How Netanyahu Ally John Bolton Became Trump’s Worst Enemy

The former national security adviser’s testimony in the U.S. impeachment proceedings could damage the president’s credibility with the hawkish right

Donald Trump listens as national security adviser John Bolton speaks, White House, Washington D.C., February 7, 2019
LEAH MILLIS/ REUTERS

WASHINGTON – U.S. President Donald Trump’s meetings with political rivals Benjamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz conquered the headlines in Israel on Monday, feeding on Middle East peace plan speculative frenzy and Israel’s political crisis. But in America, the leading political story of the day came not from the White House but Capitol Hill. 

Republican senators, who have so far sided completely with Trump in his impeachment trial, are now openly considering defying one of his demands and calling a key witness to testify in front of the Senate about the Ukraine scandal. There is a growing likelihood that at least four Republican senators will support calling to the stand Trump's former national security adviser, John Bolton. 

When Trump welcomed Netanyahu to the White House on Monday, the two stood together and took several questions from reporters. One question played repeatedly on U.S. news channels throughout the day: the one about Bolton. 

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and former U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton visiting an army outpost overlooking the Jordan Valley, June 23, 2019.
Abir Sultan,AP

In the upcoming book “The Room Where it Happened,” due to be published on March 17, Bolton claims Trump told him he was withholding military aid from Ukraine to pressure Kyiv into opening a politically motivated investigation against his political rival, former Vice President and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden. 

Netanyahu – who was filmed standing next to Trump while the president said Bolton was lying and no such conversation had ever taken place – didn't disclose his thoughts on the awkward situation.

For years, Bolton was considered to be one of Netanyahu's closest political allies in the United States. When Trump appointed Bolton to the position of national security adviser in 2018, Netanyahu praised him as a strong supporter of Israel.

Now, the same Bolton is threatening to cause political damage to Trump by prolonging the Senate trial against him, and exposing information that Trump wants to keep under wraps.

All of this is happening on the very same week Netanyahu is in Washington to celebrate the release of the Middle East peace plan, which the Trump administration has spent three years working on. 

On Monday night, the New York Times reported that in the manuscript of his upcoming book, Bolton also wrote that he was deeply disturbed by Trump's relationship with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. According to Bolton, Trump hinted to Erdogan that he could influence an ongoing trial in the United States against a major Turkish bank, which allegedly broke sanction laws regarding Iran. 

Bolton joined the Trump administration in the spring of 2018 after spending more than a decade as a leading right-wing pundit on national security issues. He was a fierce critic of the Obama administration, especially on the issue of diplomacy with Iran. His appointment was a clear sign, at the time, that Trump had decided to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal – a development that was enthusiastically welcomed by Netanyahu. 

Election banner for Netanyahu's Likud party showing his shaking hands with Donald Trump, Jerusalem, September 4, 2019.
Ahmad Gharabli/AFP

The Times also reported that one of the people who recommended Bolton to Trump was billionaire Sheldon Adelson, a longtime Netanyahu ally. The main reason Bolton became a “favorite” of right-wing donors in the American Jewish community was his hawkish approach toward Iran and his strong support of Israel.

The day Bolton came into the job in April 2018 was one of the best days for Netanyahu and Israel's ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer, since Trump entered the White House – second only to when the U.S. president declared his recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

Bolton replaced H.R. McMaster, who was considered one of the more moderate voices around Trump and was known for opposing the drastic step of withdrawing the United States from the Iran nuclear deal. During his time in the White House, McMaster worked closely with Israeli officials regarding the administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran.

Bolton made several trips to Jerusalem when he was in office, including two visits during Israel’s election campaigns in 2019. Netanyahu used these in his campaign propaganda to highlight his close ties with the Trump administration.

Bolton left the Trump administration last September over disagreements with the president on several policy issues. He did not support Trump’s diplomacy with North Korea, and was also concerned that Trump would opt for negotiations with Iran at the expense of continued economic pressure. Trump’s efforts to get Ukraine to investigate Biden was reportedly another strong point of contention between the president and Bolton.

Bolton's testimony on Ukraine, if it takes place, will probably not change the final outcome in the president's impeachment trial. It is highly unlikely that the required two-thirds majority in the Senate will vote to convict Trump. But the former senior adviser could hurt Trump just by speaking out – especially because of his unquestionable and impeccable right-wing, hawkish credentials.