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Bolton, Trump's ex-national security adviser, calls for him to withdraw from the race

Former U.S. national security advisor John Bolton speaks to members of the media in Taipei in April.
Sam Yeh
/
AFP via Getty Images
Former U.S. national security advisor John Bolton speaks to members of the media in Taipei in April.

Updated June 12, 2023 at 10:37 AM ET

The indictment of former president Donald Trump over his handling of classified documents has drawn mixed reactions from his fellow Republicans.

Many GOP lawmakers and presidential candidates — including Trump himself — have defended his innocence and lashed out against what they're calling the weaponization of the U.S. Justice Department.

Some, however, have been more critical of Trump's actions. That camp includes several former members of his administration, like former Attorney General Bill Barr, who told Fox News Sunday that "if even half of it is true, then he's toast."

And on Monday, former national security adviser John Bolton said he too sees "big trouble for Donald Trump."

"I think this is a potentially catastrophic turn of events for him," Bolton told Morning Edition's Steve Inskeep. "It certainly should be, because if proven in trial ... it should put Trump in jail for a long time."

Bolton, who was Trump's third national security adviser from spring 2018 until his firing in the fall of 2019, is no stranger to the world of classified documents — or to criticizing Trump.

In 2020 Bolton published The Room Where It Happened, a memoir about his time in the White House that was highly critical of Trump's approach to foreign policy and the presidency in general.

The Trump administration sued to try to block the book's publication, alleging that Bolton hadn't gone through the proper clearance process and that his manuscript contained classified information. A judge declined that request, but said Bolton's conduct raised national security concerns. The Biden administration dismissed the lawsuit and prosecutors dropped a grand jury investigation the following year.

Several years later and on the cusp of another presidential election, Bolton is calling for Trump to be held to the same standard as anybody else.

If any of the tens of thousands of people in the federal government with security classification are found to deviate from the rules in the slightest, they face severe penalties, he says, including service members being discharged.

And he points to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis' — one of Trump's primary challengers — comments over the weekend that he would have been "court-martialed in a New York minute" if he had retained classified documents while in the Navy.

"We have to hold everyone accountable equally, and that does not exclude the president," Bolton adds. "I think this is a real issue that's going to have profound impacts on our national security if we don't take it seriously."

He also thinks Trump should withdraw from the presidential race, though acknowledges that's not likely to happen.

"He will try and delay this trial past the election, hoping that he'll win and can then pardon himself," he says. "But a really innocent man would insist on trial at the earliest possible date."

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.


Interview highlights

On Trump's argument that he did nothing wrong

If Trump had followed standard procedures, if anybody could have trusted him with the documents, if he wanted to write a book about his time as president, there were procedures that could have been set up. He disregarded all of those, which is how the National Archives eventually took this case to the Justice Department. But it's the obstruction, it's the refusal to give back the documents when they were demanded by subpoena and through extensive discussions about what was required, that's what tips this over the edge beyond any doubt.

On why the allegations are so serious — and believable

I think anybody who tries to say that somehow this isn't serious, this is a storage issue, are probably people who have never handled a classified document in their lives, don't understand what's at stake here, and it really is a national security issue. And Trump has displayed utter disdain for these constraints. He did so, I saw it over and over again, when he was president. The conduct that's alleged by the indictment is entirely believable to me ... the government has to prove it, and I hope they do it soon.

On the timing of Trump's legal proceedings

One real issue here is how quickly this goes to trial. Donald Trump says he's completely innocent. Well, if he's completely innocent he should want this stain on his reputation removed as soon as possible. An innocent person would say "I want a trial in a couple months." Let's see what Donald Trump does.

On Republicans' attacks on the Justice Department

Take it for granted Democrats don't prosecute Democrats, believe all that, that Hillary [Clinton] should have been prosecuted, that Joe Biden should be prosecuted and they weren't and that's an injustice. Accept that for the sake of argument and then ask these candidates the question: Does that mean you give Donald Trump a free pass? Is your answer to the double standard problem to have no standard at all?

Republicans used to believe if you didn't prosecute criminals you'd have more crime, and I think that insight was right then and it's right now. The way you correct the double standard is to take the politics out of the decision-making, and if you do that, Donald Trump should be at trial as soon as possible.

The broadcast interview was edited by Mohamad ElBardicy.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: June 12, 2023 at 12:00 AM EDT
An earlier version of this story said incorrectly that Trump and his supporters 'decried' his innocence when they have 'defended' it.
Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.

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