President Donald Trump and his allies have continually criticized how the “deep state” of unelected national security bureaucrats has quietly worked to undermine the Trump presidency.
But the new accusations in a book by former national security adviser John Bolton turn that formulation upside down. If Bolton is to be believed, Trump calls him a liar, many diplomats, soldiers and career spies fell silent as they watched Trump abuse his office.
According to Bolton, members of the so-called Deep State, including senior intelligence and defense officials, knew about Trump’s actions that were not ethical but illegal, and said nothing. That would mean that the press, the public, and investigators of the House indictment were kept in the dark.
The reason why more insiders didn’t speak is complex, according to a former senior national security official who served for years in the Trump administration and faced the election almost daily. But generally speaking, the official said, unelected national security bureaucrats tend to give great deference to the president’s policy options, and the line between bad decisions and abuse of office is unclear.
“Sometimes you ask yourself: is it misappropriation or is it something so silly that you know it won’t happen?” said the former official.
The American system of government “has been developed to give the president enormous leeway in policymaking,” said John Gans, author of a book on the White House National Security Council. “Executive branch members are expected to nod and say, ‘Okay. There really is no whistleblowing system at the White House.”
Officials tall enough to be in meetings with the president do not tend to use formal whistleblower channels anyway. These people have long deployed anonymous leaks to the media to point out decisions or behaviors that they find problematic. During the Trump administration, many current and former government officials have anonymously recounted shocking episodes to journalists and perpetrators, such as Trump providing classified information to Russian officials in the Oval Office, or calling military leaders “losers” in reference to the war in Afghanistan. Officials who were once top officials, including former chief of staff John Kelly and former defense secretary James Mattis, recently publicly questioned the president’s fitness for the post, although his decisions on the matter came long after his departure.
But Bolton presents a very specific case, alleging a pattern of Trump behavior to use his presidential power in foreign affairs to advance his private interests, exactly the charges in a impeachment process focused closely on Ukraine. Bolton says the pattern went far beyond one country.
During face-to-face meetings, Trump asked the Chinese president to help him be re-elected, Bolton writes, and promised the Turkish president that he would “deal” with a Justice Department investigation that is deemed detrimental to Turkey when it could replace Obama. – fiscal positions with “his town”. If those exchanges did occur, Bolton could not have been the only officer aware of them. (Trump and one of the officials present at the summit with Chinese President Xi JinPing, US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, dispute the Bolton account.)
Bolton says Trump was willing to give up sanctions on a Chinese company, ZTE, to help with trade talks that he believed would help him politically. He writes about informing Attorney General William Barr about “Trump’s penchant for, in effect, giving personal favors to dictators he likes.”
Trump has not elaborated on the details, but has denied running his office for personal gain.
Bolton also claims that people across the government knew that the central premise of the impeachment case against Trump was true: that the president had conditioned aid to Ukraine on that government’s willingness to do it a political favor by announcing an investigation into his opponent, a quid pro quo plea that Trump denies.
“I think Secretary [of State Mike] Pompeo understood that, “Bolton told ABC News this week.” I think the Pentagon got it. I think the intelligence community understood. I think the people in the White House understood. “
However, in the end, only a handful of national security officials were willing to testify to this during impeachment proceedings. Only one, the complainant, voluntarily submitted before the process began. CIA spokespersons, the Director of National Intelligence and the State Department declined to comment.
In his book, Bolton criticizes the impeachment managers of the House of Representatives for failing to investigate “Trump’s involvement in other matters – criminal and civil, international and national – that should not be subject to manipulation by a president for reasons personal (political, economic, or any other). ” He calls it “negligence of impeachment.”
That criticism sidesteps the fact that the impeachment investigation began when a single junior CIA agent decided to file a written complaint with an inspector general about Ukraine’s alleged extortion of Trump. No similar whistleblowing efforts have been revealed about Trump’s conduct with China or Turkey.
Bolton himself remained silent for almost two years, and refused to testify at the impeachment hearing. He seeks to justify that by arguing that Democrats mishandled impeachment procedures and that his testimony in the Senate would have changed nothing.
Critics are not convinced.
“I think what Bolton did was shameful,” said Brian Katullis, a member of the United States Center for Progress, a left-wing think tank. “He sat with this information for two years so he could write a book.”
If others besides Bolton are uncomfortable with what they’ve witnessed inside the Trump White House, why haven’t they provided details?
Experts say to look no further than what has happened to the few who have. Lawyers for the CIA whistleblower publicly said he had to be protected by a security detail after the president and his Republican allies called him a traitor and a spy. Trump’s allies in Congress sought to put his name on the public record.
Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, who testified against Trump during impeachment hearings, was fired from his White House job, has found his promotion to full colonel in limbo as the Pentagon fears the White House will oppose to him, two defense officials said. NBC News.
“You see what happens to the people who speak,” said the former senior national security official.
“This whistleblower followed the law every step of the way and look at what they got for it,” said Liz Hempowicz, director of public policy for the Government Oversight Project, a good government advocacy group. Hempowicz says the already weak federal reporting system has disintegrated under Trump, noting that the board that rules on employee disputes with the administration has never had enough members to make such decisions during the Trump administration.
But even for those brave enough to face personal repercussions, there is often another dilemma: whether they can do more good by telling the truth or staying on the job.
“Clearly, people did the math: Do you want to continue serving a president and keep our institutions intact? Or does such outrageous behavior make you resign and report him?” said Marc Polymeropoulos, a retired CIA officer who served as a senior agency during the first part of the Trump administration.
“There was a lot of distress over POTUS’s interactions with any head of state: visits abroad or phone calls,” he said.
CIA Director Gina Haspel is viewed by former colleagues and congressional observers as someone who is trying at all costs to stay at the helm of a powerful spy agency that he believes could seriously harm the wrong hands.
“Fortunately, the CIA has been stable on this and that will be Gina’s legacy,” said Polymeropoulos.
Haspel was criticized for not speaking when Trump was attacking the CIA’s whistleblower from Ukraine. But she appears to have helped defuse what has been an extremely controversial relationship between Trump and the intelligence community.
“Haspel has figured out how not to upset the president and keep the agency off the rails,” added a congressional aide working on intelligence matters. “Everyone recognizes that it is a very difficult position to find yourself in.”
Haspel’s attorney general made what she believed to be a criminal reference after the CIA whistleblower filed her complaints with her, but the agency avoided getting tangled up in impeachment proceedings. This is in part because Rep. Adam Schiff, a Democrat from California, chairman of the intelligence committee that chaired the recall in the House of Representatives, believed it was important to keep intelligence agencies as far away as possible from it turned into a fierce partisan battle. , according to a person familiar with her thinking. The person said he wanted to keep the focus on the president’s alleged abuse of power.
But if Bolton is right that Trump widely sought to take advantage of foreign policy for political gain, it’s hard to imagine that the intelligence agency’s leaders didn’t realize it. Not only do they sit at high-level White House meetings, but they spy on foreign officials discussing what the US government is saying and doing.
“If the CIA finds out about something that is an illegal act by a government official, it has an obligation to send that information to the Justice Department,” said former CIA director John Brennan, a contributor to NBC News. “If it’s a matter of ethics and fitness and one’s moral compass, then it’s more of a personal choice. Fortunately, as a director, I never had to make this decision.”
It’s hard from the outside to judge how top officials are dealing with turmoil within the Trump administration, said John McLaughlin, a former deputy CIA director who served under Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
“What you will get when this administration ends is a wave of memories, the theme of which will be: ‘You don’t know how much worse it would have been if I hadn’t been there.'” he said.
“The question is, at what point do you enable it rather than prevent bad things from happening?”