WASHINGTON — He chased her through the hotel hallway, he threw things at her, he harassed her relentlessly. “John Bolton put me through hell,” an American foreign aid contractor wrote to a U.S. Senate committee in 2005, as Bolton was being considered for a top diplomatic position in the George W. Bush administration.
The alleged harassment took place in 1994, when the foreign aid contractor, Melody Townsel, was working on a project in the post-Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan. Unhappy with how the project was proceeding, Townsel complained about the corporation in charge. While her complaints were being investigated, Townsel was sent to Moscow. And the corporation sent a representative of its own to look into the matter.
At the time, that company representative — Bolton — was a 45-year-old former State Department official with a long history in Republican politics and a nearly-as-long history of causing controversy by alienating subordinates and sidestepping protocol.
In her 2005 letter to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Townsel described how Bolton supposedly harassed her at the Aerostar Hotel: “Mr. Bolton proceeded to chase me through the halls of a Russian hotel — throwing things at me, shoving threatening letters under my door and, generally, behaving like a madman,” Townsel wrote.
“As a maligned whistleblower,” she went on, “I’ve learned firsthand the lengths Mr. Bolton will go to accomplish any goal he sets for himself. Truth flew out the window. Decency flew out the window. In his bid to smear me and promote the interests of his client, he went straight for the low road and stayed there.”
Today, Bolton is at the center of another controversy, though this time he is in a decidedly different position, with the New York Times reporting that his forthcoming book will essentially confirm that President Trump sought to tether military aid to Ukraine to politically motivated investigations. Those allegations are a significant boost to Democrats who have impeached Trump in the House and are now trying to remove him from office through a Senate trial.
Long reviled by progressives for his militaristic approach to foreign policy and disdain for the rules of diplomacy, Bolton could now prove crucial to their prospects of ousting Trump in an impeachment trial. Already there are signs that Republicans are uneasy with Senate proceedings that do not include testimony from Bolton and potentially other witnesses who were involved in the Ukraine affair.
But even if the impeachment trial is an unprecedented affair, Bolton has been here many times before, at the center of a maelstrom that is in good part of his own making. He has had his integrity questioned, as well as his honesty and professionalism. And each time, he has somehow emerged eager for more.
Bolton was once famously described as a “kiss-up, kick-down sort of guy” by Carl Ford, a longtime intelligence official who had recently been a top deputy to Colin Powell, secretary of state to George W. Bush. Ford had served two tours in Vietnam, whereas Bolton had written in 1995 that he avoided service there because he had “no desire to die in a Southeast Asian rice paddy.” Later, Ford had served in the Central Intelligence Agency. He was, in other words, nothing like the do-good peaceniks whom Bolton despised and who despised Bolton right back. And yet there he was, warning that Bolton was a “serial abuser” who “goes out of his way to retaliate” against those who defy him.
Now, remarkably, Bolton appears to be striking back against the president of the United States, who very much disagrees with his disgruntled former national security adviser. That president fired his third national security adviser in September of last year, writing on Twitter that Bolton was “holding me back!” Bolton very much disagreed with that characterization and eagerly gave his own version of the dismissal before retreating from the public eye in order to write his book.
Bolton’s new book, “The Room Where It Happened,” is due out in March, but what has already been reported about its contents has cast the longtime Democratic nemesis as an unlikely beacon of Democratic hopes.
It is an ironic development, as some have noticed. “So I guess today’s going to be the day when I watch the same people who have been attacking John Bolton for the last two decades as being an evil warmongering neo-con suddenly laud him as the greatest patriot in American history,” joked Republican operative and lobbyist Brian Schoeneman on Twitter. “Hopefully I don’t get whiplash.”
As a matter of fact, Bolton has been remarkably consistent in how he’s handled disagreements, regardless of whether those disagreements are with a junior intelligence analyst or the president of the United States.
Bolton joined the federal government in 1981 as the top attorney for the United States Agency for International Development. His clashes began shortly thereafter. In 1982, he confronted USAID official Lynne Finney and what he thought was her reluctance to market infant formula made by American manufacturers to nations abroad. Many public health officials had — and continue to have — reservations about the benefits of formula relative to those of breast milk.
Bolton had no such reservations. Finney later wrote that Bolton “shouted that Nestlé was an important company and that he was giving me a direct order from President Reagan. He yelled that if I didn’t obey him he would fire me.” Unable to do so, he forced her to work in “a shabby windowless office in the basement” of State Department headquarters.
A close disciple of Attorney General Edwin Meese III — who was forced to resign in 1988 over corruption allegations — Bolton rose through the ranks of the Reagan administration, helping shield the White House from fallout from the Iran-contra scandal. With the election of Bill Clinton, he left the federal government, going to work for a prominent Washington firm.
It was during this time that he had his encounter with Melody Townsel at the Aerostar Hotel in Moscow. As others who worked with her would later testify, Bolton also attempted to smear Townsel to her colleagues. “He just, sort of, blew in, and he was very, very aggressive in his matter — manner,” one person testified before Congress about the incident. “I mean, everyone knew what the actual problem was. Melody was well-liked. We all knew that the accusations were false, and it destroyed the morale of the office.”
Bolton has steadfastly denied harassing Townsel. His attorney did not respond to a request for comment for this article.
Bolton returned in full force during the Bush presidency, having hardly mellowed with age. If anything, he appears to have felt empowered by Vice President Dick Cheney’s view of a unitary executive unconstrained by the customary checks and balances of the American system of government. The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, seemed to only empower Bolton even further, allowing him to justify his actions by invoking national security.
In 2002, for example, he grew irate at intelligence analyst Christian Westermann for refusing to assert that Cuba was developing biological weapons. Carl Ford, the former intelligence officer who had worked with Bolton, told Congress of the Westermann incident: “I’ve never seen anybody quite like Secretary Bolton, [it] doesn’t even come close. I don’t have a second and third or fourth, in terms of the way that he abuses his power and authority with little people.”
Not all the people Bolton confronted were “little.” That same year, he also allegedly threatened José Bustani, a United Nations official from Brazil then working as head of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. Bolton and others in the Bush administration were attempting to assert that the regime of Saddam Hussein was harboring and preparing to use chemical weapons in Iraq.
Bustani told the Intercept that, in 2002, Bolton confronted him at his offices in The Hague. Bolton allegedly told Bustani that he had to quit his post — or else. “You have 24 hours to leave the organization, and if you don’t comply with this decision by Washington, we have ways to retaliate against you,” Bolton said, according to Bustani’s account in the Intercept. “We know where your kids live. You have two sons in New York.”
(In a book he published about his time in the Bush administration, Bolton had a different, less acrimonious characterization of his exchange with Bustani.)
Despite his well-chronicled inability to work with others, Bolton was made the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations by George W. Bush. But the appointment never received Senate confirmation, as official after official came forward to denounce Bolton. His prospects were further damaged when it was revealed he had neglected to disclose that the State Department’s inspector general had interviewed him about how the Bush administration came to rely on false intelligence about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. Those weapons were nonexistent.
Bolton appears to have left the George W. Bush administration with bitter feelings. “Nothing can erase the ineffable sadness of an American presidency, like this one, in total intellectual collapse,” he wrote in the Wall Street Journal in 2008.
His former boss returned the favor. “Let me just say from the outset that I don’t consider Bolton credible,” the outgoing President Bush said in 2008.
Bolton spent the ensuing years relentlessly criticizing the Obama administration for its perceived foreign policy weakness. His routine appearances on Fox News earned the notice of Trump, who made Bolton his national security adviser after firing H.R. McMaster. “The President knows where I stand on all the issues, because he watched me on Fox News,” he told the New Yorker magazine in early 2019. “You have to know in advance the President’s views are not always yours. When you enter government, you know that you aren’t going to win everything.”
While his eventual ouster from the Trump administration is not entirely surprising, his public spat with the president is, considering that Bolton usually alienates subordinates, not superiors. Trump and his allies say he is merely a disgruntled former employee. The president has disputed Bolton’s characterization of their interactions concerning Ukraine.
Bolton’s assertions are bound to come under intense scrutiny once they are made fully public, especially since he has previously admitted that keeping track of national security at the highest levels of government is no easy task.
In 2007, he wrote a letter — recently uncovered by investigative journalist Lee Ferran — in support of Lewis “Scooter” Libby, a top Cheney aide who faced federal prosecution over unmasking a covert CIA officer. Bolton portrayed Libby’s sin as one of carelessness, not malevolence: “In the face of all of these demands, keeping every detail straight is impossible. I have myself been to meetings after which I could not remember what agency or Department most of the people worked for, or even why they were there. With classified information, it was frequently hard to know who was cleared to see what or what could be discussed with whom.”
Libby was sentenced to prison, but Bush commuted his sentence.
Then Trump came along, and Bolton returned into the fold. Four days after Bolton joined the Trump administration, Libby was pardoned.
Read more from Yahoo News: