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What Is John Bolton’s Legacy

No man should profit from his own wrong.
June 19, 2020
Featured Image
US National Security Advisor John Bolton addresses a press conference following a meeting with his Russian counterpart at the US Mission in Geneva on August 23, 2018. (Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP) (Photo credit should read FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP via Getty Images)

The powerful evidence of Donald Trump’s corruption and incompetence described by John Bolton in his forthcoming memoir may finally persuade some informed Republican voters and office holders to put country over party. If Bolton’s book helps defeat Trump in November, it will be good for the nation.

Yet concerned citizens cannot help but be disgusted by Bolton’s character.

How dare he chastise House Democrats for impeachment malpractice for not investigating offenses that were not then part of the public conversation—that were unknown to most citizens and office holders—and for which his own testimony would be the main evidence!

Bolton sat on information vital to the fate of the United States, it seems, in order to enhance his own financial well-being. It is hard to think of a case of a public official today more venal than John Bolton. (Excepting, of course, the current president of the United States.)

It is baffling why a man so ambitious, so experienced, and so knowledgeable would be so greedy. In the midst of this pandemic, why does he seem to be so unlike many accomplished people of his generation who now can’t help but worry and think about the meaning of mortality? Is John Bolton so unconcerned about his life’s work that money has become more important to him than how history will judge him?

When I was in college years ago—in 1970—I spent my junior year abroad at Oxford where I attended spellbinding lectures on law and morality by a then-young professor of jurisprudence, Ronald Dworkin. It is hard to remember the details of Dworkin’s brilliant critique of his predecessor H.L.A. Hart, but I doubt anyone who attended those lectures could forget the central example around which he built his course and his argument.

Dworkin asked us think about the origin, meaning, and importance of the common law principle “No man shall profit from his own wrong.”

Despite the efforts of the Trump administration to censor John Bolton, it is not likely that John Bolton has broken any law. But he has done wrong. He has not lived up to his oath of office. He did not act honorably and dutifully when he should have. He disrespected the Congress of the United States and continues to do so now.

He should not now profit from his wrongs.

If you were so inclined, you could conjure a more generous interpretation of Bolton’s actions: It was unlikely that any testimony, however dramatic and damaging, would have induced enough senators to convict the president during the impeachment trial.

And so you could argue that it was better for Bolton to save his “testimony” for the American people for the run-up to the November election. You could argue that his revelations can do more good now than they would have during the impeachment proceedings.

Bolton himself is not his own best advocate for this view—as he is the one currently charging Rep. Adam Schiff and his House colleagues with impeachment malpractice. Bolton seems to think that impeachment was viable.

But let us be more generous to Bolton than he is to Democrats.

Let us assume that now is better than before. If John Bolton is a patriot, if he is genuinely interested in the most honorable and effective way to rid the nation of Donald Trump, if he cares about his historical legacy, if he prefers fame to infamy, let him pledge to donate 80 percent of the income he receives from the sales of his book to the cause of defeating the man he says is unfit for the office of the presidency.

Jeffrey K. Tulis

Jeffrey K. Tulis is Professor of Government at The University of Texas at Austin, author of The Rhetorical Presidency, and co-author of Legacies of Losing in American Politics.