For John Bolton, an ‘Upside-Down World’ After Trump Revelation

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WASHINGTON — Not long ago, they called him “too extreme,” “aggressively and dangerously wrong” and “downright dangerous.” They called him “nutty,” “reckless” and “far outside the mainstream.”

Now they would like to call him their star witness.

Suddenly, John R. Bolton, the conservative war hawk and favorite villain of the left, is the toast of Senate Democrats, the last, best hope to prove their abuse-of-power case against President Trump. Democrats who once excoriated him are trumpeting his credibility as they seek his testimony in Mr. Trump’s impeachment trial.

On the other side of the aisle, some of Mr. Bolton’s longtime Republican friends are just as abruptly tossing him to the curb, painting him as a disgruntled former adviser who just wants to sell books. Some of the same senators who allied with him, promoted his career, consulted with him on foreign affairs and took his political action committee money are going along as he is painted as “a tool for the radical Dems and the deep state,” as he was termed on one of the Fox News channels, part of the network where he worked for 11 years.

“It’s a totally upside-down world,” said Senator Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat from Maryland who two years ago denounced Mr. Bolton’s “history of warmongering” when he was appointed Mr. Trump’s national security adviser. “But what we should all agree on is we want to get to the truth of the matter about the impeachment charges and we should accept his testimony under penalty of perjury.”

There is, in fact, no agreement on that as Senate Republicans try to wrap up the trial without calling Mr. Bolton or any other witnesses in a vote likely to be held on Friday. Many Republicans argue that nothing has changed despite Mr. Bolton’s account that Mr. Trump wanted to hold up American security aid to Ukraine until it investigated his domestic political rivals — an assertion that directly contradicts the president.

This is one of those moments that capture Mr. Trump’s Washington, where ideology, philosophy, party and policy mean less than where you stand on Mr. Trump — for or against him. Mr. Bolton is actually more conservative and more consistent than Mr. Trump, but since his story appears to threaten the president, he has been promptly be embraced by one camp and exorcised by the other.

Among those who understand what that feels like are other refugees from the Trump White House, who despite devoting what they described as endless hours trying to making his presidency a success are now branded apostates for speaking out. Among them is John F. Kelly, the former secretary of homeland security and White House chief of staff.

Mr. Kelly was one of the few prominent conservatives to jump to Mr. Bolton’s defense since news of his account, included in an unpublished book submitted to the White House for review, broke in The New York Times on Sunday.

“If John Bolton says that in the book, I believe John Bolton,” Mr. Kelly said during a lecture in Sarasota, Fla., according to a report in The Herald-Tribune.

Mr. Kelly did not always get along with Mr. Bolton. At one point, they had a profanity-laced shouting match, after which Mr. Kelly left the White House for the rest of the day. But Mr. Kelly said Mr. Bolton “always gave the president the unvarnished truth,” adding: “John’s an honest guy. He’s a man of integrity and great character, so we’ll see what happens.”

That it has come to this surprises no one who actually knows Mr. Bolton. An iconoclastic believer in a forceful approach to the world, he disdains what he views as weak-kneed conventional diplomacy, international organizations that intrude on American sovereignty and free-rider allies. When he is on someone’s side, there is no more relentless ally. When he is not, there is no more implacable foe.

Loyalty to party or president takes a back seat to principle as he defines it. While President George W. Bush gave him high-ranking positions, including a recess appointment as ambassador to the United Nations, Mr. Bolton did not hold back criticizing his former boss after leaving the administration for going soft on North Korea and Iran. He wrote a bracingly candid memoir that named names and spared no one. Simply reading that would have made clear to Mr. Trump or his aides what might happen when he left this White House.

And so it has. Just months after leaving Mr. Trump’s White House amid tension over policy toward Iran, North Korea, Afghanistan and Ukraine, Mr. Bolton has written “The Room Where It Happened,” to be published in March, in which he reports that the president explicitly told him that he did not want to release $391 million in aid to Ukraine until it announced investigations into his Democratic rivals, including former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.

That account threw the Senate trial into temporary disarray since it directly contradicted Mr. Trump’s defense. The president denied Mr. Bolton’s account, and his personal attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani called him a “back-stabber.” On the Fox Business channel, Lou Dobbs assailed Mr. Bolton for using the same literary agents as James B. Comey, the F.B.I. director fired by Mr. Trump — prompting one of the literary agents to point out that one of their other clients was Mr. Dobbs.

While Mr. Bolton has left plenty of bruises over the years and he was accused of politicizing intelligence before the Iraq war, an accusation he denied, many former colleagues said he was forthcoming to a fault.

“Ambassador Bolton was known for being frank and candid — in fact, some complained that his frankness and candor got in the way of a more indirect, diplomatic approach,” said Peter D. Feaver, a national security aide in Mr. Bush’s White House. “I do not recall ever hearing people complain that he made up stuff.”

Democrats at this point are happy to vouch for his honesty. “I think Bolton has a lot of credibility,” Senator Thomas R. Carper of Delaware, who once called him “too extreme,” said on Fox News this week. “Not just among the Republicans but our side as well.”

On the other hand, Senator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky, said Mr. Bolton was not to be believed. “I would say that he’s a witness very interested in making a lot of money right now,” Mr. Paul said on CNN. “A month ago, he was against testifying. Now that his book is complete and available for $29.95, he’s all for testifying. So I think we need to take with a grain of salt his testimony if he comes in.”

More painful for Mr. Bolton may be closer friends who have distanced themselves. Senator James M. Inhofe, Republican of Oklahoma, who called Mr. Bolton “one of my closest friends” a few weeks ago, suggested that his close friend had a grudge. “He was fired by the president,” Mr. Inhofe told reporters, although Mr. Bolton insists he resigned. “That can have an effect on a person.”

Fred Fleitz, another longtime friend who served as Mr. Bolton’s chief of staff twice, most recently in the Trump White House, even wrote an op-ed for Fox News criticizing his former boss for publishing a book about the president before the election.

“Presidents have to be able to consult and confide in their national security adviser without worrying about those discussions being published,” Mr. Fleitz said in an interview on Tuesday. He added that “he’s a straight shooter, he’s an honest man, he’s an honorable man.”

Mr. Bolton has often been misunderstood or mischaracterized. His critics call him a neoconservative, but in fact he cares little for the democracy promotion that drives actual neoconservatives. Instead, he is a hard-core “Americanist,” as he puts it, favoring tough policies up to and including the use of force to defend American interests. He supported the invasion of Iraq, he has said, not to create a Jeffersonian republic in Baghdad but to eliminate what he saw as a security threat to the United States.

He has consistently advocated regime change or military action to resolve conflicts with states like Iran and North Korea and spent much of his tenure as national security adviser trying to keep Mr. Trump from entering what Mr. Bolton considered unwise agreements with enemies.

He struggled over whether to testify in the impeachment hearings even as he wrote his latest book. He finally offered to appear if the Senate subpoenaed him, knowing that he would be harshly criticized if he refused to testify and his account of the Ukraine matter only became public in the book after the trial.

But while colleagues said he was disturbed by the president’s actions on Ukraine — and he has openly criticized the president’s Iran and North Korea policies since leaving the White House — that does not mean that Mr. Bolton has joined the ranks of the Never Trump Republicans.

Friends say he still wants a future in Republican politics, having reconstituted his political action committee shortly after leaving the White House. But they say he understands that donors would be reluctant to contribute if he was perceived as an accuser of Mr. Trump. He also remains as contemptuous of Democrats as ever and has not explicitly expressed support for impeachment or conviction.

“I think the Democrats should be careful in what they wish for if they do get him as a witness,” Mr. Fleitz said. “I don’t know that he would say what they hope he would say.”

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