'As somebody who has helped plan coups ...'
John Bolton weighs in on Jan. 6
Today’s hearing of the Jan. 6 committee was another revelatory affair, added damning details to the already comprehensive picture of how high-level strategists, motivated paramilitaries, and ordinary partisans worked together to try to keep Donald Trump illegally in office after he lost the 2020 election.
Afterward, CNN’s Jake Tapper turned to another former Trump official for further insights: former National Security Advisor John Bolton. Bolton, whose service as a Republican apparatchik dates back to the Iran-Contra Affair, used the opportunity to push one of the possible post-Trump party lines: that Jan. 6 was just the actions of a single deluded, self-obsessed man; “a once in a lifetime occurrence.” Above all, Bolton stressed, the events of Jan. 6 were not part of a “carefully planned coup d’état.”
(His point: Give me and my buddies power again! We promise not to abuse it this time!)
Tapper followed up, leading to this incredible exchange:
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.
Now, the United States has indeed sponsored and participated in lots of coups and foreign government overthrows, dating back to the turn of the twentieth century. Bolton was personally involved in many of the recent efforts — in Nicaragua, Iraq, Haiti, and others. But generally, officials do not admit that sort of thing on camera.
The interview moved on with uncomfortable ease at first. But to his credit, Tapper came back to the matter at the end:
TAPPER: I do want to ask a follow-up. When we were talking about what was capable, what you need to do to be able to plan a coup, and you — [laughs] — you cited your expertise having planned coups —
BOLTON: [also laughing] I’m not gonna get into the specifics but, uh —
TAPPER: Successful coups?
BOLTON: Well I wrote about Venezuela in the book, and it turned out not to be successful …
How do I put this? Holy shit. Keep in mind that throughout the 2019 crisis, Bolton insisted that the Trump administration’s support for pretender Juan Guaidó to replace Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro was anything but a coup. He literally stood in front of the White House at the height of the affair and told reporters: “This is clearly not a coup!”
Even in his 2020 memoir (presumably the book he referenced to Tapper), Bolton was cagier. At one point he mocks Maduro’s government for accusing him of “leading a coup ‘against Venezuela’s democracy.’” A few pages later, he mocks Russia for describing a meeting of the U.N. Security Council at which European members threatened to recognize Guaidó as “an attempted coup.” There is just one, subtle, affirmative reference, on p. 185, where Bolton states:
In the judgment of the Opposition, we also faced the problem of heavy surveillance, likely Cuban, of leading regime officials, obviously intimidating, and making trustworthy communications among potential coup plotters all the more difficult.1
That still carried a hint of plausible deniability. At the end of the chapter, he goes back to calling the episode a “rebellion” — often the preferred euphemism when U.S. power is involved. His statements on CNN offered far less wiggle room.
Perhaps realizing he had slipped up, Bolton tried to backtrack. “Not that we had much to do with it,” he offered — a statement baldly contradicted by an entire chapter of his memoir — “but I saw what it took for an opposition to try to overturn an illegally elected president, and they failed. The notion that Donald Trump was half as competent as the Venezuelan opposition is laughable.”
“I feel like there is other stuff you aren’t telling me, though,” Tapper interjected.
“I’m sure there is,” Bolton replied, his mustache quivering with a half-giggle.
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!
What I can say is this: First of all, there is a direct line from the coups Bolton and his fellow U.S. officials have carried out for generations overseas to the attempted overthrow of the U.S. constitutional order in 2021. (I wrote a whole book about it.)
Second, Bolton’s self-serving denials of a Trump coup belong in the same trash heap as his denials of the 2019 coup in Venezuela. There very clearly was “a lot of work” put in to trying to derail the transfer of power: from the Eastman memo to the fake slates of electors, to the work done bringing armed supporters to Washington for the attack. There was a clear motive, stated intent, and documented action — piles of it, much of which has already been presented by the Jan. 6 Committee, with more to come. Bolton’s reasons for denying those plain facts are clear: because the 2021 coup attempt — shambolic as it was — could not have been carried out by one deranged man, but by factions of a whole political and para-political apparatus, of which Bolton remains a part.
Maybe someday he’ll accidentally admit that too.
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