreed. But now, after testimony about Bolton's role in the battle over Ukraine aid, a more complicated portrait of the national security adviser emerges.

DANIELLE PLETKA: I think the portrait that comes through is exactly the person who he is. He's a very shrewd lawyer. He's very attuned to his own principles. And he doesn't get mixed up in dirty stuff.

LIASSON: That's Danielle Pletka, a foreign policy expert at the American Enterprise Institute who says, in every administration, there are white hats and black hats.

PLETKA: All administrations are tempted to do bad things and have people who have bad instincts or wrong instincts. And then there are people who just have judgment. And I would say that John Bolton comes out of this with a white hat of judgment.

LIASSON: Lawmakers heard from two people who worked with Bolton on Ukraine. They said Bolton was so irritated after he learned about the plan to connect U.S. military assistance to a Ukrainian pledge to investigate the Bidens that he abruptly ended a meeting. He told Fiona Hill, the former NSC official in charge of Russia, that she should, quote, "have nothing to do with domestic politics."

According to Hill, Bolton also called Rudy Giuliani, the president's personal lawyer and shadow emissary to Ukraine, a, quote, "hand grenade who's going to blow everybody up." According to William Taylor, the current acting ambassador to Ukraine, Bolton was also opposed to setting up a phone call between the Ukrainian president and Trump because he was worried it would, quote, "be a disaster."

Bolton, along with other top administration officials, was in favor of getting the congressionally appropriated military aid to Ukraine. After all, it was U.S. policy to help Ukraine defend itself in an ongoing hot war against Russia, a war that had already claimed 13,000 Ukrainian lives.

ERIC EDELMAN: John gets a lot of bad press. And I think, you know, thank God John was there.

LIASSON: Eric Edelman was undersecretary of defense in the George W. Bush administration.

EDELMAN: There are a lot of people who were, you know, very negative about John. But I think on all the big issues - North Korea, Iran, this Ukraine, Russia stuff - I think by and large, John was on the side of the angels and trying to keep the president from going outside of bounds.

LIASSON: Going outside of bounds on foreign policy, but also potentially outside the bounds of the Constitution. The idea of John Bolton as a guardrail is not so outlandish. In June of 2018 after Bolton was named national security adviser, I spoke with Mark Groombridge, a former aide to Bolton.

Back then, Groombridge was one of many foreign policy conservatives who were hopeful Bolton would be a kind of backstop against the president's most self-destructive instincts. Here's what Groombridge predicted.


MARK GROOMBRIDGE: To the extent that he can help shape or influence or minimize the damage that Trump potentially could do, the ambassador feels he has a patriotic duty to do so. And while John will salute and follow the president, he will have a very difficult time squaring his own personal beliefs and convictions with a deal that he thinks is fundamentally not in U.S. interests.

LIASSON: In this case, according to testimony before the House, the deal was withholding U.S. military aid until Ukraine's president publicly committed to investigating the Bidens. There have always been two aspects to Bolton's reputation. He was a conservative hawk not afraid to advocate for U.S. military action. But he was also a skilled infighter, a bureaucratic black belt. And that comes through in the testimony, too.

He told Fiona Hill to, quote, "brief the NSC lawyers to make sure there was a record of her opposition to the shadow foreign policy." He told William Taylor to send a first-person cable to Secretary of State Pompeo expressing Taylor's concerns. Groombridge says all this is right in character.

GROOMBRIDGE: His bureaucratic skills served him very well, in that there's now a paper trail which essentially exonerates Ambassador Bolton and in some ways almost paints him as the hero in this. I mean, I recall the first day I joined the State Department. It was October 15, 2001. And the only sort of fatherly advice Ambassador Bolton gave me at the time was he said, always get the process right. That way, those who oppose you are forced to engage you on substance. And I think Ambassador Bolton, in his capacity as NSA, was doing the same thing.

LIASSON: Bolton, who was once a frequent presence on Fox News, has gone to ground, turning down repeated requests to discuss his role in the Ukraine scandal. But he did tell The Washington Post that he would have his say in due course. And he's currently shopping a book deal. Democrats on Capitol Hill have lots of questions for him - including, did Bolton ever bring his concerns to the president directly? What other steps did he take to free up the aid to Ukraine?

Congress has asked two of Bolton's former aides to testify next week. It's unclear if they'll appear. But the House impeachment inquiry will also eventually want to hear from John Bolton himself.

Mara Liasson. NPR News. Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.