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Why John Bolton's bragging about planning coups is so revealing

Bolton's confession to alleged involvement in an attempt to topple Venezuela's government reveals a broader disinterest in democracy.
Image: John Bolton
Then-national security adviser John Bolton answers questions from the news media after his meeting with Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko in Minsk on Aug. 29, 2019.Sergei Gapon / AFP via Getty Images file

Donald Trump’s presidency ushered in a new era of shamelessness in American political life. While the costs of that shift in the zeitgeist are many, there is also one silver lining: one can see the world more clearly when political figures are less concerned with decorum and accountability.

A prime example of the new clarity is a shocking set of comments from John Bolton, Trump’s national security adviser from 2018 to 2019, that aired on CNN on Tuesday. Speaking after the seventh House Jan. 6 committee hearing, Bolton weighed in on why he thought Trump’s attempt to overturn the election results and incite an insurrection didn’t constitute a coup — by proudly admitting he had worked on orchestrating some himself.

Bolton’s remarks were not only a startling confession that unraveled the Trump administration's earlier claims that it had never attempted a coup in Venezuela. They were also substantively wrong in the way they revived the dangerous idea that Trump’s unseriousness as a person made his actions any less grave and consequential.

Here’s the remarkable exchange between Bolton and CNN’s Jake Tapper:

Bolton: “While nothing Donald Trump did after the election, in connection with the lie about the election fraud, none of it is defensible — none of it is defensible — it’s also a mistake as some people have said including on the committee, the commentators, that somehow this was a carefully planned coup d’etat aimed at the Constitution. That’s not the way Donald Trump does things. It’s rambling from one half-vast idea to another, one plan that falls through and another comes up. … It’s not an attack on our democracy. It’s Donald Trump looking out for Donald Trump. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence.”

Tapper: “I don’t know that I agree with you, to be fair, with all due respect. One doesn’t have to be brilliant to attempt a coup.”

Bolton: “I disagree with that. As somebody who has helped plan coups d’état — not here but, you know, other places — it takes a lot of work. And that’s not what he did. It was just stumbling around from one idea to another.”

Later in the interview, Tapper circled back and asked about Bolton’s self-proclaimed expertise planning coups, and Bolton said he was “not going to get into the specifics” but when Tapper asked if his attempts were successful, Bolton said his experience with Venezuela “turned out not to be successful.”

There is a lot to unpack in Bolton’s remarks.

First, it is astonishing that Bolton casually describes, as a point of pride, that he’s been involved in plotting multiple coups abroad. Now, the United States’ post-World War II history involves systematically plotting coups in countries all around the world — many of them democracies — in order to advance its geopolitical interests, and so it shouldn’t surprise us that a seasoned foreign policy hand like Bolton may have experience in this realm. As a neoconservative who has served in multiple right-wing administrations, there are a number of different interventions Bolton could’ve been referring to, as journalist Jonathan Katz wrote in his newsletter:

Maybe Bolton was thinking of his role in covering up the Reagan administration’s illegal support for Nicaraguan Contra death squads in the 1980s. Maybe he was musing about his more direct role in the 2003 invasion of Iraq — which, while not a coup precisely, did include the overthrow, arrest, and execution of Saddam Hussein. Perhaps he was thinking about his activities in the successful coup against Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004, when, as Under Secretary for Arms Control in the State Department, he allegedly supplied guns and ammunition to the putschist police force. Or maybe it was some other overthrow — successful or otherwise — that we don’t even know the U.S. was involved in yet!

But just his implicit admission that he saw Venezuela as a failed coup attempt is an interesting reversal. As Katz noted, in 2019 Bolton adamantly denied characterizing the Trump administration's recognition of Venezuelan opposition politician Juan Guaidó as president and encouragement of the military to turn on Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro as a "coup." That was more in keeping with the way that foreign policy hawks in Washington typically discuss such matters. This crowd supports the U.S. meddling in countless other countries’ political affairs, but the interventions are meant to be discussed in euphemisms or simply denied altogether. Now it seems Bolton does think of the Venezuela fiasco as a coup, and could be hinting at levels of behind-the-scenes coordination that are not yet known by the public.

I can’t say I understand what inspired Bolton to break from Washington etiquette, but his cavalier attitude about admitting to abuse of power and disregarding sovereignty seems appropriate for our political age. At the same time, his distinctions about what constitutes a real threat to democracy in the U.S. don’t hold water.

Bolton commits a fallacy I’ve discussed before: people using Trump’s unseriousness as a thinker and indiscipline as a political actor to downplay and obscure the weight of his actions. It doesn’t matter if Trump’s leadership style was outlandish and clownish; the reality is that he took many, many steps to interfere with a peaceful transfer of power, pressuring countless officials within his administration and outside of it to overturn or cast doubt on the election results. If a few key officials had acted differently — say, if then-Vice President Mike Pence declined to certify the election during the joint session of Congress — we may have had a much bigger political crisis on our hands.

Moreover, regardless of one’s assessment of how likely Trump was to succeed, right-wing populists and the Republican Party have since indicated that they support his project, and are now laying waste to the legitimacy of the democratic process altogether under the guise of election integrity. Trump's egoism is beside the point, since ultimately his party has inherited his taste for authoritarianism.

Lastly, it should be noted that Bolton also has an interest as a former Trump official in suggesting that Trump alone is responsible for his actions so as to minimize his association with the project.

That Bolton is so blasé about the nature of what happened in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021, and how it has transformed the right, can’t be divorced from the absence of shame he feels in describing fomenting coups d’etat. For those of us who believe that self-determination is a precious thing, it’s hard to imagine gloating over wreaking havoc in other states. Perhaps it’s a numbness to that idea that explains part of why Bolton is not so worried about an overthrow from within the U.S. itself.