There is some difficulty in writing about the report from the weekend, by Maggie Haberman and Michael S. Schmidt in the New York Times, that former national security adviser John Bolton’s new book, expected in March 2020, contains “bombshell” information about Trump and Ukraine.
On the one hand, the NYT report conveys its information in an elliptical, misleading way that invites severe criticism.
On the other hand, that is not John Bolton’s fault. It’s hard to separate the misleading implications of the NYT article from what Bolton may have actually written, given that we haven’t seen Bolton’s original text yet.
But I’m betting Bolton didn’t pull a major shift in premises between one sentence and the next, as Haberman and Schmidt did in the first two sentences of their piece.
Having long been an admirer of John Bolton, I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that his book didn’t set up the targets we’re about to ping.
The first ping involves those first two sentences. They read as follows (all emphasis added):
President Trump told his national security adviser in August that he wanted to continue freezing $391 million in security assistance to Ukraine until officials there helped with investigations into Democrats including the Bidens, according to an unpublished manuscript by the former adviser, John R. Bolton.
The president’s statement as described by Mr. Bolton could undercut a key element of his impeachment defense: that the holdup in aid was separate from Mr. Trump’s requests that Ukraine announce investigations into his perceived enemies, including former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and his son Hunter Biden, who had worked for a Ukrainian energy firm while his father was in office.
This one is pretty simple. “Helping with” investigations is not the same thing as “announcing” investigations.
My bet is that Bolton’s book does not say Trump, in speaking to Bolton, mentioned a requirement that Ukraine “announce” investigations into the Bidens. If Bolton’s book had used that wording, Haberman and Schmidt would simply have said so.
But they didn’t. They weasel-worded the sequential sentences to make it seem as if Bolton’s report on the matter supports the unsubstantiated, apparently fictitious narrative being urged by the NYT since September 2019; i.e., that Trump insisted on Ukraine “announcing” investigations into the Bidens.
Eighteen House committee witnesses later, there is zero evidence for that. Not one witness said he or she had heard the president say that the requirement was for Ukraine to announce investigations.
Also worth noting: “helped with investigations” is wording just imprecise enough to fudge whose investigations we are talking about. The NYT authors don’t clarify that; they leave the reader with the impression that it’s U.S. investigations that were at issue.
But that certainly doesn’t sound like what President Trump was referring to in his phone call with Volodymyr Zelensky in July 2019. Nor does the available public record match that impression. It’s the Ukrainians who had already had an investigation into Burisma, potentially involving Hunter Biden, shut down in 2016, and had reportedly started another investigation into Burisma in April 2019. They had also had investigations into Ukrainian involvement in feeding opposition data to the Democrats in the 2016 election, and into U.S. aid funds that went missing in the 2014-2015 timeframe.
If “helped with investigations” means “helped the U.S. by continuing with Ukrainian investigations,” Haberman and Schmidt could use a better editor to cure them of kindergertenish syntax and its avoidable obfuscations.
Here is the target of the second ping, coming near the end of the article.
In his August 2019 discussion with Mr. Bolton, the president appeared focused on the theories Mr. Giuliani had shared with him, replying to Mr. Bolton’s question that he preferred sending no assistance to Ukraine until officials had turned over all materials they had about the Russia investigation that related to Mr. Biden and supporters of Mrs. Clinton in Ukraine.
This sentence is worded to frame interest in investigating meddling in the 2016 election (the “Russia investigation”) as a pretext for going after the Bidens. But it’s also just vague and elided enough to avoid making that an explicit claim.
Again, I am giving John Bolton the benefit of the doubt and assuming that if he had explicitly stated what’s implied in that sentence, the NYT article would have done so as well.
I don’t think Bolton said that. No evidence has emerged that it would be a true statement about Trump’s focus, and we should do Bolton the well-earned justice of assuming he wouldn’t make such a statement knowing that it wasn’t an accurate reflection of what Trump said or meant.
Trump’s interest in the “Russia investigation” would be about the Democrats’ search in 2016 for damaging information on Paul Manafort, along with whatever else attended that opposition research effort.
That doesn’t mean the Bidens wouldn’t come up. We have learned that at least one meeting in the White House in January 2016 had as its two main topics the oppo research effort in Ukraine on behalf of the Democratic campaign, and a reported effort to shut down the Ukrainian probe of Burisma, which does implicate the Bidens. The Obama administration treated the two topics together in a meeting with Ukrainians, on at least that occasion – and probably others.
But that’s not the same claim as the NYT article’s implication that Trump’s foremost concern about the “Russia investigation” was how it “related to Mr. Biden.”
The third ping hits this target, which comes just before the passage pinged above.
Key to Mr. Bolton’s account about Ukraine is an exchange during a meeting in August with the president after Mr. Trump returned from vacation at his golf club in Bedminster, N.J. Mr. Bolton raised the $391 million in congressionally appropriated assistance to Ukraine for its war in the country’s east against Russian-backed separatists. Officials had frozen the aid, and a deadline was looming to begin sending it to Kyiv, Mr. Bolton noted.
He, Mr. Pompeo and Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper had collectively pressed the president about releasing the aid nearly a dozen times in the preceding weeks after lower-level officials who worked on Ukraine issues began complaining about the holdup, Mr. Bolton wrote. Mr. Trump had effectively rebuffed them, airing his longstanding grievances about Ukraine, which mixed legitimate efforts by some Ukrainians to back his Democratic 2016 opponent, Hillary Clinton, with unsupported accusations and outright conspiracy theories about the country, a key American ally.
I’m curious to know what the “legitimate efforts by some Ukrainians” to back Hillary Clinton were. The mainstream media, including the New York Times, have been hyperventilating for years about foreign interests backing Republicans in U.S. elections. They are indignant – as perhaps we should all be – about Lev Parnas seeking to back candidates in the 2018 election and running afoul of the FEC.
So what were “some Ukrainians” doing to back Hillary Clinton in 2016, and on what basis should we agree that their efforts were “legitimate”? Vague allusions to the potential category of “legitimate efforts by foreign interests to back U.S. candidates” do not constitute an established premise in that regard.
For that matter, we need more than general examples of what would fall into such a category. We need a very specific iteration of what the NYT is talking about here: what Ukrainians were doing for Hillary Clinton.
Once more, if Bolton had made this particular reference in his book, Haberman and Schmidt would probably be more specific. Their throw-away line about “legitimate efforts” is utterly dismissible without specifics. It comes off as a placement of opportune filler – not just filler, but bad-faith, misleading filler.
I also take leave to doubt that Bolton characterized President Trump’s concerns as “outright conspiracy theories.” He would write in more careful language than that, if I read him correctly (e.g., in his earlier books Surrender Is Not an Option and How Barack Obama Is Endangering Our National Sovereignty).
Bolton could easily express skepticism about Trump’s beliefs without accusing him of pursuing conspiracy theories. Bolton’s a stand-up public servant and a writer of precision and intent; that’s what I would expect of him.
The NYT article does no service to Ambassador Bolton – or to any of the rest of us. I’ll wait for the official version.