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Interview with John Bolton

“Trump Is Capable of Almost Anything”

John Bolton, 71, served as U.S. President Donald Trump’s national security advisor from 2018 to 2019. In a DER SPIEGEL interview, he speaks about Trump’s relationship with women leaders and the roots of his conflict with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Interview Conducted by Susanne Koelbl und René Pfister

John Bolton in the Oval Office in 2019: “Part of Trump’s difficulty with international affairs is his lack of any philosophical basis. He has no philosophy.”
Foto: Doug Mills / NYT / Redux / laif

DER SPIEGEL:  Mr. Bolton, Donald Trump had already begun firing barbs at German Chancellor Angela Merkel back when he was still one of many Republican candidates for president. Merkel’s refugee policies, he said at the time, had been a “disaster for Germany.” Do we have the wrong impression, or is Trump rather obsessed with the German chancellor?


Bolton: Trump’s relationships with Chancellor Merkel and (former British Prime Minister) Theresa May were two of the most difficult that I saw. I think there’s an element of increased difficulty with female foreign leaders. But with Merkel, it’s kind of complicated – the president’s father was German, so that might have something to do with it. But there are also political reasons. U.S.-EU trade relations have been a major source of controversy between the U.S. and Germany. Then there is the issue of support for NATO and the agreement that each member state would spend 2 percent of GDP on defense, which Germany is behind on.

DER SPIEGEL:  Trump, though, has similar conflicts with a number of other world leaders. Could it be that he simply has a problem with women?

Bolton: I do think that is a factor. But he has a problem with a lot of democratically elected leaders, male or female. He seems to have better relations with authoritarian figures than with many who are elected in democratic countries.

DER SPIEGEL:  How would you explain that?

Bolton: Part of Trump’s difficulty with international affairs is his lack of any philosophical basis. He has no philosophy. That was a complicating factor across the board. I am a conservative Republican. He is not. But he’s not a liberal Democrat either. He tends to confuse personal relationships with foreign leaders with the underlying bilateral relationship between the U.S. and that country.


DER SPIEGEL:  In her visits to the U.S., Merkel intentionally presented herself as a kind of anti-Trump, such as in the speech she held at Harvard University, during which she sang the praises of multilateralism. Was Trump annoyed by that?

Bolton: No, because I don’t think he knows what multilateralism is.

DER SPIEGEL:  Why does Trump show no interest in cooperation with America’s long-time partners?

Bolton: There is a constant effort by political commentators in the U.S. and Europe to understand Trump or to define a Trump Doctrine. Stop wasting your time! There isn’t any Trump Doctrine. The decision you get in the morning on an issue could be different in the afternoon, largely dependent on political considerations. He is primarily interested in his reelection.

DER SPIEGEL:  In Europe, there was significant deliberation regarding how best to approach Trump. French President Emmanuel Macron, for example, invited Trump and First Lady Melania to a swanky restaurant in the Eiffel Tower. Merkel, though, didn’t even make an effort to coddle him. Which approach is better?

Bolton: Everybody has to pick what they feel most comfortable with. I think Macron thought that if he could establish a good personal relationship with Trump, he could translate that into an advantage for France. I don’t think that worked out.

DER SPIEGEL:  Ever since Trump moved into the White House, the German government has been concerned that he might introduce punitive tariffs on German automobiles. Thus far, though, he has not followed through on his threats. Is the issue off the table?

Bolton: It’s never off the table. Trump likes tariffs, and it’s something he can do without Congressional approval. He likes that approach to international negotiations. The real focus ought to be on dealing with the common threat posed by China, which is stealing European intellectual property at the same rate it steals American intellectual property, engages in forced technology transfer and discriminates against really all foreign companies.

DER SPIEGEL: Another dispute between the Unites States and Germany is the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project. Is this really about serious concerns that Germany and Europe could grow overly dependent on Russia? Or is it more about business and American hopes to sell American natural gas to Europe?

Bolton: It’s a combination of both. He talked about imposing sanctions all the time, but he never has. I think it would have stopped the pipeline. And it’s not finished yet. It may yet be stopped. It is strategically damaging to Europe and the United States.

Participants in the Canada G-7 summit in 2018: “I don’t think Trump knows what multilateralism is.”
Foto: Jesco Denzel / Bundesregierung / Getty Images

DER SPIEGEL: There is a famous image from the G-7 Summit in Canada in April 2018. It shows Merkel leaning on a table with Trump facing her, his arms crossed and looking unhappy. You are standing right next to him. Can you remember what you were talking about?

Bolton: Yeah, it wasn’t comfortable. In my recollection, it wasn’t Chancellor Merkel speaking with Trump at that moment, I think it was President Macron. But that’s just an historical detail. To me, it demonstrates two things. One, why I don’t like these communiqués at G-7 and G-20 meetings. I think maybe you cut down a lot of trees for no particular purpose. Number two, in this instance, by forcing Trump literally as well as figuratively into a corner, they made him very unhappy with the whole process. Not long after that picture was taken, when we were back on Air Force One, Trump withdrew his approval for the communiqué. It was the first time that had ever happened. One thing I did in response to that was to precook the communiqué for the next NATO summit in July 2018, so that there wasn’t anything else left to decide or to negotiate.

DER SPIEGEL: You write that Trump referred to Merkel as NATO’s “tap dancer,” a term that could best be translated as a “word twister.”

Bolton: Yes. “Tap, tap, tap, tap,” Trump liked to say. You’ll recall, even Barack Obama said in published interviews while he was president that many of our NATO allies were “freeloaders.” Yet in contrast to Trump, he said increasing defense expenditures was voluntary. Trump, on the other hand, made a big point of it and has had considerable success in increasing aggregate defense expenditures by NATO members.

DER SPIEGEL: Will Trump withdraw U.S. membership from NATO if he gets re-elected?

Bolton: That is very hard to predict. Right now, he’s taking a hard line on China. But if he is re-elected, I think it is entirely possible that he’ll go right back to his buddy Xi Jinping and try and start negotiations again on a trade deal. The fate of Hong Kong and a variety of other subjects will drop to the wayside again. 

DER SPIEGEL: Is the president just as unpredictable for his staff as he is for the rest of the world?

Bolton: You could say that. After the July 2018 NATO summit, we were flying to London to meet with Theresa May, and then on to Helsinki for the famous meeting with Putin. Trump said to the press corps on his way out to the airport: You know, out of all these meetings, the easiest one could be with Vladimir Putin. Who would have thought that? The answer is: Nobody else would’ve thought that except Donald Trump!

DER SPIEGEL: Will Germany and the rest of Europe have to be responsible for their own national security and defense in the future?

Bolton: Europe should view Trump as an anomaly in American politics. What Trump does is not a policy, and because it doesn’t reflect a philosophy, it is not going to be that hard to get back to normal. The Republican Party believes that Europe should not be left on its own when it comes to defense. The problem with the European Union is that there’s a lot of rhetoric about strong security policies, but not a lot of follow through. You hear European leaders saying over and over again: “We’ll defend ourselves.” If people aren’t careful, there will be others in America, like Trump, who say: “Fine, go ahead.”

DER SPIEGEL: How reliable is the NATO alliance?

Bolton: I think the alliance remains strong. But it’s a big mistake for Europe to view it as the U.S. protecting Europe. That feeds into the Trump view of the world, that we’re defending you and therefore you need to pay us more. The fact is, it’s a mutual defense alliance. The long-term future of the alliance depends in part on looking at suggestions such as those by former Spanish Prime Minister José María Aznar, who said we ought to make NATO global and bring in Japan, Australia, Singapore, Israel.

DER SPIEGEL: Has the Trump presidency damaged the reputation of the United States?

Bolton: There is damage. If Trump loses in November, that will be a major task for the Biden administration. But it’s also up to the Republican Party to make sure that we don’t end up with another nominee like that in the future. The most I can offer by way of consolation to Europeans or others is something Winston Churchill once said. He said: “You can always count on the Americans to do the right thing – after they’ve tried everything else.” What we’re doing now is trying everything else.

DER SPIEGEL: Some Democrats are concerned that Trump would simply ignore a defeat at the polls and remain in the White House.

Bolton: I don’t see any evidence of that. If there was, I would have put it in the book. He’s capable of almost anything. But this is an aspect of what we call Trump Derangement Syndrome: Everything, all political analysis, is defined by Trump, by what Trump does or does not do. Analysis stops at that point.

DER SPIEGEL: What is your greatest fear should Donald Trump be given another four years in office?

Bolton: I am afraid the influence of authoritarian leaders could grow in a second term.

DER SPIEGEL: You published your book in part to prevent Trump from serving a second term. Many Americans say that if that was your true intention, then you would have testified at the impeachment hearings.

Bolton: I don’t think it would have made any difference. The Democrats wanted a partisan war, and they got it. To convict in the Senate after impeachment, you need a two-thirds vote, which would have meant they needed a lot of Republican votes. But they only got one. I think whatever I would have said in the Senate would have been lost in the shuffle.


DER SPIEGEL: Following the publication of your book, Trump said that if you had had your way, the U.S. would be involved in several wars by now.

Bolton: (laughs) That is the kind of juvenile comment that, in my view, demeans the office of the presidency. I’m just not going to respond to it.

DER SPIEGEL: How should you be viewed? Are you a hero who left office because of his convictions? Or are you a traitor taking revenge for being fired, as Trump has claimed?

Bolton: The fact that the president has made that kind of argument proves my point. I have been involved in American politics and government since I was 15. I handed out leaflets and rang doorbells for Barry Goldwater in 1964 …

DER SPIEGEL: … the Republican presidential candidate that year.

Bolton: My philosophy has been consistent since then. I have served in four Republican administrations in a senior capacity. With all due respect, the media controversy will dissipate in 50 years. The players will be gone from the scene. The book will still be there.

DER SPIEGEL: Is there a chance that Trump will win the election in November?

Bolton: Absolutely. He’s way behind now – in large part, because of the coronavirus pandemic and the economic consequences. But the polls in 2016 showed him behind as well. There was a universal consensus on Election Day, including in Trump campaign headquarters, that he was going to lose. In my view, we should never underestimate the ability of the Democratic Party to blow an election.

DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Bolton, thank you very much for this interview.