The first time John Bolton heard Africa come up in a conversation with Donald Trump, the subject wasn’t on the official agenda. Then again, Africa was never high on Trump’s mind during Bolton’s time in the White House.
A few days into his 453-day stint as Trump’s national security adviser, Bolton joined Trump on a call with US ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley to discuss Haley’s upcoming address to the UN Security Council. Bolton wanted to talk about Syria, then finding new depths to its crisis, but Trump kicked off with a question unrelated to either Syria or the UN. Why had Rex Tillerson approved a half-billion dollars in aid to Africa before leaving the post of secretary of state?
The money had probably been approved by Congress, Bolton says. In that event, Tillerson’s approval would have been mere formality, but he promises to check just in case. Trump moves on. A few minutes of ranting later, they finally get to the Middle East.
There’s almost no good reason to read Bolton’s nearly six-hundred-page tome about his time in the White House. The excerpts published on American news sites last week reveal a bloated book about the private complaints of a man who publicly defended Trump for his entire tenure, and even threatened to sue Congress when the possibility arose that the House of Representatives might subpoena his testimony as part of their impeachment inquiry. The details are profuse and generally make a mockery of the reader’s time.
In one characteristically forgettable passage, Bolton tells us about his arrival to the White House Situation Room, which had been renovated since his last visit more than a decade earlier. “For security reasons as well as efficiency, I later launched a substantial further renovation that began in September 2019,” he informs us. Thank the stars that keyword searches allow us to skip to the relevant parts.
So what does Trump think of Africa? Africa has rarely been a priority for American presidents, but in Bolton’s telling, Trump is frequently bothered to realize it exists at all. The president’s comments on the subject, like his comments on most international subjects, take form as jolts of outrage about a faraway place where any amount of American money would be wasted.
In a motorcade, during a conversation on Afghanistan, Trump interjects, first to complain that Congress won’t pay for his promised wall along the Mexican border, then to complain about Turkey, and then without prompting to inquire about an American counterterrorism force in Africa. “Why are we in Africa?” he asks, starting off a soliloquy on America’s national debt. In the same rant, Trump complains that Nigeria receives $1.5 billion in American aid every year (in reality, it’s never received even half that) but still does not buy American crops.
Conversations about America’s protracted foreign adventures appear to inspire a particular ire in Trump. In another conversation about Afghanistan, in which Bolton and a few other advisers try to explain the details of a pending deal with the Taliban, Bolton notices the president looking disengaged, even for him.
“Something was bothering him, but I couldn’t tell what,” he recalls. Then, it all becomes clear. “I want to get out of everything,” the president says, and once more demands an end to an American presence in Africa. A little later, with his advisers still trying to muddle through Afghanistan’s complicated politics, Trump returns to his earlier point. “I want out of Africa and as many other places as you can,” he says. “I want our soldiers on our soil.”
But let’s not think Americans are the only people Trump cares about in Africa. In another scene from the book, Trump speaks with some advisers about one of Bolton’s favorite subjects, bombing Iran. The conversation drifts inexplicably to South Africa. The supposed plight of white farmers in the country had recently become part of the a la carte menu of white nationalist causes, and having heard about it from Fox News or some other place, Trump had started to care. Trump even suggests granting them asylum and citizenship.
At the time of this conversation, Trump’s immigration enforcement agency was deporting even foreign-born veterans raised in the United States. And yet, in Trump’s mind, white farmers who had never served or paid taxes in the United States were more entitled to permanent belonging in the nation. (Nothing substantive came from his comment. In Bolton’s telling, even when talking about a cause that actually concerned him, Trump couldn’t sit still for more than a few seconds.)
“Virtually bone from the neck up, and needs things explained in words of one letter.” The words, from a British official, were meant to describe Idi Amin. They suit Donald Trump just as well.
As more than one reviewer has already pointed out, Bolton makes himself the star of his book. It’s a vain and entirely futile attempt to recast his image as one of steadfast conscience, assuring readers that while he publicly praised his boss for his foreign policy acumen, he privately sneered at him along with most of the world. As Trump drifted aimlessly from Syria, to Russia, to Nigeria, saying one stupid thing after another, Bolton wants us to know that at least one person inside “the room where it happened” thought the man was bad at his job.
None of this moral finger waving after the fact could possibly assure a world still dealing with a reckless American president, if Bolton even meant it to. Just thinking Trump did a bad job is not the same as speaking out against him. Saying in a book or on TV that the man’s willful ignorance of international affairs makes him unfit to be president does not carry the same moral heft as testifying to that fact before Congress in a process to remove him. Despite the excess of detail, Bolton’s place in history will be no different than most other alumni of the Trump White House: a minor player who said nothing when it could have mattered.
What insights Bolton’s book offers about Trump’s management of the United States’ foreign affairs confirm what we already knew: that Trump is a crude narcissist with almost no grasp of the world beyond his poof of hair, much less the world beyond American shores, and no apparent interest in learning.
And if Trump’s map of the world is mostly blank, the part where Africa should be is the least detailed of all. His advisers struggled for hours on end to provide Trump with some basic understanding of those parts of the world which, in their view, were most relevant to the United States: Syria, North Korea, Iraq, China, Russia, and Afghanistan. But at least while Bolton was in the White House, it seems no one tried to shade in the blank part of Trump’s map where Africa should have been. May it never happen. The world is better off without Trump knowing.