President Donald Trump had little interest in the fine-grained details of charges Meng Wanzhou faces for allegedly skirting U.S. sanctions and viewed the case with far-ranging international implications in transactional terms, John Bolton told CBC Radio’s The Current in his first interview with Canadian media since the publication of his memoir describing his time in the administration.
Bolton, who became Trump’s third national security adviser in April 2018 after an extensive career in Washington serving in Republican administrations since the 1980s, has depicted his former boss in The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir as generally more consumed with how foreign policy objectives advanced his own cause for re-election than America’s interests.
The U.S. wants to extradite Meng, the Huawei chief financial officer detained in B.C. on Dec. 1, 2018, to face allegations of fraud. She is accused of lying to banks about Huawei’s relationship with a company that prosecutors claim was violating U.S. economic sanctions against Iran.
“It took a lot of effort to explain [to Trump] that Huawei and people involved in Huawei had committed financial fraud and very serious respects regarding violations of U.S. sanctions against Iran,” Bolton told The Current in an interview that aired on Friday.
As it so happened, the very day Meng was taken into custody at Vancouver International Airport, Trump was enjoying face time with Chinese President Xi Jinping, at the G20 summit in Buenos Aires. Bolton writes in the book that the administration was tipped off about the possibility of an arrest the day before it happened.
About a week later at a White House dinner, Bolton writes, Trump made what the national security adviser saw as a facile comparison between Meng and his own daughter Ivanka (Meng is the scion of Huawei’s founder). It is among a number of anecdotes in the book where Bolton describes Trump as being unduly fascinated by trivial matters, including an incident where the president wondered extensively why Venezuelan politician Juan Guaido’s wife wasn’t wearing a wedding ring during a White House visit.
The specific details of the Huawei case didn’t consume Trump, Bolton writes, and instead fell into what the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations describes as “the black-hole-of-trade phenomenon … twisting all other issues around Trump’s fascination with a big trade deal.”
It was discouraging to allies, Bolton writes.
Willing to testify in extradition case
Not long after taking office, Trump embarked on a strategic goal of striking a wide-ranging trade deal with China, seeking to level the playing field after complaining of an asymmetry in the economic relationship. The wide-ranging effort has included punitive sanctions, though for the most part, the president has spoken warmly of his relationship with Xi.
“It was my view and I think the uniform view of the president’s other advisers that this kind of criminal prosecution should not be used as a bargaining chip in trade negotiations,” Bolton told CBC.
He writes in the book that Trump even offered to reverse the Huawei prosecution last year.
Trump had a “tendency to get involved in criminal prosecutions to give, effectively, personal favours to dictators he was trying to improve his relationship with,” Bolton said. Elsewhere in his book, Bolton depicts Trump telling Recep Tayyip Erdogan he would “take care of things” with respect to an ongoing U.S. probe of Turkey’s Halkbank.
LISTEN: Bolton speaks with The Current’s Matt Galloway about his new book
Despite that alleged Oval Office interference, Bolton believes the case for extradition is solid and was unconcerned about a Politico report earlier this week claiming that Meng’s legal team will now cite his book in arguing that the charges she faces are part of a politically motivated pressure campaign on the Chinese.
“The facts are what the facts are,” said Bolton. “It’s very clear what the purpose of the arrest was — it was not politically motivated at all and I’d be happy to testify under oath to that effect in a Canadian court.”
Meng, who remains under house arrest in Vancouver, lost the first battle in her bid to avoid extradition but the process is expected to continue into 2021.
Canadian detentions arbitrary: Bolton
Within days of Meng being apprehended, Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor were picked up separately in China. After over a year of detention without charge, they have been formally accused of various spying charges that their families and legal teams strenuously deny.
Bolton said “all the evidence” points in the direction of politically motivated prosecution at the behest of the Communist Party.
“The Chinese have responded in an authoritarian fashion, they have arbitrarily arrested Canadian citizens,” he said.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has ruled out the prospect of a swap that would see Meng go free and Kovrig and Spavor return home from China, arguing it would undermine respect for Canadian rule of law. A group of former government officials and politicians this week wrote an open letter calling on Justice Minister David Lametti to intervene in the case to affect such an outcome.
Bolton said in Friday’s interview that while the relationship between Trump and Trudeau may be “frosty,” at other levels of government, the bilateral relationship continues in a productive and respectful manner.
It has been assumed that were Joe Biden to emerge victorious in the election over Trump, there would be a reset at the top leading to more cordiality, given an overlap of over a year in which Trudeau appeared to enjoy a solid working relationship with the Democratic president Biden served under, Barack Obama.
As he has said previously this week in promoting his book, Bolton told The Current he will fill in the ballot on Nov. 3 with the name of someone he sees as a principled conservative, opting not to vote for either Trump or Biden.
Bolton left the White House on Sept. 10, 2019. The relationship with Trump soured due to fundamental disputes with the handling of major foreign policy issues with Iran, North Korea and Afghanistan.
Bolton not yet in the clear
The Trump administration sought to stop publication of The Room Where It Happened, arguing the book hadn’t fully cleared a White House review process of potentially classified material.
Trump has called the book a “compilation of lies and made-up stories,” while Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been among those who served alongside Bolton who’ve also had harsh words for his decision to publish his book. Democrats continue to be aggrieved that Bolton chose to reveal details of Trump’s dealings with Ukraine in print instead of testifying at a Senate impeachment trial in January, which ultimately saw the president acquitted.
While a federal judge last week cleared the way for the book to reach the general public — it had already made its way into the hands of reporters — he did have harsh words for Bolton’s decision to push ahead with his publisher Simon & Schuster, arguing he potentially “stands to lose his profits from the book deal, exposes himself to criminal liability, and imperils national security.”
Trump, in characteristically blunt language on Twitter evoking Bolton’s reputation of a foreign policy hawk, seemed to promise legal ramifications after that ruling: “[Bolton] likes dropping bombs on people, and killing them. Now he will have bombs dropped on him!”