WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - John Bolton, the former national security adviser, privately told Attorney General William Barr last year that he had concerns that President Donald Trump was effectively granting personal favours to the autocratic leaders of Turkey and China, according to an unpublished manuscript by Bolton.
Barr responded by pointing to a pair of Justice Department investigations of companies in those countries and said he was worried that Trump had created the appearance that he had undue influence over what would typically be independent inquiries, according to the manuscript. Backing up his point, Barr mentioned conversations Trump had with the leaders, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and President Xi Jinping of China.
Bolton's account underscores the fact that the unease about Trump's seeming embrace of authoritarian leaders, long expressed by experts and his opponents, also existed among some of the senior Cabinet officers entrusted by the president to carry out his foreign policy and national security agendas.
Bolton recounted his discussion with Barr in a draft of an unpublished book manuscript that he submitted nearly a month ago to the White House for review. People familiar with the manuscript described its contents on the condition of anonymity.
The book also contains an account of Trump telling Bolton in August that he wanted to continue freezing US$391 million (S$531 million) in security assistance to Ukraine until officials there helped with investigations of political rivals, The New York Times reported Sunday. The matter is at the heart of the articles of impeachment against the president.
A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment on Barr's conversations with Bolton, as did a spokesman for the National Security Council. In a statement Monday (Jan 27), Bolton, his publisher and his literary agency said they had not shared the manuscript with The Times.
"There was absolutely no coordination with The New York Times or anyone else regarding the appearance of information about his book, 'The Room Where It Happened,' at online booksellers," Bolton, Simon & Schuster and Javelin said in a joint statement. "Any assertion to the contrary is unfounded speculation."
Dean Baquet, the executive editor of The Times, responded that "The Times does not discuss its sources, but I should point out that no one has questioned the accuracy of our report."
Bolton wrote in the manuscript that Barr singled out Trump's conversations with Xi about the Chinese telecommunications firm ZTE, which agreed in 2017 to plead guilty and pay heavy fines for violating US sanctions on doing business with North Korea, Iran and other countries. A year later, Trump lifted the sanctions over objections from his own advisers and Republican lawmakers.
Barr also cited remarks Trump made to Erdogan in 2018 about the investigation of Halkbank, Turkey's second-largest state-owned bank. The Justice Department was scrutinising Halkbank on fraud and money-laundering charges for helping Iran evade sanctions imposed by the Treasury Department.
Erdogan had been making personal appeals to Trump to use his authority to halt any additional enforcement against the bank. In 2018, Erdogan told reporters in Turkey that Trump had promised to instruct Cabinet members to follow through on the matter. The bank had hired a top Republican fundraiser to lobby the administration on the issue.
For months, it looked as if the unusual lobbying effort might succeed; but in October, the Justice Department indicted the bank for aiding Iran. The charges were seen in part as an attempt by the administration to show that it was taking a tough line on Turkey amid an outcry over Trump's endorsement of its incursions in Syria.
Bolton's statements in the book align with other comments he has made since leaving the White House in September. In November, he said in a private speech that none of Trump's advisers shared the president's views on Turkey and that he believed Trump adopted a more permissive approach to the country because of his financial ties there, NBC News reported. Trump's company has a property in Turkey.
Trump has repeatedly praised dictators throughout his presidency. Last year, he said, "Where's my favourite dictator?" as he waited to meet with President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi of Egypt, The Wall Street Journal reported.
Trump's soft spot for authoritarians dates at least to his presidential campaign, when he praised Saddam Hussein for being "good" at killing terrorists and suggested that the world would be better off were Colonel Moammar Gadhafi, the deposed Libyan dictator who was killed in a violent uprising in 2011, "in charge right now." Trump then suggested the ouster of both men was ultimately worse for the Middle East because the Islamic State had filled the void.
Trump declared himself "a big fan" of Erdogan as they sat side by side in the Oval Office last fall after Trump cleared the way for Turkish forces to invade Syria, though he warned Erdogan behind the scenes against the offensive.
Of Xi, Trump has been similarly effusive. When the Chinese Communist Party eliminated term limits, allowing Xi to keep his tenure open-ended, Trump extolled the outcome.
Xi had personally asked Trump to intervene to save ZTE, which was on the brink of collapse because of tough US penalties for sanctions violations.
Lifting the sanctions on ZTE, a Chinese telecommunications giant that also serves as a geopolitical pawn for its government, most likely helped Trump negotiate with Xi in the trade war between the two countries. But Republican lawmakers and others objected to helping a Chinese company that broke the law and has been accused of posing a national security threat.
Bolton's reputation for muscular foreign policy was always an odd fit with Trump, who often threatens excessive force but rarely reacts with it. Bolton was pleased when Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal between Iran and six world powers, including the United States, that the Obama administration had entered into. Other Trump advisers had urged him against it.
But Trump's lack of action after Iranian aggression against the United States rankled Bolton.
Bolton's book has already netted significant sales. Shortly after the disclosure of its contents Sunday night, Amazon listed the book for purchase. By Monday evening, it was No. 17 on Amazon's bestseller list.