Genres: Non Fiction
Narrator: Robert Petkoff
As President Trump’s national security advisor, John Bolton spent many of his 453 days in the room where it happened, and the facts speak for themselves. The result is a White House memoir that is the most comprehensive and substantial account of the Trump Administration and one of the few to date by a top-level official. With almost daily access to the president, John Bolton has produced a precise rendering of his days in and around the Oval Office. What Bolton saw astonished him: a president for whom getting reelected was the only thing that mattered, even if it meant endangering or weakening the nation.
“I am hard-pressed to identify any significant Trump decision during my tenure that wasn’t driven by reelection calculations,” he writes. In fact, he argues that the House committed impeachment malpractice by keeping their prosecution focused narrowly on Ukraine when Trump’s Ukraine-like transgressions existed across the full range of his foreign policy - and Bolton documents exactly what those were and the attempts by him and others in the administration to raise alarms about them. He shows a president addicted to chaos, who embraced our enemies and spurned our friends, and was deeply suspicious of his own government. In Bolton’s telling, all this helped put Trump on the bizarre road to impeachment.
“The differences between this presidency and previous ones I had served were stunning,” writes Bolton, who worked for Reagan, Bush 41, and Bush 43. He discovered a president who thought foreign policy is like closing a real estate deal - about personal relationships, made-for-TV showmanship, and advancing his own interests. As a result, the US lost an opportunity to confront its deepening threats, and in cases like China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea ended up in a more vulnerable place.
Bolton’s account starts with his long march to the West Wing as Trump and others woo him for the national security job. The minute he lands, he has to deal with Syria’s chemical attack on the city of Douma and the crises after that never stop. As he writes early on, “If you don’t like turmoil, uncertainty, and risk - all the while being constantly overwhelmed with information, decisions to be made, and sheer amount of work - and enlivened by international and domestic personality and ego conflicts beyond description, try something else.”
The turmoil, conflicts, and egos are all there - from the upheaval in Venezuela, to the erratic and manipulative moves of North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, to the showdowns at the G7 summits, the calculated warmongering by Iran, the crazy plan to bring the Taliban to Camp David, and the placating of an authoritarian China that ultimately exposed the world to its lethal lies. But this seasoned public servant also has a great eye for the Washington inside game, and his story is full of wit and wry humor about how he saw it played.
The Room Where It Happened by John Bolton doesn’t have anything I felt was so explosive. In many ways, it confirmed what I had long felt about Trump-he is impulsive, uneducated in foreign affairs, and approaches everything like a business deal. However, the book was a fascinating look into what happens in the day to day of foreign policy-and the number of near misses in terms of bad ideas.
Bolton is a republican and his views on foreign policy reflect that. He is critical of President Obama’s policies. I expected all that. However, Bolton is able to show us that even working for a Republican president didn’t mean they had similar ideologies. In numerous events, Bolton details how quickly Trump would waffle from one plan to another based on who he had last spoken to. Its obvious that he is very fickle and most of his staff was never sure of what a plan might be by the time its implemented. While this didn’t surprise me, it is shocking to read how frequently these changes occurred and that the happened with countries that are very dangerous (North Korea).
Bolton also highlights Trump’s lack of knowledge. Making fun of a president’s intelligence isn’t anything new (I mean, how many cracks were there about Bush 43?) but Bolton gives specific examples of when Trump questioned things like geography. Bolton’s stories reminded me a great deal of when Trump asked if scientists were looking into a way to use disinfectants and sunlight in the body. He shows a lack of understanding that, for a president, is dangerous. Again, based solely on Trumps questions about disinfectants and sunlight, this didn’t surprise me, but I was struck at how dangerous this could be.
The most interesting things in the story to me were all the exchanges with foreign governments. The reader does get a blow by blow of interactions with North Korea, Iraq, Venezuela, and China. I didn’t think I would be interested in this, but I found it compelling. To see all the small interactions that are never published by the press made me realize how important the role of the president and his cabinet are to national security. Obviously, these interactions show Trump’s lack of understanding but also his lack of action. As a nation, we are lucky that he tended to chose inaction because the outcome could have easily been war. However, you also see how many times Trump had a chance to take a stand against totalitarian regimes and didn’t. We as a nation could have taken a stand and helped people under these terrible rulers, but instead, Trump worried if the leaders would not like him. Its like having one of the most powerful nations in the world run by a middle schooler-impulsive, overly concerned with popularity, dishonest when its self serving, and lacking basic knowledge of the world. As a middle school teacher, I deal with this every day. I am even more concerned that our country is being run by a person who still acts like my students.
Whether or not you are a supporter or opponent of the president, this book should be on your TBR simply to learn more about the ins and outs of how our country interacts with other countries. Bolton points out parallel scenarios in other presidencies and how they transpired so you understand that these events aren’t unique to Trump’s presidency. What is unique is Trump’s actions. The Room Where It Happened has made me want to listen to other books by former cabinet members from other presidents-I was surprised at how much the behind the scenes look interested me. I think reading memoirs by former cabinet members who had a pleasant experience would be interesting as well just to have a deeper understanding of how government works. Lots of what Trump does will further anger those who already see the flaws in him; I still think the story is important because it includes the stuff we didn’t already know. If politics makes you ragey, skip this. Just know that it confirms what you already feel and go read something that won’t make your blood pressure rise!
I listened to the audio of this book and the narrator did a great job. This story translates well to audio and fans of podcasts will enjoy the audio version. The book has a sort of political podcast vibe anyway, so listening to it was much like listening to a podcast about politics.