John Bolton’s revelations are all the rage in the news media, and for somewhat understandable reasons: He authoritatively confirms what has been widely reported about US President Donald Trump’s uninformed and impulsive approach to foreign policymaking. Bolton’s story is hardly impartial, however, and especially so in the case of Trump’s dealings with North Korea.
Missing the Forest For the Trees
Even articles disparaging Bolton’s disclosures accept his tale of the president’s flawed nuclear diplomacy with Kim Jong Un, preferring to focus on the discrepancies between Trump’s words and his deeds instead of investigating whether Bolton’s version of what happened in the negotiations is correct. Why journalists would uncritically take the word of such a notorious serial killer of arms control agreements as Bolton is an open question. One explanation may be that their prior reporting relied in no small part on Bolton and his aides as sources.
A case in point is a June 18 story in The Washington Post entitled “Book: Trump Sought Xi’s Election Help.” In it, Josh Dawsey recounts without comment how Bolton castigates Trump’s diplomacy at the Singapore Summit, claiming the president cared little for the details of the denuclearization effort and saw it merely as “an exercise in publicity.” Bolton wrote, “Trump told…me he was prepared to sign a substance-free communique, have his press conference to declare victory and then get out of town.” The idea that sitting down with Kim demonstrated Trump’s willingness to reconcile with a longtime US foe, a key to any progress on denuclearization, is apparently not worth mentioning. Nor did the principled agreement he signed lack substance. Such reporting has become the conventual wisdom around Washington.
Dawsey is not alone. In a June 22 article in The New York Times, headlined “Bolton Book Portrays a President Conflicted on Nuclear Adversaries,” David E. Sanger writes,
President Trump knew exactly what he was getting when he hired John R. Bolton in the spring of 2018 to be his national security adviser: an uber-hawk who made no secret of his belief that Iran and North Korea could be driven over the brink by extreme sanctions, and who told the president that attacking nuclear facilities “might be the only lasting solution.”…Mr. Bolton’s memoir…provides the first inside glimpse of what went wrong on both fronts—and why force was never used. The answer, he argues, lies in a president who wanted to be perceived as tough but changed his mind day-to-day, his top priority “making a deal he could characterize as a huge success, even if it was badly flawed.”
Sanger is quick to acknowledge, “Every interaction is viewed through Mr. Bolton’s own prism, in which any relaxation of sanctions or proposal for a ‘nuclear freeze’ is a mortal danger, rather than a tactic toward getting to a bigger deal.” Yet Sanger does not question any of the particulars of Bolton’s account.
Like Dawsey, Sanger focuses on administration infighting without questioning the validity of Bolton’s stance. He observes that disagreements among the president’s advisers “dominated the effort to deal with North Korea, where Mr. Bolton cast himself at war with State Department negotiators who were talking about partial steps toward disarmament.” For instance, “Mr. Bolton opposed any step-by-step actions, fearing the North Koreans would just rebuild, as they did after reaching accords with the George W. Bush administration.” Was Pyongyang alone in reneging on those accords, or did Washington first fail to fulfill its obligations? Why did State Department negotiators favor concentrating initially on stopping and dismantling the production of fissile material, not missiles? Sanger does not say.
What he does say about the North’s offer is sometimes erroneous:
At the Hanoi summit early last year, Mr. Kim tried to sell Mr. Trump on the idea of lifting all of the most potent sanctions against the North in return for dismantling the aging, leaking nuclear facilities at Yongbyon, the country’s largest nuclear site. Many of the North’s most worrisome, and newer, nuclear production sites are outside Yongbyon, and so are all of its missile facilities. (Author’s emphasis added.)
The 5 MWe reactor is certainly aging and has been operating fitfully at best, but what about the plant for enriching uranium, which has been repeatedly upgraded and recently expanded? And what did the North Koreans mean by referring to “the Yongbyon area” at the summit—was that an oblique reference to including the suspect enrichment site nearby in their offer?
Sanger observes that Washington’s overreach at Hanoi had serious consequences, but he allows Bolton to deflect responsibility:
The meeting fell apart, and in the year-and-a-half since, negotiations have never resumed. The North has continued to amass nuclear material, enough for 20 or more nuclear weapons since the Trump diplomacy began. Mr. Bolton does not blame himself for that failure. “The North Koreans and others were expert at taking full advantage of those who wanted a deal, any deal, as a sign of success,” Mr. Bolton continued. “We were a perfect mark.”
Yet it was Bolton who convinced Trump to put the so-called “Libya solution” on the table, thereby subverting the negotiations and arousing hardline resistance to engagement inside Pyongyang that has impeded their resumption ever since. For Bolton to blow up Trump’s negotiations with Kim, however wrong-headed, was no mean accomplishment.
Even Bolton’s Critics Accept His Take on North Korea
Fred Kaplan’s June 22 article in Slate, “John Bolton’s Book Is a Scalding Indictment…of John Bolton,” is a justifiably scorching critique of the former aide’s approach to foreign policy, but he handles Bolton’s version of North Korea diplomacy with kid gloves:
Bolton offers very detailed, occasionally fascinating accounts of Trump’s two summits with Kim, in Singapore (which ended with a meaningless joint declaration) and in Hanoi (which collapsed in failure, since which time no talks have occurred at all). But Bolton doesn’t seem to grasp the significance of what happened in Hanoi. Kim arrived with one offer: he would dismantle the Yongbyon nuclear site if Trump lifted all sanctions that had been imposed since 2006 (those were the ones that took a bite). Trump rejected the proposal, with good reason: Yongbyon was hardly Kim’s only reactor. But, as Bolton notes, Trump then made some counteroffers: How about if the U.S. lifted some of the sanctions? Or how about if Kim added one more element—say, a ban on producing intercontinental ballistic missiles? Kim turned those ideas down.
In other words, Bolton viewed the outcome of Hanoi as a relief, but there almost was a deal—there would have been, if Kim hadn’t been so inflexible—and Trump came away still wanting some deal.
Singapore “ended with a meaningless joint declaration”? Yongbyon “was hardly Kim’s only reactor”? Kim wanted Trump to “[lift] all sanctions that had been imposed since 2006”? Trump made a counteroffer to lift “some sanctions”? Kaplan should know better.
The Book’s Reception Echoes Questionable Prior Reporting
Sanger’s article reflects his reporting from the time Bolton became national security adviser. Here is an earlier story he wrote in the run-up to the Singapore Summit in 2018:
Mr. Trump’s aides have grown concerned that the president—who has said that “everyone thinks” he deserves a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts—has signaled that he wants the summit meeting too much…The aides are also concerned about what kind of grasp Mr. Trump has on the details of the North Korea program, and what he must insist upon as the key components of denuclearization…Mr. Bolton has been clear that in his view the president should use the Singapore meeting to declare that the North must give up its entire arsenal and nuclear infrastructure before crippling economic sanctions are eased.
The article makes no mention of Kim’s concession that opened the way to that summit, his unilateral moratorium on testing nuclear weapons and longer-range missiles—before the North had developed a proven thermonuclear device or an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) equipped with a reentry vehicle. In the aftermath of the summit, reporters disparaged Trump’s reciprocal gesture at Singapore, a suspension of joint military exercises with South Korea that unfortunately proved temporary.
Sanger co-authored an article with State Department correspondent Mark Landler entitled “U.N. Saw Fiery Trump in 2017; Now Aides Fear He’ll Play Nice” that ran on September 24, 2018, the eve of the president’s appearance at the United Nations General Assembly:
Far from restraining Mr. Trump’s belligerent tendencies, his senior aides are engaged in a quiet effort to avoid…concessions that they fear could undermine their effort to keep pressure on North Korea. Either of those possibilities would rattle Mr. Trump’s aides, who are uniformly hawkish about…North Korea, and favor squeezing those countries over talking to them. (Author’s emphasis added.)
A meeting with President Moon Jae-in of South Korea tomorrow also looms large, since Mr. Moon is likely to press him to make concessions to keep the talks with Mr. Kim going.
The South Korean leader is pressing him to accept a declaration that would formally end the Korean War, 65 years after hostilities were halted by an armistice. That is a cherished objective for Mr. Kim, who views it as a way to end North Korea’s diplomatic isolation.
Mr. Trump’s aides have been trying to head off such a gesture, arguing that the United States gave up enough when Trump suspended joint military exercises with South Korea—which he referred to as “war games,” embracing North Korea’s terminology. They fear that another concession to Mr. Kim would feed the narrative that the North Korean leader is playing Mr. Trump.
Within weeks, one of those “uniformly hawkish” aides, then-CIA Director Mike Pompeo, met with the North Korean leader in Pyongyang and offered just such an end-of-war declaration.
On December 4, Bolton made his case outside, perhaps a sign he was losing inside. In an article co-authored by Sanger and diplomatic correspondent Edward Wong, the lede read like a non-sequitur:
President Trump plans to hold a second summit meeting early next year with Kim Jong-un, even though North Korea has failed to follow through with promises to start dismantling its nuclear weapons program, John R. Bolton, the national security adviser, said [today].
“They have not lived up to the commitments so far,” Mr. Bolton said. “That’s why I think the president thinks another summit is likely to be productive.”
The article continued by calling the president’s more dubious claims into question, a staple of news media coverage of North Korea:
Mr. Bolton was referring to a pledge that the North Korean leader made in June at his first face-to-face meeting with Mr. Trump in Singapore. At the time, Mr. Kim said North Korea would work toward “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”…Mr. Trump often notes that there have been no missile or nuclear tests in more than a year to argue that Mr. Kim is willing to make good on his promises. But Mr. Bolton and others on the president’s staff remain highly skeptical…Mr. Bolton’s statements were particularly notable because Mr. Trump himself has argued that his diplomacy with North Korea has yielded results, and that reports in The New York Times and elsewhere citing continued missile activity were an effort to undermine his efforts.
“We fully know about the sites being discussed, nothing new—and nothing happening out of the normal. Just more Fake News,” he wrote on Twitter last month. “I will be the first to let you know if things go bad!”
But Mr. Bolton made clear that the next summit meeting would have to set a schedule for North Korea’s compliance…Mr. Bolton said the second meeting between the two leaders would probably take place in January or February.
He made his remarks in an onstage interview at a conference of business executives in Washington organized by the Wall Street Journal. The interviewer, Gerard Baker, an editor at large at The Journal, pressed Mr. Bolton on the logic of holding another summit meeting when North Korea was not making any efforts to denuclearize.
“They’re going to discuss this and look at the commitments that were made in Singapore and…how they’re going to accomplish those commitments,” Mr. Bolton said, “and until that happens there’s not going to be any release of the economic sanctions.”
It was a harbinger of the Libya solution that he would get the president to adopt in Hanoi.
Such reporting is somewhat explicable: It was Sanger’s responsibility as the Times’ national security correspondent and Dawsey’s on the White House beat to try to maintain access to the national security adviser and his staff. But it is quite another matter to take a former national security adviser’s word for what happened on his watch.
Donald Trump may be right to feel wronged about North Korea coverage when he complained shortly after Bolton’s departure:
…we were set back very badly when John Bolton talked about the Libyan model. And he made a mistake. And as soon as he mentioned that, the “Libyan model,” what a disaster. Take a look at what happened to Qaddafi, with the Libyan model. And he’s using that to make a deal with North Korea? And I don’t blame Kim Jong Un for what he said after that. And he wanted nothing to do with John Bolton. And that’s not a question of being tough; that’s a question of being not smart, to say something like that.
Josh Dawsey, “Book: Trump Sought Xi’s Election Help,” Washington Post, June 18, 2020, print edition. (Josh Dawsey, “Trump asked China’s Xi to help him win reelection, according to Bolton Book,” Washington, Post, June 17, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/trump-asked-chinas-xi-to-help-him-win-reelection-according-to-bolton-book/2020/06/17/d4ea601c-ad7a-11ea-868b-93d63cd833b2_story.html.)
David E. Sanger, “Bolton Book Portrays A President Conflicted On Nuclear Adversaries,” New York Times, June 22, 2020, print edition. (David E. Sanger, “On North Korea and Iran, Bolton Blames ‘the Split Between Trump and Trump,’” New York Times, June 21, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/21/us/politics/john-bolton-north-korea-iran-trump.html.)
David E. Sanger, “Trump Weighs the Risk of Talks After a North Korean Reversal,” New York Times, May 21, 2018, print edition. (David E. Sanger, “Trump Grappling with Risks of Proceeding With North Korea Meeting,” New York Times, May 20, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/20/us/politics/trump-north-korea-nuclear.html.)
Mark Landler and David E. Sanger, “U.N. Saw Fiery Trump in 2017; Now Aides Fear He’ll Play Nice,” New York Times, September 24, 2018, print edition. (Mark Lander and David E. Sanger, “Trump at the U.N.: Undiplomatic? This Time, Aides Fear the Opposite,” New York Times, September 23, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/23/us/politics/trump-united-nations-north-korea-iran.html.)
Edward Wong and David E. Sanger, “Trump Will Meet Again with Kim, Despite North Korea’s Lapses,” New York Times, December 5, 2018, print edition. (Edward Wong and David E. Sanger, “Trump to Meet with Kim Jong-un, Despite North Korea’s Lapses, Bolton Says,” New York Times, December 4, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/04/us/politics/trump-kim-north-korea-summit-meeting.html.)