Better late than never?
Donald Trump’s former attorney general Bill Barr and former national security adviser John Bolton are back in the news this week, saying things that – to paraphrase Adam Sander in The Wedding Singer— could have been brought to our attention YESTERDAY!
By “yesterday” I mean anytime it might have mattered more. Like during an arraignment. Like in an election. You know, a time when hearing the truth from someone with inside knowledge and credibility could have made a difference. Instead, both waited until they were peddling books to spill the administration’s tea.
However, since Trump remains a very viable threat to run and win in 2024, their arrival at the eleventh hour is not in vain.
Barr came out with a new book, One goddamn thing after another, where he tells us that Trump’s recipe for a good tweet is “just the right amount of crazy” and that “Trump only cared about one thing: himself.” Country and principle took second place. I’m skeptical that Trump puts the country’s interests so high on his list, but at least Barr got it right on Trump’s top priority.
Meanwhile, uber-hawk John Bolton recently corrected assertion of a Newsmax host that Trump was tougher than Joe Biden when it came to Russia, saying “it’s just not accurate to say that Trump’s behavior somehow deterred the Russians”. Bolton also revealed that Trump “barely knew where Ukraine was” and said Trump “wasn’t fit to be president.”
Let’s be honest, whatever their motives, the two men knew Trump was unfit to be president before they signed up to work for him.
It should be recalled that Barr’s first major assignment as Trump’s attorney general was to issue a memo that would save Trump’s bacon by misrepresenting Robert Mueller’s position on whether Trump had obstructed justice.
A generous analysis of Barr might assume that he is a staunch defender of executive power, who ultimately balked at helping Trump retroactively steal an election. Barr even suggested in his memoir that Trump’s claims of a stolen election “led to the [Jan. 6] riots on Capitol Hill”—although he later said he did not believe Trump’s actions or rhetoric met the legal definition of incitement.
Barr and Bolton obviously have a lot in common, besides working for Trump, even though they knew he was a rotten president. They are both in their early 60s. Both had serious credentials before Trump arrived – Barr served as President George HW Bush’s attorney general and Bolton later served as United Nations ambassador for President George W. Bush. Both men drew criticism for waiting to tell their full stories in a book. And now the two are publicly sharing negative details and ideas about Trump with the American public (although Barr continues to try to have it both ways by praising Trump for his conservative policies and criticizing him for his lack of character) .
What, if any, do these similarities mean?
Are they desperate to remain politically relevant and somehow push back their own mortality? Are they now, for similar existential reasons, trying to whitewash their legacy? And if so, what’s the point of holding back until your book is published?
Yes, it makes perfect sense from a marketing perspective. But when the stakes are this high, withholding information until you can profit from it only undermines their attempts to rehabilitate their reputation.
The biggest similarity, of course, is that these men are neither heroes nor villains. Without flawed Republicans like Barr and Bolton straddling gray areas (think Sen. Tom Cotton, who went from being one of the most Trumpiest of senators to challenging the 45th president and voting to certify his electoral defeat), things could have been much worse.
For example, once Trump lost the 2020 election, Barr publicly stated that there was no evidence that voter fraud tipped the election. In a recent NBC News interview to promote his book, Barr said he told Trump “all that stuff was bullshit about voter fraud.”
And according to Bolton, Trump wanted to leave NATO in 2018, but Bolton convinced him to stay. They made a difference.
So what does this mean for us? Should conservatives who have always defended their principles welcome these “deathbed confessions” (of career) or consider them as obvious reputational covers?
It’s tempting to hold grudges, but in the words of former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, “You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want… “
To overcome Trumpism, it will be necessary to build a majority coalition that integrates coherent Never Trumpers with sincere converts and opportunists who determine that incentives favor virtue over vice.
Indeed, complicated converts more often persuade and win over sinners than saints.
When it comes to saving liberal democracy, it is better to move forward than to seek revenge. By telling their stories, albeit belatedly, John Bolton and Bill Barr indeed find themselves on the right side of history.