John Bolton’s new book — the subject of both ongoing litigation and decidedly mixed reactions — has brought renewed attention to a number of President Donald Trump’s corrupt foreign policy actions.
The former national security adviser, who was ousted in September 2019, refused to testify in the House’s impeachment inquiry, saving for his $2 million book deal his corroborating accounts of the president’s efforts to coerce Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden. The Trump administration had attempted to block the book’s release, but excerpts and details had already emerged before it was published on Tuesday. And Ukraine isn’t the only country to figure in Bolton’s account of Trump’s dealings — the book also outlines corrupt quid pro quos, promises to interfere in criminal investigations, and self-interested decision-making involving China, Turkey, Venezuela and others.
American Oversight’s investigation of the Trump-Ukraine pressure campaign turned up hundreds of pages of documents related to the scandal, including records cited in the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence’s report on the impeachment investigation. But we have also been investigating those other scandals, having filed records requests months ago following news reports of the president’s various foreign policy dealings. Here are some of the major takeaways from Bolton’s book, The Room Where It Happened, along with information on the records American Oversight is seeking that could shed more light on the various stories.
The record is already extensive of Trump’s corrupt scheme to pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to announce an investigation into the Bidens. And as expected, Bolton’s account adds to it. Bolton alleges that he, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper attempted up to 10 times to persuade Trump to release the hundreds of millions in congressionally approved security aid to Ukraine in late August (the “quo” of Trump’s quid pro quo).
Through our Freedom of Information Act litigation, American Oversight obtained a number of emails from the time of the aid freeze, including one that bolsters this claim. On Aug. 26, 2019, a Pentagon lawyer wrote that “National Security Director Bolton and Secretaries Pompeo and Esper all concur” that the security assistance be released, but that the “Final decision rests with POTUS.” Read more about the remaining unanswered questions regarding the Ukraine investigation here.
In October 2019, as the House’s impeachment inquiry geared up, the president told reporters at the White House that Chinese President Xi Jinping “should start an investigation into the Bidens.” Many were surprised by the president so explicitly and publicly calling for a foreign country to investigate his political rivals, and at the same time CNN also reported that in June of that year, Trump had made a similar request during a call with Xi.
Bolton’s book provides another example of Trump soliciting political assistance from the Chinese president. Also in June 2019, during the G20 summit in Japan, Trump asked Xi to help him win reelection by buying more U.S. agricultural products. Trump “turned the conversation to the coming U.S. presidential election, alluding to China’s economic capability to affect the ongoing campaigns, pleading with Xi to ensure he’d win,” Bolton wrote. “He stressed the importance of farmers, and increased Chinese purchases of soybeans and wheat in the electoral outcome.”
While U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer has denied that this happened, Trump said in an interview just this week that he had held off on imposing sanctions on China for its Uighur detention camps so as not to interfere with any trade deal. That’s not the only indication of Trump’s penchant for merging his own political interests with trade — just last fall, it was reported that Lighthizer had withdrawn a recommendation to restore certain trade privileges for Ukraine after Bolton warned him that Trump would oppose such measures.
American Oversight has filed a number of FOIA requests for records regarding efforts to encourage China to investigate Trump’s political rivals, including any communications of officials at the State, Commerce, and Treasury Departments as well as the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) with Trump personal attorney Rudy Giuliani or his allies regarding any push for similar investigations.
Our requests to USTR resulted in the release of a number of emails between the office and Michael Pillsbury, one of Trump’s top China advisers. Those documents reveal close contact with the agency’s leadership in 2019 — including possible meetings just before and after Pillsbury’s fall trip to China, from which he claimed the Chinese had given him “quite a bit of background on Hunter Biden.” You can read more about those records here.
Also in Bolton’s book are details about a favor that Trump allegedly did for China. According to Bolton, Trump offered to lighten penalties on ZTE, a Chinese telecommunications company that had been convicted of evading sanctions on Iran and North Korea. Eventually, ZTE was in fact saved from going out of business thanks to the Justice Department accepting a $1 billion fine and lifting a ban on buying American products. We’ve filed requests with USTR, the Treasury, and the Commerce Department for communications about ZTE.
Another Bolton allegation involves the Turkish state-owned Halkbank, which had been investigated by the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York for evading sanctions on Iran. Much had already been reported about Trump’s efforts to intervene on behalf of the bank, and according to Bolton’s book, Trump had even assured Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in late 2018 that he would “take care of things, explaining that the Southern District prosecutors were not his people, but were Obama people, a problem that would be fixed when the were replaced by his people.”
Back in 2017, Trump had also asked then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to block related prosecution, and in April 2019 told Erdogan that he would have Attorney General William Barr and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin handle the issue. Barr had even been involved in trying to negotiate a settlement that would have favored Halkbank, but faced opposition from U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman — the same official Barr ousted late last week in a high-profile and controversial firing.
“I have worked hard to solve some of your problems,” Trump wrote in a strange letter to Erdogan, sent after the Trump administration’s much-criticized withdrawal of U.S. troops from northeastern Syria, where they had been protecting Kurdish allies. The letter had no effect, and shortly after Turkey’s incursion into the region, Halkbank was charged on six counts of fraud and money laundering.
American Oversight has filed records requests for communications between SDNY and the White House or the Justice Department regarding Halkbank, and have also asked for the Halkbank-related communications of top officials at the Departments of State, Justice and the Treasury. We’re also investigating the business connections and backchannels between Turkey and the Trump Organization or companies of Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law.
Bolton alleges that Trump wanted to oust Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro because of political interests in Florida, but that Russian President Vladimir Putin later convinced Trump to stand down. We’ve been investigating a range of issues related to the administration’s policy toward Venezuela, including outside influences and diplomatic backchannels that reportedly involved Giuliani as well as former Rep. Pete Sessions and Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater and brother of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. Their efforts reportedly aligned with U.S. oil and gas interests in Venezuela, including those of prominent Republican donors.
The State Department’s top Venezuela envoy Elliott Abrams has said Giuliani’s efforts were not part of an “official channel,” and American Oversight is still seeking answers. We’ve requested communications between top officials and external interests associated with Venezuela, records of Sessions’ and Prince’s trips to Venezuela, and Abrams’ emails and calendars.
Another diplomatic scandal of Trump’s presidency was his blind defense of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman over the brutal killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. But according to Bolton’s book, Trump’s November 18 letter defending bin Salman was an attempt to distract from “the Ivanka thing.”
That “Ivanka thing” was the Washington Post’s story about Ivanka Trump’s extensive use of personal email for government business. White House officials had discovered her improper email practices because of FOIA requests filed by American Oversight. As Walter Shaub, the former head of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics, pointed out on Twitter, some of those emails — in which she appears to be conducting official government business — were sent before she was even a government employee.
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