I sat down with Ambassador John Bolton in the OEOB Thursday at 11 AM:
HH: Mr. Ambassador, thanks for talking to me. It’s good to see you again.
JB: Glad to be with you.
HH: You’ve prepared your entire life for this job. And you arrive with the most disruptive
president since Andrew Jackson and a world order that is collapsing. Is the job what you
thought it would be, given all the years that you’ve studied the NSA?
JB: Well, I think it’s, it’s a job that really gives you an opportunity to serve the president who’s in
office. And every president has a different style. I think the job of the National Security Advisor
really is to make sure that whatever the style of the president, that he gets the information he
needs to make decisions, that he has the range of options that he needs, and then that those
decisions are carried out. So that’s my job. I think it’s fine that we’ve got a disruptive president
even in a kind of chaotic world because there are a lot of changes that need to be made. We’re
seeing a lot of due bills come due from the Obama administration so it’s very fast paced. But I
wouldn’t trade it for anything else.
HH: Let me ask you about your old job since it’s now open, United Nation ambassador. Your
recommendation to the President – twofold – what kind of personality, and should this be a job in
the Cabinet or should it be sub-Cabinet?
JB: Well, you know, on the second one, it’s really up to the president. He can make any job
cabinet rank. And he’ll make his decision as he sees best. I, I did not have Cabinet rank when I
was UN ambassador. I don’t think it affected me in any way either up at the U.N. or in my
dealings within the administration. I think it’s a job where you have to be prepared to get deep
into the substance of issues. I think it’s very important in implementing policy. And mostly what
you do at the U.N. is implement policy, that you understand the significance of the actions you’re
taking, and that you be part of a team. I felt very privileged when I was there. I helped make
policy, but I helped mostly to carry policy out.
HH: Some national security advisors travel a lot. Some stay close to the Oval Office. What’s your travel schedule like looking forward, especially between now and the election?
JB: Well, I’ve spent most of my time in Washington or traveling with the president when he travels overseas. I have done some travel. I’ve got a trip coming up to Moscow and the Caucasus countries in about ten days. The reason for that is to continue to carry through on the conversation that President Trump and President Putin had in Helsinki during the summer to talk about U.S.-Russian relations and where we can make progress, where we still have issues and disagreement, and then in the Caucasus to see the very significant geographical role that they have dealing with Iran, dealing with Russia, dealing with Turkey. So it’s selected. I work very closely with Jim Mattis and Mike Pompeo. We had breakfast this morning, as we do once a week to kick all these issues around. And I think that’s very important. The national security advisor, I think, under any presidential style has to be an honest broker. And I work hard at that.
HH: When you sit down with your counterpart in Russia next week, are you going to tell him hands off our election, I mean, say it three or four times loudly?
JB: Yeah. Well, every time I’ve met with the Russians in this job, including with President Putin himself when I went to Russia to prepare for the Helsinki meeting, I’ve made that point, as has the president.
HH: Has the message, do you believe, been received?
JB: Well, so far, we don’t see the kind of Russian meddling we did in 2016. Chris Wray, the director of the FBI, said a couple weeks ago that that could change with the stroke of a key. We are very worried about the question of Chinese interference not just in individual elections, but more broadly trying to influence the American political discussion with an influence campaign that I think could well be unprecedented. We heard Vice President Pence speak to this issue last week. It was a very important speech. I think people need to read it and consider it. And I think the United States needs to stand up, frankly, to any foreign government that thinks it’s going to interfere in our politics. We are a self-governing people. We will govern ourselves. We don’t need international institutions to tell us how to do it. And we particularly don’t need foreigners trying to exert undue influence over us.
HH: Well, that transitions to the story of the day, Jamal Khashoggi. We are trying to influence the response of the Saudi government to the world. At noon on Thursday, are you satisfied with what the Saudis have told us about the disappearance of Mr. Khashoggi?
JB: Well, I don’t think we, we’ve known enough. I spoke with the crown prince yesterday along with Jared Kushner, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, spoke to the crown prince as well. The president has spoken to this issue. It is something we need to get resolved. And we need to do it as soon as possible.
HH: In the aftermath of the Annapolis newsroom shooting, some people criticized the president for his ‘the enemy of the people’ rhetoric. In the aftermath of the Khashoggi disappearance, some people have said the president is turning a blind eye to violence against journalism across the world, particularly in Russia. What do you make of critics of the president trying to tie him to the Khashoggi disappearance?
JB: Well, I think this is ridiculous. I mean, I think this is, he has spoken out about it. He’s directed Secretary of State Pompeo to speak with Khashoggi’s fiancé, and that’ll happen as soon as they can get that scheduled. We’re taking a number of other steps that I really can’t get into at the moment. But I think that it’s just hypocritical to say that somehow the president’s not concerned about these things when manifestly his words and his actions are to the contrary.
HH: Mr. Ambassador, the Saudi Arabian political structure is, at best, convoluted. Is it possible we have a Henry II situation, ‘who will rid me of this meddlesome priest’ spiraling out of control, or even something more malevolent, that someone intended to undermine the crown prince and the king via this action?
JB: You know, honestly, we just don’t know what the facts are. And that was one of the points that I made to the crown prince. We need to find out what the facts are, and we need to get this resolved quickly, because if it is another operation, people need to understand that. I think the Saudis themselves are being damaged, because we don’t have the facts out. There’s obviously been historical animosity between Turkey and Saudi Arabia. We have our own difficulties with Turkey at the moment with their keeping Pastor Brunson effectively under house arrest for no good reason whatever. So this is, this is not to anybody’s benefit. And it needs to be cleared up.
HH: Is it possible that if the operation happened, it could’ve happened without the knowledge of the crown prince?
JB: I think a lot of things are possible in the Middle East. The United States does not have information it’s not revealing. If we had information, we’d know better exactly how to handle this. We’ve made it clear we want to know what the facts are. We’re going to continue to do that.
HH: Let me turn from our ally to our enemy. The commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, Soleimani, used social media to threaten the White House. There are reports that there are sleeper cells in the United States. Given those sorts of threats and those sorts of reports, are Americans, should we be alarmed about Soleimani’s reach into the United States?
JB: I think we should be. I think the Iranian regime is an enemy of the United States. We just had, within the past month, the arrest of two Iranian agents in the United States scoping out Jewish and Israeli targets for possible attack. We’ve seen France and other European countries arresting agents of the Iranian Intelligence Service for planning an attack on a rally of dissident Iranians in Paris this summer. We’ve seen France, for example, now impose sanctions against Iran because of this behavior. So we see Iran not conforming to Western norms because of the Iran Nuclear Deal. They’ve not done anything to try to mollify our concern about their continued support for terrorism around the world. They are accelerating it. This, this regime is a threat. That’s why the president got us out of the Iran Nuclear Deal. That’s why the economic sanctions are being re-imposed. That’s why we’re putting maximum pressure on the Iranian regime. And just to be clear, we are having a very significant effect. You can hear the Europe governments talk about staying in the deal. European corporations, and I mean the being one, the biggest oil companies, the biggest manufacturing firms, are getting out of Iran. Iranian oil exports are plummeting. Their currency has gone through the floor. Unrest is spreading across the country. Even countries like China are reducing their imports of oil from Iran, because they don’t want to tangle with the United States. This is something that we should be concerned about, because Iran remains what it has been since 1979. It’s the world’s leading state sponsor of terror. It oppresses its own citizens. And it continues to pursue programs of weapons of mass destruction – nuclear, chemical and biological. This is a dangerous state in the region and a dangerous state worldwide.
HH: Any doubt in your mind of the response of this president to any Iranian-backed terrorism on the United States territory or against American ships or flagships?
JB: No. I think he’s been very clear on this, not because we want hostilities with Iran, but the opposite. We want to be very clear about what our red lines. And I think the president’s done that over and over again.
HH: All right. Speaking of red lines, a Chinese ship came within 135 feet of an American warship. These are American sailors. If we are threatened, will our sailors fire upon Chinese ships?
JB: Look, the rules of engagement for U.S. Navy vessels worldwide, but particularly in potentially dangerous areas like the South China Sea, are clear. The commanders have the authority we need. We will not tolerate threats to American service members. We’re determined to keep international sea lanes open. This is something the Chinese need to understand. Their behavior has been unnecessarily provocative for far too long. They got away with an awful lot under the Obama administration. I would say China is one of the due bills coming due that Obama ignored or mishandled badly. The pressure’s now on President Trump. He’s responded in a way that has the Chinese confused. They’ve never seen an American president this tough before. I think their behavior needs to be adjusted in the trade area, in the international, military and political areas, in a whole range of areas. Perhaps we’ll see at the G20 meeting in Argentina next month Xi Jinping willing to come to talk turkey on some of these issues. But the president feels very strongly that China’s taken advantage of the international order for far too long, not enough Americans have stood up to it. Now’s the time to do it.
HH: China appears to have weaponized the export of commercial technology in recent reports in Bloomberg and elsewhere. Was there an arms race of which we were completely unaware and not participating?
JB: We were being taken to the cleaners for decades. Ever since China came into the World Trade Organization, they have pursued a mercantilist economic policy in what should be a free trade environment. And they’ve gone well beyond that. They’ve violated rule after rule after rule. And they’ve defied the prediction of those who advocated admitting China to the WTO, that if they came in, international pressure would make China conform to these rules and norms of behavior. They’ve done the opposite. They’ve gotten worse. They steal our intellectual property so they’re able to compete with us without the investment that’s required in research and development. They force technology transfers from American and European companies. They discriminate against us in terms of their domestic policies. And because of the economic growth that they’ve sustained, not only by abandoning their Marxist principles, but basically by violating the international norms we expected them to comply with, they’ve gained substantial economic strength. And on the basis of that economic strength, they’ve built military strength. I think what the president’s doing, because of his business background among other things, is he’s challenging them on the economic grounds. And if they’re put back in the proper place they would be if they weren’t allowed to steal our technology, their military capabilities would be substantially reduced. And a lot of the tensions we see caused by China would be reduced.
HH: They have a lot of business partners in the United States. Should Google, should Facebook be helping the People’s Republic of China develop tools of information filtering and basically control, when this is a nation that has admitted to having a million Uighurs in concentration camps?
JB: Yeah. I think Vice President Pence spoke very eloquently on that point at his speech at the Hudson Institute last week. And I think the biggest applause line he got was when he said to the information technology sector don’t cooperate with the Chinese in this effort. I would say to shareholders of these companies that portray themselves as the open internet, transparent future, really? You want to make money off of repression? If I were a shareholder, I’d want to know what the answer of our corporate leadership was.
HH: Beyond shareholders though, we certainly would not have allowed in pre-war Germany Americans to sell the Krupp Iron Works, the design for new artillery. Are we, is there a role for the government to step in into Silicon Valley and control technology transfers?
JB: Well, we’re looking at the export control area. Look, we did this and continue to do it in terms of dual use technology that could affect nuclear, chemical or biological weapons or ballistic missile development. I think in cyberspace, we’re entitled to do the same thing not because we’ve abandoned free market principles, but because we have to be realistic about the adversaries we face in the world today that use the fruits of American freedom against us. And we shouldn’t let that happen. We want to do it in ways that protect our open economy, but deny others the ability to take advantage of it.
HH: I want to return to the president administration. In Bob Woodward’s book, a lot was overlooked. One thing that was overlooked was the candid admission that they had hidden the scope of the North Korean nuclear problem from the country so that they had to warn, President Obama had to warn President Trump that that was his biggest problem. Did they in fact conceal the extent of the problem, and were we prepared for a preemptive strike that Woodward describes?
JB: Well, the Obama policy they described as “strategic patience,” that is a synonym for doing nothing about North Korea. And it’s another example of a due bill coming due for President Trump. I think the combination of the potential use of military force against North Korea and the maximum pressure campaign that the president waged on the economic front is what has brought Kim Jong Un to the table. Mike Pompeo’s just returned from another trip there. We’ll see a meeting, I think, between Chairman Kim and President Trump sometime in the next couple of months. We’ll see other efforts go forward. The president has held the door open for North Korea. He gave them a great, little movie in Singapore when he met with Kim Jong Un that showed with North Korea’s future could be. So the door’s open. They need to de-nuclearize completely and irreversibly. And if they do that and walk through the door, the future could be very different for the North Korean people.
HH: Now John Bolton has been known for 20 years as the most skeptical of skeptics of feel good diplomacy. Are you feeling good about the diplomacy with North Korea?
JB: Look, I don’t think we’d be in the place we are today if we’d continued to pursue Barack Obama’s policies. I think four more years of that under Hillary Clinton would’ve guaranteed a North Korea with deliverable nuclear weapons. The future remains uncertain on the president’s diplomacy. He’s optimistic. He presses hard. He does not have stars in his eyes about this. Neither does Mike Pompeo, neither does Jim Mattis, neither do I.
HH: Should we be encouraging our allies to match what the Chinese are doing, the creation of artificial atolls and the armament of them? The Philippines could do it, Japan could do it, ought they to be doing it?
JB: Well, I think we’ve got to do more first to establish for the Chinese that we do not acknowledge the legitimacy of any of this. The ship near collision you mentioned is an example of how dangerous Chinese behavior is. We have now got more participation by allies, the British, the Australians and others, are sailing with us through the South China Sea. We’re going to do a lot more on that. I think we could see more exploitation of mineral resources in the South China Sea with or without Chinese cooperation. They need to know they have not achieved a fait accompli here. This is not a Chinese province and will not be.
HH: I’m getting the wind up, so I have to ask you two things. Russia’s in the rearview mirror and Christopher Wray said this yesterday. They’re worried about today’s problems. China is worried about tomorrow’s problem. How much is our strategic thinking stuck in a Russia first as a problem and not focused on China as the major geopolitical strategic challenge of the next century?
JB: Well, I think we do see China as the major issue of this century. I don’t think we’re stuck in the rearview mirror. But what I would say is, in a world that’s now post-post-Cold War, we are in a very complex environment. The United States faces a range of challenges globally, some at the strategic nuclear level, some at the level of terrorist threats. We’ve got to be prepared across a spectrum of threats in a way we’ve never had to be in our history. In the 19th century, we were much more isolated than we are today. We are the global power. And our threats are global as well.
HH: And what is the president’s grasp of the geopolitical complexities of the world? We get this question all the time. You deal with him daily.
JB: Well, I think he’s got all the grasp of it he needs. The one difference between President Trump and other presidents is his economic background. And he sees and emphasizes economic issues in a way we’ve not seen in a long time. That confuses some people. But as you follow him through it, he is striking at problems that have bedeviled the United States for a long time that we haven’t addressed almost at all.
HH: Ambassador John Bolton, thank you for your time.
JB: Thank you, Hugh.
End of interview.