Former National Security Adviser John Bolton said Trump’s delay of military aid to Ukraine in 2019 made clear to Putin exactly how little Trump cared about Ukraine.
Former National Security Adviser John Bolton said Trump’s delay of military aid to Ukraine in 2019 made clear to Putin exactly how little Trump cared about Ukraine. (Photo by Melissa Sue Gerrits / Getty Images)

John Bolton: Trump Made It ‘That Much Easier’ for Putin to Invade Ukraine

Putin “saw that Trump had contempt for the Ukrainians. I think that had an impact,” Trump’s former national security adviser told VICE News.
Cameron Joseph
Washington, US

Former President Trump’s top national security adviser thinks his old boss did “a lot of damage” to U.S.-Ukraine relations during his time in office—and emboldened Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Former National Security Adviser John Bolton said Trump’s delay of military aid to Ukraine in 2019, as he pressured Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy for dirt on then-presidential candidate Joe Biden, made clear to Putin exactly how little Trump cared about Ukraine.

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“He obviously saw that Trump had contempt for the Ukrainians. I think that had an impact,” Bolton told VICE News on Tuesday.

Bolton, a top Republican foreign policy hawk who also served as President George W. Bush’s United Nations Ambassador, fought hard inside the Trump administration to make sure the military aid Trump was withholding eventually got released, over protestations from Trump lackeys—then promptly resigned from office. He said he doesn’t regret that he didn’t testify at Trump’s first impeachment trial, which investigated Trump’s attempts at a quid pro quo in Ukraine, but said that he thought a broader investigation “could have led to impeachable offenses.”

Bolton spoke with VICE News about his experiences within the Trump administration as Trump bullied Zelenskyy, the impact that had on Ukraine’s ability to deter or fight off an invasion, and his thoughts on Trump recently calling Putin a “genius.” 

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.


Cameron Joseph: Do you think that Trump's quid pro quo attempts may have emboldened Putin in his attempts to seize Ukraine?

John Bolton: He obviously saw that Trump had contempt for the Ukrainians. I think that had an impact. 

Right after Zelenskyy was elected, but before he was inaugurated, there was a telephone conversation between Trump and Putin. Trump said something like ‘What do you know about him?’ And Putin’s response was kind of snarky. He said, ‘We in Russia know a lot about him,’ because they had watched him in his comedy show on Russian television. And the impression was ‘we think the guy’s a lightweight.’ Trump didn't dispute that, obviously. But it was clear that Putin was waiting to see whether there'd be any defense of Zelenskyy [from Trump], and certainly there was not.

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I think that Putin could have come away from that conversation reinforced in the view that Trump didn't have any warm feelings for Zelenskyy.

You wrote in your book that Trump told you he “wasn’t in favor of sending [Ukraine] anything until all the Russia-investigation materials related to Clinton and Biden had been turned over.” What impact do you think that had on the current situation in Ukraine?

The interjection of Ukraine into the U.S. presidential election in 2019 and 2020 had a significant negative effect on U.S.-Ukraine relations, certainly as long as Trump was in the White House. A lot of people ask the question, ‘Why did Putin wait until Biden was president? why didn’t he attack when Trump was president?’ which is often offered by Trump supporters to show how tough or how insane people thought Trump was, and that Putin waited for Biden. 

But during the election campaign things just kept getting worse for Ukraine. And Putin, like a lot of other people, probably thought that Trump would win, and he was just going to wait. But once the election was over, and Biden obviously won, a lot of damage had been done. 

You still have people in the United States who think the DNC server’s there, that Hunter Biden's making zillions of dollars there, that sort of thing. And it all stems from this Trump obsession, based on his own political future, that really made sensible conversation about bilateral U.S.-Ukraine issues very, very difficult. To the extent that there was an unnatural environment created, it made it that much easier for Putin. I don't think it was dispositive, but it was a factor, that's for sure.

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Do you think the delay in military aid to Ukraine had any impact on its ability to defend itself [militarily] once Russia decided to invade?

You know, I don't think so. 

The fiscal year is September the 30th. And one of the reasons in this June, July, August, September [2019] period we were getting increasingly frantic was a big chunk of the security assistance, I think was the $250 million chunk, would disappear on September the 30th. So the pressure to avoid that was what was really driving us. I resigned on September the 10th believing at that time, it was only a matter of days until the money was obligated. And indeed, it was obligated the next day. 

But the difference between obligating it in September versus obligating it in June is trivial. If they had obligated the year before, maybe that would have made a difference, because then all the subsequent deliveries of the weapons would have been speeded up. But just in looking at the effect of the Trump controversy, the delay at best was a couple of months. So now it's 2022. That was summer 2019. It's hard to say there's any measurable effect from that delay.

Given the horror we're seeing in Ukraine, do you think that adds any context for how people should view what Trump said and did in 2019?

Trump had no idea what the stakes were in Ukraine. 

He once asked [then-White House Chief of Staff] John Kelly if Finland was part of Russia. What he cared about was the DNC server, and Hunter Biden, and the 2016 election, and the 2020 election. That's what it was all about. And I think he had next to no idea what the larger issues were.

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We’ve seen Trump praise Putin, at least compliment his intellect, in the last couple of days. What do you make of his comments calling Putin a ‘genius’ and praise from other conservatives like Tucker Carlson and Mike Pompeo about Putin’s strategic thought over the last couple of days?

I think it's embarrassing for the United States. It's one thing to assess your opponent and his strengths and weaknesses in a very clear-eyed manner. But to glorify them is something different. And that is what I think Trump and others have done. Not simply acknowledging the strengths and the weaknesses [of Putin] but boasting about them. I think that's embarrassing, at a minimum.

You said a couple weeks ago that Trump would have ‘given away Ukraine’ and Russia ‘would have already been in Kyiv by now.’ Can you expand upon that?

I just don't think he cared about it. 

It's hard for me to describe how little he knows. And that sort of thing colors everything about my impressions of him and the people who agree with him. When you're operating on such a poor understanding of the circumstances you're talking about, ultimately, your opinions have to be totally unsound. And ultimately reality triumphs, and these opinions are seen for the flimsy and twisted thoughts that they really are.

How do you think Trump would have responded if he'd been in office when Putin invaded Ukraine?

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Well, I'm not sure he would have done much of anything, frankly. But you never know with Trump. It depends on what time of day it is, it depends on what he thought his political benefit would be at any given moment. I don't think ultimately he would have stood in Putin’s way. [Sarcastically]: He never got that server! Those Ukrainians wouldn’t give him the server!

I’m sure they wish it had existed.

[Laughing] They should have given him a server and said, ‘Hey, we found that may have been erased, but here's the server.’ 

Given all of what you've seen over the last few months and what's happened now, do you have any regret that you declined to testify to the House impeachment committee in 2019?

No, because it wouldn't have made any difference. I didn't decline, they never subpoenaed me. I offered to testify in the Senate, and they wouldn't subpoena me either. But the fact is, there was an overwhelming majority of Republicans who thought that if Trump had done everything he was accused of doing in Ukraine, it did not rise to the level of an impeachable offense. So my testimony or anybody else's wasn't gonna make any difference.

Do you personally think that what he did was an impeachable offense in Ukraine?

There was a pattern of conduct that Trump had engaged in that, put together and expanded with further investigation,… could have led to impeachable offenses. 

But the Democrats had absolutely insisted that this wasn't going beyond Ukraine. And it was done in a partisan way, which meant you were never going to get the two-thirds in Senate. And I was convinced that this was going to make things worse, not better. 

Nancy Pelosi always says, “He will be forever impeached.” Well, that's wonderful. He will also be forever acquitted. So at the end of the first impeachment, ask yourself this question: Did that whole process constrain Trump, deter him? Or did it embolden him? He said to himself, ‘I beat them once, I can beat them again.’ 

I guess I'm asking a different question. I understand all your critiques and criticisms of the process. But do you think Trump deserved to be removed from office for his actions toward Ukraine and other actions you mentioned in your book, like toward China?

He was removed from office—the right way. He was defeated politically.