John Bolton on the Warpath

Can Trump’s national-security adviser sell the isolationist President on military force?

Bolton graduated from law school as the Reagan revolution was taking shape. He moved to Washington, joined the law firm of Covington & Burling, and immersed himself in the conservative cause. Bolton was active in a series of conflicts that helped define the battleground of contemporary politics. He worked as Ralph Winter’s assistant and, while still in his twenties, was involved  in guiding a landmark federal lawsuit, Buckley v. Valeo, to the Supreme Court. Winter and Bolton made the case that strict limits on campaign spending violated the right to free speech. They won, and the decision helped release a flood of private money into the American political system. In 1985, Bolton joined the Reagan Justice Department; there, he helped shepherd the Supreme Court nomination of Robert Bork, whose ultimately unsuccessful bid began the era of fiercely partisan high-court nominations. During the contested Presidential election of 2000, Bolton flew to Florida to help insure that George W. Bush secured the office. In his memoir, he notes, with only slight embarrassment, that Republican colleagues called him “the Atticus Finch of Palm Beach County.”

.. Dick Cheney, the Vice-President, urged an assertive use of military power abroad, while Colin Powell, the Secretary of State, was more restrained. Lawrence Wilkerson, Powell’s chief of staff, told me that Bolton was appointed to his position only at Cheney’s insistence. “Everyone knew that Bolton was Cheney’s spy,”
.. Bolton told the group, “I don’t care about Syria, but I do care about Iran.” He said that the American forces would stay in Syria until the Iranians left—potentially for years. Bolton told his aides to communicate the new policy to the Russians, and he declared it publicly in September, 2018.
.. Richard Armitage, the Deputy Secretary of State, took Bolton aside and “told him to shut up,” Wilkerson said. Before Bolton testified to Congress, much of his language was diluted. Armitage reached out to a team of intelligence officers who vetted public statements made by State Department officials, and asked them to give special scrutiny to Bolton’s. “Nothing Bolton said could leave the building until I O.K.’d it,” Thomas Fingar, who led the team at the time, told me.

.. As the Bush White House made the case to invade Iraq, Bolton came into conflict with José Bustani, who was in charge of overseeing the Chemical Weapons Convention—a treaty, endorsed by the U.S. and a hundred and ninety-two other countries, that bans the production of chemical weapons. Bustani, a former senior diplomat from Brazil, was negotiating with the Iraqi government to adopt the treaty, which mandated immediate inspections by outside technicians. He thought that, if inspectors could verify that Iraq had abandoned its chemical-weapons program, an invasion wouldn’t be necessary. But, he told me, when the Iraqis agreed to accept the convention, the Bush Administration asked him to halt his negotiations. “I think the White House was worried that if I succeeded it would mess up their plans to invade,” he said.

Not long afterward, Bustani recalls, Bolton showed up at his office in The Hague and demanded that he resign. When Bustani refused, Bolton said, “We know you have two sons in New York. We know your daughter is in London. We know where your wife is.” (Bolton has denied this.) Bustani held firm, and the White House, determined to remove him, convened an extraordinary session of the Convention’s members—in many cases, Bustani said, paying the travel expenses of delegates to insure that they attended. The group voted forty-eight to seven, with forty-three abstentions, to cut short Bustani’s term.

Later that year, Bustani was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, for his work against chemical weapons. When U.S. troops moved into Iraq, they found no evidence of weapons of mass destruction. Commentators across the political spectrum have decried the invasion—even Trump calls it “a big, fat mistake”—but Bolton hasn’t changed his view. In 2015, he told the Washington Examiner, “I still think the decision to overthrow Saddam was correct.”

 

.. In March, 2005, Bush nominated Bolton to be the Ambassador to the United Nations, a move that was widely seen as an expression of contempt for the institution. Bolton had a history of deriding the U.N., once saying that if the headquarters “lost ten stories, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.”

Still, Democrats in the Senate anticipated a routine hearing; they were the minority party and could do little to resist. Tony Blinken, who was the staff director of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told me that the members began to reconsider as they examined Bolton’s work in the State Department. “We saw a pattern of Mr. Bolton trying to manipulate intelligence to justify his views,” Blinken told me. “If it had happened once, maybe. But it came up multiple times, and always it was the same underlying issue: he would stake out a position, and then, if the intelligence didn’t support it, he would try to exaggerate the intelligence and marginalize the officials who had produced it.” After several days of testimony, Senator George Voinovich, a Republican from Ohio, declared, “John Bolton is the poster child of what someone in the diplomatic corps should not be.”

The committee declined to advance Bolton’s nomination, but Bush moved ahead anyway, sending him to the U.N. on a “recess appointment,” a temporary assignment made when the Senate is out of session. His old friend Clarence Thomas swore him in. Bolton’s associates from that time told me that he refrained from ordinary diplomatic niceties: he did not engage in small talk, linger at cocktail parties, or attend national commemorations. Not long after Bolton took the job, Bush visited him in New York. “Are you having fun?” Bush asked. “It’s a target-rich environment,” Bolton replied.

In “Surrender Is Not an Option,” Bolton gives a minute-by-minute accounting of his time at the U.N., describing both foes and allies in strikingly undiplomatic language. He refers to “EUroids,” the European diplomats whom he generally regarded as soft on America’s enemies; to “the Crusaders of Compromise,” as he describes the national-security establishment; and to “the True Believers and the High Minded.” He even derides the U.K., traditionally America’s closest ally. “Many Brits believed that their role in life was to play Athens to America’s Rome, lending us the benefit of their superior suaveness, and smoothing off our regrettable colonial rough edges,” Bolton writes.

Bolton built a reputation for being abrasive but knowledgeable, with tremendous powers of recall. A U.S. diplomat told me that he once walked into Bolton’s office at the U.N. to ask about an issue concerning Somalia. Bolton replied by quoting, verbatim, from a memo written during the Reagan Administration, some twenty years before. “As John’s talking about it, I can see his eyes moving back and forth like he’s reading the memo—he was reading it from memory,” the diplomat told me.

.. Colleagues from other countries struggled to accommodate him. “On a personal basis, you can joke with him,” the Western diplomat who knows Bolton told me. Working with him was a different story: “Coöperation was possible, but very much on his conditions.” Bolton had spent decades refining an argument that multilateral institutions and international agreements often did more harm than good—that each one represented a loss of American sovereignty. “Bolton has a Hobbesian view of the universe—life is nasty, brutish, and short,” the former American official who worked with Bolton told me. “There are a lot of nasty people out there who want to do us harm. If our country’s interests align with another’s, it’s a fleeting phenomenon, and the moment our interests diverge they will sell us down the river.” Bolton doesn’t ordinarily concern himself with the internal affairs of other nations, or with trying to democratize them, the former official said: “The U.S. has values domestically, but he doesn’t give a shit about the values of others. If it advances your interests to work with another country, then do it.

Bolton had some successes at the U.N. Most notably, he helped persuade the Security Council to impose its first economic sanctions on North Korea for its nuclear-weapons programs. But when his post expired, after sixteen months, the Democrats had won back the majority in Congress, and it was clear that Bolton would not be confirmed. On December 31, 2006, he stepped down.

.. A few months later, Bolton appeared on Fox News to warn viewers that their government was intolerably complacent. “Six years after 9/11, people are simply not focussing the way they should,” he said. “I hope it is not going to take another 9/11 to wake us up—particularly not a 9/11 with weapons of mass destruction.” Bolton, for years a favored guest on Fox, became a paid commentator. During the next decade, he made hundreds of appearances, often arguing that America needed to act urgently to counter threats from abroad. He spoke in favor of military strikes on Iranian training camps (“This is not provocative or preëmptive—this is entirely responsive”), forced regime change in North Korea (“the only solution”), and punitive measures against Vladimir Putin for sheltering the intelligence leaker Edward Snowden (“We need to do things that cause him pain”).

After decades of public-sector work, Bolton grew rich in the private sector. According to a financial disclosure that he filed before joining Trump’s Administration, he made at least two million dollars in 2017, including some six hundred thousand from Fox; two hundred and fifty thousand from the American Enterprise Institute, where he was a senior fellow; and a hundred and twenty thousand from Rhône Group, a private-equity firm. In the course of ten years, Bolton wrote at least six hundred newspaper articles, and the uncompromising beliefs that had piqued colleagues in government found a willing audience outside it. After the Bush Administration reduced sanctions on North Korea, he wrote, in an op-ed, “Nothing can erase the ineffable sadness of an American presidency, like this one, in total intellectual collapse.” When Bush was asked about it, he said, “I don’t consider Bolton credible,” and lamented spending political capital on him. The Obama Administration and its diplomatic efforts in the Middle East inspired even greater scorn. Following Obama’s acceptance speech for the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize, which Bolton criticized as “turgid,” “repetitive,” and “high-school level,” he dismissed the President as fundamentally naïve. Homo sapiens are hardwired for violent conflict,” he said. “We’re not going to eliminate violent conflict until Homo sapiens ceases to exist as a separate species.” Later, he wrote a book-length jeremiad about international law titled “How Barack Obama Is Endangering Our National Sovereignty.”

.. Bolton found an especially enthusiastic reception for arguments about the dangers of Islam. From 2013 to 2018, he was the chairman of the Gatestone Institute, which describes itself as “dedicated to educating the public about what the mainstream media fails to report.” The institute, which paid Bolton a hundred and fifty-five thousand dollars in 2017, has published virulently anti-Muslim articles of questionable accuracy. During Bolton’s tenure, one article warned of an impending “jihadist takeover” of Europe, and another claimed that immigrants from Somalia and other countries were turning Sweden into the “rape capital of the West.” A report titled “History of the Muslim Brotherhood Penetration of the U.S. Government” suggested that both the anti-tax activist Grover Norquist and the State Department official Huma Abedin were sleeper agents. According to a database maintained by NBC News, at least four articles published by Gatestone were retweeted by the Internet Research Agency, the Russian intelligence front that led efforts to sow dissension during the 2016 election.

Like many conservatives in Israel and in the U.S., Bolton rejects the idea of a two-state solution. At a speech in Israel in 2017, he instead advocated a “three-state solution,” in which Israel, Jordan, and Egypt would divide up the Palestinian territories in Gaza and the West Bank, abolishing the political entities that now exist there. For that speech, Bolton received a hundred thousand dollars and a Guardian of Zion Award from Bar-Ilan University.

As Bolton became a celebrity in conservative media, he used his visibility to establish himself in electoral politics. In 2013, he set up a political-action committee, John Bolton Super pac, which raised money to support Republican candidates. The most significant donor was Robert Mercer, the right-wing activist, hedge-fund billionaire, and co-founder of the data firm Cambridge Analytica, which later became notorious for capturing private information from some eighty-seven million Facebook users. Mercer gave the super pac a total of five million dollars. During the elections in 2014 and 2016, Bolton’s organization paid Cambridge Analytica $1.2 million, for psychographic data to tailor messages that would help Senate candidates, including Scott Brown, in New Hampshire, and Thom Tillis, in North Carolina. But Groombridge, Bolton’s former aide, told me that the data turned out to be less effective than promised. “It was useless,” he said. “We used it the way they told us, and it had no discernible impact whatsoever.”

.. After forming the pac, Bolton briefly considered running for President, but people close to him said that he was more focussed on another job. “He was running for Secretary of State,” Groombridge told me. As with Bolton’s nomination for U.N. Ambassador, there were reasons for concern that he wouldn’t pass Senate confirmation. In Bolton’s financial disclosure, he listed a forty-thousand-dollar payment, for a speech that he gave, in 2016, to Mujahideen-e-Khalq, an Iranian exile group dedicated to overthrowing the government in Tehran. The M.E.K., which professes an eccentric variant of Islam, has been characterized by many experts as resembling a cult. From 1997 until 2012, the United States listed it as a terrorist group, owing to a campaign of bombings and assassinations that it led in Iran. Bolton’s association with the group apparently went back at least to that time. During the speech in 2016, he told the crowd, “I just say again what I have been saying for ten years that I’ve been coming to this rally: the regime in Tehran needs to be overthrown at the earliest opportunity!”

Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a frequent critic of the regime, said that Bolton’s relationship with the group should have disqualified him from senior government jobs. “Anyone who pimps himself out to the M.E.K. fails the litmus test for integrity,” he said.

In 2011, Bolton became the head of the National Rifle Association’s international-affairs subcommittee. Two years later, he gave a video address to a conference hosted by a Russian gun-rights group, the Right to Bear Arms. In it, Bolton offered congratulations on the twentieth anniversary of the Russian constitution, which, he said, “signalled a new era of freedom for the Russian people and created a new force for democracy in the world.”

The conference appears to have been connected with the Kremlin’s campaign to influence politically powerful groups in the United States. It was organized by Maria Butina, who was recently sentenced to eighteen months in prison for conspiracy, after attempting to infiltrate the N.R.A. on behalf of the Russian government. Butina worked closely on the Right to Bear Arms with Alexander Torshin, a politician and an associate of Putin’s with links to organized crime. Last May, three days before Bolton became the national-security adviser, the Treasury Department imposed sanctions on Torshin, barring him from the Western financial system.

Bolton’s disclosure also listed payments, totalling a hundred and fifteen thousand dollars, from a foundation controlled by Viktor Pinchuk, a Ukrainian oligarch. Pinchuk presents his foundation as a forum for diverse views, but his allegiances are murky. In 2012, he reportedly paid Gregory Craig, a former counsel for the Obama White House, to write a report intended to exonerate Ukraine’s pro-Russian President for jailing his chief opponent. (Pinchuk denies this.) Craig is now under indictment for lying about the matter to investigators working for the special counsel Robert Mueller. (Bolton’s connections later inspired questions about whether he posed a security risk. In March, 2019, Tricia Newbold, a White House personnel officer, testified that Trump had given security clearances to twenty-five White House officials who had failed to pass background checks. The names of those people were not released, but, after the news broke, the House Oversight Committee asked to see Bolton’s personnel files, along with those of several others.)

In his bid for Secretary of State, Bolton had support from populist conservatives. According to a former senior Administration adviser, the Mercer family “pushed hard for him.” But his candidacy was derailed by members of the Republican establishment. Robert M. Gates, the former Secretary of Defense, and Condoleezza Rice, the former Secretary of State, suggested that Trump appoint Rex Tillerson, an oil C.E.O. with experience in international business. “I wanted to recommend someone who would be good,” Gates told me. Tillerson got the job.

One weekend in 2017, Bolton and General H. R. McMaster were invited to Mar-a-Lago, the President’s Palm Beach mansion, to audition to become national-security adviser. McMaster won. A decorated veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with a reputation as an iconoclast, he came to Mar-a-Lago in full-dress uniform. According to the former senior Administration adviser, McMaster had support from Jared Kushner, who thought that his appointment would play well in the press. Trump admired Bolton’s Fox appearances—he has praised him as “a tough cookie.” But the former senior Administration adviser told me that Trump, who prefers that his officials look the part, was put off by Bolton’s mustache—and, more significant, by his interventionist mind-set. “Trump had big reservations,” the official said. “John wants to bomb everyone.”

If Bolton was disappointed at being passed over, McMaster’s experience in the White House might have reassured him. McMaster was sorely out of place: a seasoned navigator of international institutions working for a President who often seemed determined to tear them down. The chemistry between McMaster and Trump was never good. “H.R. is intense, and he would try to tell the President as best he could the consequences of his decisions,” a former senior Administration official told me.

McMaster also clashed with Secretary of Defense James Mattis. On numerous occasions, current and former officials say, Mattis tried to block White House initiatives, leaving McMaster caught in the middle. In the fall of 2017, McMaster was planning a private session to develop military options for the possibility of conflict with North Korea: a war game, with Trump in attendance, at the Presidential retreat in Camp David. McMaster asked Mattis to send officers and planners. Mattis ignored him. “He prevented the thing from happening,” the former senior Administration official told me. Later, Mattis kept General John Nicholson, the commander of American forces in Afghanistan, from meeting with Trump.

 

Administration officials speculate that Mattis was trying to avoid a war, or that he simply wanted to control the flow of information, so that the President could not make ill-advised decisions. “There are a lot of people in the Administration who want to limit the President’s options because they don’t want the President to get anything done,” the former senior Administration official told me.

Mattis declined to comment for the record, but a former senior national-security official told me, without confirming any incidents, that a strategy had evolved. “The President thinks out loud,” he said. “Do you treat it like an order? Or do you treat it as part of a longer conversation? We treated it as part of a longer conversation.” By allowing Trump to talk without acting, he said, “we prevented a lot of bad things from happening.” In 2017, Mattis and his staff helped forestall a complete withdrawal of American forces from both Afghanistan and Syria.

McMaster also acquired enemies outside the White House. Mort Klein, the head of the Zionist Organization of America, told me he believed that McMaster was “hostile to Israel,” citing offenses that ranged from advocating “Palestinian self-determination” to dodging a question about whether the Western Wall is in Israeli territory. Klein began a quiet campaign against McMaster, with help from Sheldon Adelson, the Republican casino magnate, and Safra Catz, the C.E.O. of Oracle, both of whom are fervent supporters of the Israeli right wing. “We were pushing for him to be fired,” Klein told me. For Klein and his allies, Bolton’s politics were more appealing. He has deep connections to the Israeli national-security establishment and to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In 2018, he gave a well-compensated speech to the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces. “John almost regards Israel as part of the United States,” the former official who worked with Bolton told me. “He thinks our interests and their interest are identical.”

.. In March, 2018, according to a former Administration official, the President called McMaster and asked what he would think if Bolton became the new national-security adviser. It was clear to McMaster that he was being fired, but less clear that the President was certain Bolton was the right replacement. The official, who overheard Trump’s side of the conversation, recalled that the President ended the call with an uncomfortable joke: “Bolton is a hawk like you. He’s going to get us into a war.”

When Bolton took over, he quickly demonstrated an unsentimental style: he told Trump that he could not work with McMaster’s former aide Keith Kellogg, a seventy-three-year-old veteran who had won a Silver Star in Vietnam. Trump decided to send Kellogg to work for Vice-President Mike Pence. The former senior Administration official told me that there was widespread sympathy for Bolton: “Kellogg doesn’t have all of his faculties. He’s like the crazy uncle at Thanksgiving. But Trump liked him, so Pence had to take him.”

McMaster had set up a rigorous process for discussing issues with staff members, making recommendations to the President, and disseminating decisions through the bureaucracy. Under Bolton, there are fewer meetings, less collaboration; he often disappears into his office to immerse himself in documents. “H.R.’s door was always open—Bolton’s is closed,” a former national-security official told me. “He reads the memos. There just isn’t a lot of feedback.” Some former officials believe that Bolton’s insularity could be dangerous, particularly in a crisis, when various arms of the government and the military have to mount a quick and coördinated response. “It’s chaos under Bolton,” the former senior national-security official told me. “The national-security adviser is supposed to facilitate the President’s directives and coördinate national policy among the various government agencies. That process has completely broken down.” The official added, “Bolton hasn’t set any priorities. No one knows what the policies are—what’s important, what’s less important. The head is not connected to the body.” Principals’ meetings—crucial gatherings involving the President, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the heads of intelligence agencies—have become rare. “I don’t remember the last time there was a fucking principals’ meeting,” the official said.

When I raised the issue with Bolton, he seemed unconcerned. He pointed to an oil painting on his office wall which depicted George H. W. Bush with a small group of close aides, including Brent Scowcroft, his national-security adviser. “That’s decision-making,” he said.

.. The comparison to the first Bush Administration doesn’t go far. Scowcroft and Bush were temperamentally similar—both reflective, cautious members of the establishment. Trump is restless and impulsive; Bolton, who goes to bed at nine-thirty every night and rises at three-thirty in the morning, is known for his lawyerly focus. Scowcroft and Bush were close friends before they began working together; Trump and Bolton were only vaguely acquainted. As national-security adviser, Bolton has unrivalled proximity to the Commander-in-Chief. But he described their relationship as businesslike. “I don’t socialize with the President, I don’t play golf with him—I see him in the morning and I talk to him at night,” he told me. In addition to giving Trump a rundown of potential national threats each morning, Bolton attends the President’s Daily Brief, a top-secret meeting with Gina Haspel, the head of the C.I.A., and Dan Coats, the director of National Intelligence. Trump prefers to hold these meetings just two or three times a week, and is famously susceptible to distractions—people walking into the office, telephone calls, even houseflies. Aides have found that detailed briefings provoke impatience; graphics and bullet points work better, and relatable photographs better still. “Bolton gets to the point very fast,” a senior Administration official told me. “He’s very brief, and the President appreciates that.” Groombridge, the former aide, said, “John is thinking, To the extent I can modify or mollify the President’s actions, I will. He is truly a patriot. But I wonder how he goes into work every day, because deep in his heart he believes the President is a moron.”

Trump’s foreign policy, to the extent that he has one, tends toward isolationism, while Bolton’s is expansive but heavily unilateral, spurning allies when necessary. At times, though, unilateralism can sound a lot like America First. Both Bolton and Trump are dismissive of the international architecture of treaties and alliances, which was largely constructed by the United States following the Second World War. At the 2018 G-20 summit, in Buenos Aires, a gathering of the world’s largest economies, Bolton instigated a confrontation over the communiqué that announced the meeting’s results. As the document was being drafted, according to an American official who was present, one of Bolton’s aides began taking out phrases—“gender equality,” “multilateral institutions,” “rules-based international order.” The official told me, “He would point to a phrase and say, ‘This won’t pass the Bolton test.’ ” Bolton’s unilateralist approach permeates the N.S.C. “ ‘The post-World War Two rules-based global order’?” a Bolton staffer said to me. “What does that mean?”

Most national-security advisers work behind the scenes. Bolton has been unusually visible, travelling to Moscow to meet the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov; to Jerusalem to meet Netanyahu; and to Ankara to meet the Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. On Twitter, he has admonished the Russians for attempting to project influence in Latin America, and expressed gratitude to Ivanka Trump for “supporting women’s economic empowerment” in Africa. The Western diplomat told me that Bolton differed from other White House advisers, such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who reflexively agree with the President. “Pompeo is really interested not in foreign policy but in what is good for Trump. When you are out of the Trump field, he has nothing to say,” the diplomat told me. “When you meet Bolton, it’s a real conversation on any issue, no matter how obscure.”

The former senior national-security official told me, “Trump feels aligned with Bolton. He talks tough—he’s a hawk. Trump likes that.” Still, it’s not clear how much influence Bolton—or any senior adviser—has over the President.

In April, 2018, during Bolton’s first week in office, Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria dropped chemical weapons—probably chlorine gas—into a densely populated suburb of Damascus. The gas caused agonizing deaths for at least forty-nine people and sickened at least six hundred and fifty others, many of them women and children. The previous year, Trump had responded to a similar attack by ordering a strike, in which fifty-nine missiles were fired at a government airbase. This time, when Bolton asked the Pentagon for options, Mattis gave only one, a limited strike with cruise missiles. Bolton was furious, a person familiar with his thinking told me: “Mattis is an obstructionist. He seemed to forget that it was the President who was elected.” After some modifications, Trump authorized the attack. But Bolton wanted more; he believed that the U.S. needed a more enduring military presence in Syria.

.. When McMaster was the national-security adviser, he had carefully limited the scope of the mission in Syria, maintaining a deployment of some two thousand troops, dispatched by Obama in 2014. Their orders were to kill isis fighters and to train local soldiers, but not to fight Assad’s government, his Iranian and Russian backers, or their proxies in Hezbollah, the Lebanese armed group and political party. An adviser on Middle East issues told me that senior officials at the Pentagon and in national security had regarded the deployment as highly successful. “We were trying to follow the President’s guidance that this force was there to destroy isis, and that’s it,” the adviser said.

Last summer, at a meeting with officials involved in Syria, Bolton announced that the mission was being expanded. According to the adviser on Middle East issues, who attended the meeting, Bolton told the group, “I don’t care about Syria, but I do care about Iran.” He said that the American forces would stay in Syria until the Iranians left—potentially for years. Bolton told his aides to communicate the new policy to the Russians, and he declared it publicly in September, 2018.

Trump had been suggesting for months that the mission in Syria was nearly concluded. “We were very successful against isis,” he told a group of Eastern European leaders that April. “We’ll be successful against anybody militarily. But sometimes it’s time to come back home.” Now he was saddled with an open-ended military commitment, of a kind that he had repeatedly vowed to avoid. Bolton told me that he had secured the President’s permission to expand the mission, but the adviser on Middle East issues disagreed: “What’s obvious is that Bolton does not speak for the President.”

In December, Erdoğan, the Turkish leader, offered Trump a way out. During a phone call with the President, he said that his troops could take over the job of securing Syria, leaving American forces free to go home. Turkey had its own interest in this arrangement: a large swath of territory near the Syrian border is controlled by ethnic Kurds, whom the Turks consider mortal enemies. The U.S. considers the Kurds allies, but Trump nevertheless leaped at the offer. “Erdoğan told the President that he could kill the terrorists in northeastern Syria, and the President said, ‘Fine, O.K., you do it,’ ” the source familiar with Bolton’s thinking told me.

The White House announced the withdrawal of American forces shortly after Trump hung up, sending a wave of concern through the Middle East. These troops, even with a limited mission, had served as a counterweight to the various armed groups that are active in Syria—Turks, Russians, the remaining isis loyalists, Assad’s soldiers. They also helped give the U.S. leverage in determining whether Assad’s regime remained in power after the war. “I think they are drinking champagne in Damascus,” the former senior Administration official told me.

To Bolton and others, it was clear that Turkey took the announcement as a green light to send troops into northeastern Syria. “For Erdoğan, that meant killing our Kurdish allies there,” the source familiar with Bolton’s thinking said. He suggested that Erdoğan and Trump had simply misunderstood each other: “They were two ships passing in the night.” After conversations with aides, Trump reconsidered, the source said: “The President has spoken to Erdoğan several times since then, and he has made clear to him, ‘Don’t come across, don’t kill Kurds.’ ”

Trump has recently expressed willingness to leave a small American force in Syria, but its exact size has not been settled; officials say that it may be as few as two hundred troops. “They are making it up as they go along,” a Senate staffer who works on national-security issues told me. When I first spoke to Bolton about the reduction in forces, he seemed disappointed. “Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose,” he said. A few weeks later, though, he was more cheerful as he outlined an ambitious roster of operations that appeared to mirror the one the President had tried to scale back: restraining the Iranians, limiting the Russians’ territory, keeping the Turks away from the Kurds. The adviser on Middle East issues suggested that Bolton was responsible for the entire affair, because he’d tried to push the President too far. “It’s a catastrophe, and I blame Bolton,” he said.

In July, 2017, after Kim Jong Un test-fired a new missile, Trump posted an arch tweet: “Does this guy have anything better to do with his life?” But, that summer, there was evidence that the White House was concerned. As the regime launched a series of ballistic-missile tests, Trump ordered the Pentagon to begin removing the spouses and children of military personnel from South Korea. (“Mattis just ignored it,” the Administration official told me.) Since then, Trump has alternated between belligerent tweets and attempts to find a diplomatic solution. At the summit in Hanoi, he was seeking “the big deal”—the denuclearization of the country at one stroke.

Shortly before joining the White House, Bolton described a grimly constrained set of options, which seemed to preclude diplomacy. “You’re getting down fairly quickly to a binary choice: live with a North Korea with nuclear weapons, or look at military force,” he said. “These are not attractive options, but that’s where we’re headed.”

In fact, Bolton has believed for decades that these are the only two choices. In the early two-thousands, as the Bush Administration was negotiating to limit North Korea’s nuclear program, Bolton stridently advocated war. Wilkerson, Powell’s chief of staff, was so concerned that he brought Bolton into a private meeting on the consequences of military strikes: “I gave him a ten-minute brief on what a war with North Korea would look like—a hundred thousand casualties in the first thirty days, many of them Americans. The Japanese that would die. The Chinese that would die. The fact that Seoul, one of the most modern and forward-looking cities in the world, would probably be reduced to the Dark Ages. I told him, ‘That’s Passchendaele, John. That’s Ypres.’ ”

He said that Bolton was unmoved: “John looked at me and said, ‘Are you done? Clearly, you do war. I don’t do war. I do policy.’ ”

Bolton’s skepticism about negotiating with North Korea has largely been confirmed; several successive Administrations have failed to talk the regime into giving up its nuclear program. Now that the problem has fallen to the Trump Administration, though, Bolton is in the same position as the officials he’s been deriding for twenty-five years. The failure of the talks in Hanoi means that the North Korean regime can work toward a nuclear weapon capable of hitting the United States. “They haven’t demonstrated that capacity yet,” the Administration official said. But even a medium-range weapon would pose a threat to much of Asia.

The Administration official, like others, was reluctant to speak about what might happen if North Korea does not back down. A strike to destroy the country’s nuclear capability would have catastrophic effects throughout the region. Even if the United States could cripple North Korea’s nuclear facilities, it could not eliminate its conventional weapons quickly enough to prevent them from being used. These include thousands of artillery pieces and mortars near the border with South Korea. Seoul, which has a population of ten million, including some two hundred thousand Americans, could suffer tens of thousands of casualties. In 2017, Mattis told reporters that a conflict on the Korean Peninsula would be “probably the worst kind of fighting in most people’s lifetimes.”

Even in the White House, there seems to be a growing realization that military force is not a realistic option. “I think we could have destroyed the North’s nuclear program in the nineteen-nineties—it was more concentrated, and we knew where everything was,” the Administration official told me. “Not anymore. It’s too big and too dispersed.”

But Bolton still believes that such a strike is possible, the source familiar with his thinking said: “We can still do it. We know where most, if not all, of their weapons are—we could destroy their nuclear capability. There are ways to deal with their artillery.” When I asked about potential casualties, he said that Bolton “wishes we weren’t at this point. But the military option remains viable.”

The primary negotiating tool that remains is economic sanctions. The senior Administration official told me that the fiscal pressure on North Korea is greater than ever. Kim, the official said, has repeatedly told the North Korean people that their years of suffering and hardship will finally end. “We think that he has raised expectations, and now he has to follow through,” he said.

Not long after the summit, Kim complained in a speech that the American team had come to Hanoi with “completely unrealizable plans.” Unless Trump changed his thinking, Kim said, “the U.S. will not be able to move us one iota even if they sat with us a hundred, a thousand times.” He added, however, that he was open to a third summit—extending an eighteen-month sequence of insults and meetings, during which the North Korean regime has continued to refine its weapons. In response, Trump described his relationship with Kim as “excellent.” In April, North Korea test-fired another missile.

Bolton was nonplussed by Kim’s test. “That was their way of giving us the little finger,” the source familiar with his thinking said. “Not the big finger—just a little one.” The big finger came a week later: Kim held a summit with Vladimir Putin to discuss the nuclear situation. Afterward, Putin called for a return to “international law, instead of the rule of the fist.”

People who have worked with Bolton say that he is focussed less on North Korea than on Iran, where his vigilance can sometimes seem out of proportion to the apparent threat. “There are only two countries that can really threaten the United States—China and Russia,” the former senior national-security official said. “But Bolton has had this anal focus on Iran for twenty years. I don’t know why.” When I asked Bolton about it, he said, “I care about Iran because I care about nuclear weapons.”

On February 11th, Bolton released a video on Twitter, in which he addressed Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran. In a professorial tone, he noted that it was the fortieth anniversary of the Iranian Revolution and enumerated what he saw as its results: repression at home, terrorism abroad, a dismal economy, and the enmity of the world. “So, Ayatollah,” he said, “for all your boasts, for all your threats to the life of the American President, you are responsible for terrorizing your own people and terrorizing the world as a whole. I don’t think you’ll have many more anniversaries to enjoy.”

The Trump Administration has persistently spoken out against Iran, but it has also made scattershot efforts at diplomacy. A senior Iranian official told me that, in 2017, Trump sent eight requests to meet with the Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani. “Trump invited President Rouhani to dinner!” the official told me. Rouhani evidently declined, but, a few weeks before Bolton posted his video on Twitter, there was another apparent attempt. Admiral Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran’s national-security council, told an Iranian news agency that a U.S. official had approached him, during a visit to Afghanistan, and “asked to hold talks.” Shamkhani didn’t say whether Iran had responded, but a Middle Eastern businessman told me that, around the same time, an Iranian official had asked him to pass a message to the White House.

Mattis served as a brake on confrontation. In late 2017, Iraq was preparing for parliamentary elections, and McMaster grew concerned about Iran’s efforts to influence the outcome. He asked the Pentagon to provide options to counter the Iranian campaign. As the elections approached, one of McMaster’s aides told me, a Pentagon official came to the White House. “I asked him what happened to the options,” the former aide said. “He told me, ‘We resisted those.’ You could feel everyone in the meeting go, ‘Excuse me?’ ”

During the Obama Administration, the sanctions on Iran were designed to force the regime to agree to limit its nuclear program. Under Trump, the goal is apparently to make the Iranian people so miserable that they will overthrow the government. “After all the experience we’ve had with regime change, I think we’re out of that business,” a senior member of Trump’s foreign-policy team told me. “We can collapse their economy—it’s not that difficult. But it’s up to the Iranian people.”

Bolton suggested that the policy was working. “The opposition to the regime has widened,” he said. “There have been riots. You don’t always read about this in the Western press, because they don’t let reporters see it.” Although the United States has withdrawn from the nuclear accord, the Iranian regime continues to adhere to it. Funding to Hezbollah, Iran’s primary foreign proxy, has been cut substantially. Nervousness about the future has frozen foreign investment. With inflation at nearly fifty per cent, and with one in four young Iranians out of work, the economy is under extreme stress. Iranian oil exports, which rose to 2.8 million barrels a day after sanctions were lifted, have been severely diminished, at times to less than a million barrels a day. It’s possible that the Iranian government will be ousted. But allies worry that the White House is squeezing the regime so hard that it might force a confrontation, perhaps a military one. “They’re not giving the Iranians any room,” the Western diplomat told me. “It’s implosion or surrender.”

Sadjadpour, the Iran expert, believes that the tensions inside the White House over Iran have not been resolved. “Trump doesn’t want to go to war—he doesn’t want to intervene anywhere,” he told me. Trump’s real goal, he suggested, was the pageantry of public negotiations. The main obstacle to direct talks is Khamenei, he said; having the United States as an enemy has been a linchpin of the regime’s self-justification. “Bolton’s worst nightmare is that Khamenei will write Trump a letter saying, ‘Why don’t we get together and talk?’ Because he knows that Trump would jump at that opportunity.”

In April, Bolton travelled to Coral Gables, Florida, to speak to the surviving members of Brigade 2506, a group of Cuban exiles who fought in the American-backed invasion at the Bay of Pigs. It was the fifty-eighth anniversary of the operation, which ended in catastrophe; the annual commemoration has become a kind of Miami Passion play.

As the aging veterans gathered for lunch, at the Biltmore Hotel, large screens played a documentary about the operation, with black-and-white footage of combat and interviews with survivors, many of whom still feel that they were betrayed by irresolute allies in the United States. “The invasion failed precisely because of President Kennedy’s order not to provide air support and to destroy the Cuban Air Force,” one veteran says.

As Bolton came to the lectern, the veterans, some of them in wheelchairs, gave him a hero’s welcome. Bolton announced new economic sanctions on the Cuban government and assailed Obama for attempting a rapprochement, which Trump has rolled back. “The Trump Administration will never, ever abandon you!” Bolton declared. “We will always have your back.”

As the crowd applauded, Bolton broadened his speech to attack other leftist governments—especially in Venezuela, where the regime of Nicolás Maduro is trying to ride out an economic collapse and a nationwide uprising. Bolton has led the White House’s charge against Maduro, accusing him of forming, along with Cuba and Nicaragua, a “troika of tyranny” in the Western Hemisphere. They aid one another, Bolton said, pointing to the Cuban security forces inside Venezuela, and all of them were aided by Obama. “In no uncertain terms, the Obama Administration’s policies toward Cuba have enabled the Cuban colonization of Venezuela,” he said.

For a national-security adviser, this was remarkably close to a campaign speech—a radical departure from the habits of Bolton’s predecessors. It was also a departure from Bolton’s habits; he resists being called a neocon, but in Venezuela he was trying to oust a regime that poses no immediate threat. When I asked him about it, in his office soon after the speech, he argued that Venezuela was dangerous, because it was allowing Russia to gain a foothold in the region. He said that there were twenty thousand Cubans in Venezuela who served as “surrogates for the Russians.” There were also at least a hundred Russian soldiers and mercenaries on the ground, helping Maduro stay in power. “To get the Russians out, you have to change the regime,” he said.

As the crowd applauded, Bolton broadened his speech to attack other leftist governments—especially in Venezuela, where the regime of Nicolás Maduro is trying to ride out an economic collapse and a nationwide uprising. Bolton has led the White House’s charge against Maduro, accusing him of forming, along with Cuba and Nicaragua, a “troika of tyranny” in the Western Hemisphere. They aid one another, Bolton said, pointing to the Cuban security forces inside Venezuela, and all of them were aided by Obama. “In no uncertain terms, the Obama Administration’s policies toward Cuba have enabled the Cuban colonization of Venezuela,” he said.

For a national-security adviser, this was remarkably close to a campaign speech—a radical departure from the habits of Bolton’s predecessors. It was also a departure from Bolton’s habits; he resists being called a neocon, but in Venezuela he was trying to oust a regime that poses no immediate threat. When I asked him about it, in his office soon after the speech, he argued that Venezuela was dangerous, because it was allowing Russia to gain a foothold in the region. He said that there were twenty thousand Cubans in Venezuela who served as “surrogates for the Russians.” There were also at least a hundred Russian soldiers and mercenaries on the ground, helping Maduro stay in power. “To get the Russians out, you have to change the regime,” he said.

The source familiar with Bolton’s thinking pointed out another incentive: Venezuela has the largest proven oil reserves in the world. “Who is in control of the oil fields—the United States or Russia?” he asked. “The President said he would have taken the oil in Iraq. Well, look at how much oil Venezuela has.”

With Trump’s national-security team depleted—no permanent Secretary of Defense, no Secretary of Homeland Security, no Ambassador to the United Nations—Bolton would have extraordinary latitude in a crisis. “John understands that you have to get the elected leader the approval of the audience that matters,” Hundt said. “As long as Trump’s base is still applauding, then Bolton can do whatever he wants.”

For Bolton, it is ultimately a question of sovereignty. “The Monroe Doctrine is alive and well,” he said. “It’s our hemisphere.” The doctrine, he noted, was a prohibition against outside powers interceding in Latin America. “That doesn’t mean armed force,” he said. “That’s the Roosevelt Corollary. I haven’t invoked that—yet.” But, he argued, as he has innumerable times in the past thirty years, “all options are on the table.” ♦

Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission Oral Reargument – September 09, 2009

Anthony M. Kennedy

But under your position, if corporations A, B, and C, are called to Washington every Monday morning by a high-ranking administrative official or a high-ranking member of the Congress with a committee chairmanship and told to tow the line and to tell their directors and their shareholders what the policy ought to be, some other corporation can’t object to that during the election cycle.

The government silences a corporate objector, and those corporations may have the most knowledge of this on the subject.

Corporations have lots of knowledge about environment, transportation issues, and you are silencing them during the election.

 

.. Theodore B. Olson

What Bellotti also said is — and I think this is also in many decisions of this Court — the inherent worth of speech in terms of its capacity for informing the public does not depend upon the identity of the source, whether corporation, association, union, or individual.

 

.. Theodore B. Olson

–You said that repeatedly, including most recently in the Wisconsin Right to Life case.

And it first appeared in Buckley itself.

The distinction is very hard to draw between the interest that the speaker is addressing and whether it’s a candidate or an issue, because issues are wrapped up in candidates.

The corporation interest and the interests that its fiduciary officers are representing when it speaks on behalf of the corporation–

John Paul Stevens

I don’t think you are correct to say the Court said there was no distinction.

It said the distinction requires the use of magic words.

And that’s what they said in Wisconsin Right to Life, too.

Both of them said there is a distinction.

Theodore B. Olson

–Well, but the words–

John Paul Stevens

It’s difficult to draw in some cases, but nobody said there is no distinction that I am aware of.

Theodore B. Olson

–Well, what the Court — to use — to use the words of the Court, which occurred repeatedly, is that the distinction dissolves impractical application.

That, Justice Stevens, I think addresses the very commonsense point that when you are addressing an issue, whether you are addressing a referendum matter, whether it is a proposed legislation or a candidate that is going to raise taxes on the corporation, those distinctions dissolve.

It’s all First Amendment freedom.

.. Elena Kagan

Mr. Chief Justice and may it please the Court: I have three very quick points to make about the government position.

The first is that this issue has a long history.

For over 100 years Congress has made a judgment that corporations must be subject to special rules when they participate in elections and this Court has never questioned that judgment.

Number two–

Antonin Scalia

Wait, wait, wait, wait.

We never questioned it, but we never approved it, either.

And we gave some really weird interpretations to the Taft-Hartley Act in order to avoid confronting the question.

Elena Kagan

–I will repeat what I said, Justice Scalia: For 100 years this Court, faced with many opportunities to do so, left standing the legislation that is at issue in this case — first the contribution limits, then the expenditure limits that came in by way of Taft-Hartley — and then of course in Austin specifically approved those limits.

Antonin Scalia

I don’t understand what you are saying.

I mean, we are not a self — self-starting institution here.

We only disapprove of something when somebody asks us to.

And if there was no occasion for us to approve or disapprove, it proves nothing whatever that we didn’t disapprove it.

Elena Kagan

Well, you are not a self-starting institution.

But many litigants brought many cases to you in 1907 onwards and in each case this Court turns down, declined the opportunity, to invalidate or otherwise interfere with this legislation.

 

.. Elena Kagan

Well, I think Justice Stevens was right in saying that the expenditure limits that are in play in this case came into effect in 1947, so it’s been 60 years rather than 100 years.

But in fact, even before that the contribution limits were thought to include independent expenditures, and as soon as Congress saw independent expenditures going on Congress closed what it perceived to be a loophole.

So in fact for 100 years corporations have made neither contributions nor expenditures, save for a brief period of time in the middle 1940’s, which Congress very swiftly reacted to by passing the Taft-Hartley Act.

Now, the reason that Congress has enacted these special rules — and this is the second point that I wanted to make–

 

.. Elena Kagan

I would say either the quid pro quo interest, the corruption interest or the shareholder interest, or what I would say is a — is something related to the shareholder interest that is in truth my view of Austin, which is a view that when corporations use other people’s money to electioneer, that is a harm not just to the shareholders themselves but a sort of broader harm to the public that comes from distortion of the electioneering that’s done by corporations.

Antonin Scalia

Let’s — let’s talk about overbreadth.

You’ve — let’s assume that that is a valid interest.

What percentage of the total number of corporations in the country are not single shareholder corporations?

The local hairdresser, the local auto repair shop, the local new car dealer — I don’t know any small business in this country that isn’t incorporated, and the vast majority of them are sole-shareholder-owned.

Now this statute makes it unlawful for all of them to do the things that you are worried about, you know, distorting other — the interests of other shareholders.

That is vast overbreadth.

.. Antonin Scalia

Congress has a self-interest.

I mean, we — we are suspicious of congressional action in the First Amendment area precisely because we — at least I am — I doubt that one can expect a body of incumbents to draw election restrictions that do not favor incumbents.

Now is that excessively cynical of me?

I don’t think so.

Antonin Scalia

Congress has a self-interest.

I mean, we — we are suspicious of congressional action in the First Amendment area precisely because we — at least I am — I doubt that one can expect a body of incumbents to draw election restrictions that do not favor incumbents.

Now is that excessively cynical of me?

I don’t think so.

Elena Kagan

–I think, Justice Scalia, it’s wrong.

In fact, corporate and union money go overwhelmingly to incumbents.

This may be the single most self-denying thing that Congress has ever done.

If you look — if you look at the last election cycle and look at corporate PAC money and ask where it goes,

Antonin Scalia

Congress has a self-interest.

I mean, we — we are suspicious of congressional action in the First Amendment area precisely because we — at least I am — I doubt that one can expect a body of incumbents to draw election restrictions that do not favor incumbents.

Now is that excessively cynical of me?

I don’t think so.

Antonin Scalia

Congress has a self-interest.

I mean, we — we are suspicious of congressional action in the First Amendment area precisely because we — at least I am — I doubt that one can expect a body of incumbents to draw election restrictions that do not favor incumbents.

Now is that excessively cynical of me?

I don’t think so.

Elena Kagan

–I think, Justice Scalia, it’s wrong.

In fact, corporate and union money go overwhelmingly to incumbents.

This may be the single most self-denying thing that Congress has ever done.

If you look — if you look at the last election cycle and look at corporate PAC money and ask where it goes, it goes ten times more to incumbents than to challengers, and in the prior election cycle even more than that.

And for an obvious reason, because when corporations play in the political process, they want winners, they want people who will produce outcomes for them, and they know that the way to get those outcomes, the way to get those winners is to invest in incumbents, and so that’s what they do.

As I said, in double digits times more than they invest in challengers.

So I think that that — that that rationale, which is undoubtedly true in many contexts, simply is not the case with respect to this case.

Anthony M. Kennedy

But under your position, if corporations A, B, and C, are called to Washington every Monday morning by a high-ranking administrative official or a high-ranking member of the Congress with a committee chairmanship and told to tow the line and to tell their directors and their shareholders what the policy ought to be, some other corporation can’t object to that during the election cycle.

The government silences a corporate objector, and those corporations may have the most knowledge of this on the subject.

Corporations have lots of knowledge about environment, transportation issues, and you are silencing them during the election.

Elena Kagan

Well–

Anthony M. Kennedy

When other corporations, via — because of the very fact you just point out, have already been used and are being used by the government to express its views; and you say another corporation can’t object to that.

Elena Kagan

–Well, to the extent, Justice Kennedy, that you are talking about what goes on in the halls of Congress, of course corporations can lobby members of Congress in the same way that they could before this legislation.

What this legislation is designed to do, because of its anticorruption interest, is to make sure that that lobbying is just persuasion and it’s not coercion.

But in addition to that, of course corporations have many opportunities to speak outside the halls of Congress.

Elena Kagan

A lot of them do, which is a suggestion about how corporations engage the political process and how corporations are different from individuals in this respect.

You know, an individual can be the wealthiest person in the world but few of us — maybe some — but few of us are only our economic interests.

We have beliefs, we have convictions; we have likes and dislikes.

Corporations engage the political process in an entirely different way and this is what makes them so much more damaging.

John G. Roberts, Jr.

Well, that’s not — I’m sorry, but that seems rather odd.

A large corporation just like an individual has many diverse interests.

A corporation may want to support a particular candidate, but they may be concerned just as you say about what their shareholders are going to think about that.

They may be concerned that their shareholders would rather they spend their money doing something else.

The idea that corporations just are different than individuals in that respect, I just don’t think holds up.

Elena Kagan

Well, all I was suggesting, Mr. Chief Justice, is that corporations have actually a fiduciary obligation to their shareholders to increase value.

That’s their single purpose, their goal.

 

John G. Roberts, Jr.

So if a candidate — take a tobacco company, and a candidate is running on the platform that they ought to make tobacco illegal, presumably that company would maximize its shareholders’ interests by opposing the election of that individual.

Elena Kagan

But everything is geared through the corporation’s self-interest in order to maximize profits, in order to maximize revenue, in order to maximize value.

Individuals are more complicated than that.

So that when corporations engage the political process, they do it with that set of you know, blinders — I don’t mean it to be pejorative, because that’s what we want corporations to do, is to–

John G. Roberts, Jr.

Well, I suppose some do, but let’s say if you have ten individuals and they each contribute $1,000 to a corporation, and they say,

“we want this corporation to convey a particular message. “

why can’t they do that, when if they did that as partnership, it would be all right?

 

Elena Kagan

–Well, it sounds to me as though the corporation that you were describing is the corporation of a kind we have in this case, where one can assume that the members all sign on to the corporation’s ideological mission, where the corporation in fact has an ideological mission.

Antonin Scalia

General Kagan, most — most corporations are indistinguishable from the individual who owns them, the local hairdresser, the new auto dealer — dealer who has just lost his dealership and — and who wants to oppose whatever Congressman he thinks was responsible for this happening or whatever Congressman won’t try to patch it up by — by getting the auto company to undo it.

There is no distinction between the individual interest and the corporate interest.

And that is true for the vast majority of corporations.

Elena Kagan

Well–

Antonin Scalia

Yet this law freezes all of them out.

Elena Kagan

–To the extent that we are only talking about single shareholder corporations, I guess I would ask why it’s any burden on that single shareholder to make the expenditures to participate in the political process in the way that person wants to outside the corporate forum?

So single shareholders aren’t suffering any burden here; they can do everything that they could within the corporate form, outside the corporate form.

They probably don’t get the tax break that they would get inside the corporate form, but I’m not sure anything else is very different.

Antonin Scalia

Oh, he wants to put up a sign–

John Paul Stevens

Ultra Vires would take care of about 90 percent of the small corporations that Justice Scalia is talking about.

They can’t just — they can’t even give money to charities sometimes because of Ultra Vires.

Giving political contributions is not typical corporate activity.

 

.. Stephen G. Breyer

Is — I — I remember spending quite a few days one summer reading through 1,000 pages of opinion in the D.C. Circuit.

And I came away with the distinct impression that Congress has built an enormous record of support for this bill in the evidence.

And my recollection is, but it is now a couple of years old, that there was a lot of information in that which suggested that many millions of voters think, at the least, that large corporate and union expenditures or contributions in favor of a candidate lead the benefited political figure to decide quite specifically in favor of the — of the contributing or expending organization, the corporation or the union.

Elena Kagan

Yes, that’s–

Stephen G. Breyer

Now, it was on the basis of that, I think, that this Court upheld the law in BCRA.

But we have heard from the other side there isn’t much of a record on this.

So, if you could save me some time here, perhaps you could point me, if I’m right, to those thousand pages of opinion and tens of thousands of underlying bits of evidence where there might be support for that proposition?

Elena Kagan

–Yes, that’s exactly right, Justice Breyer, that in addition to just the 100-year-old judgment that Congress believes this is necessary, that very recently members of Congress and others created a gigantic record showing that there was corruption and that there was the appearance of corruption.

And in that record, many times senators, former senators talk about the way in which fundraising is at the front of their mind in everything that they do the way in which they grant access, the way in which they grant influence, and the way in which outcomes likely change as a result of that fundraising.

Stephen G. Breyer

BCRA has changed all that.

John G. Roberts, Jr.

Counsel, could I ask, it seems — to your shareholder protection rationale, isn’t it extraordinarily paternalistic for the government to take the position that shareholders are too stupid to keep track of what their corporations are doing and can’t sell their shares or object in the corporate context if they don’t like it?

Elena Kagan

I don’t think so, Mr. Chief Justice.

I mean, I, for one, can’t keep tack of what my — where I hold–

John G. Roberts, Jr.

Well, you have a busy job.

You can’t expect everybody to do that.

[Laughter]

Elena Kagan

–It’s not that — it’s not that I have a busy job.

John G. Roberts, Jr.

But it is extraordinary — I mean, the — the idea and as I understand the rationale, we — we the government, big brother, has to protect shareholders from themselves.

They might give money, they might buy shares in a corporation and they don’t know that the corporation is taking out radio ads.

John G. Roberts, Jr.

So it is — I mean, I understand.

So it is a paternalistic interest, we the government have to protect you naive shareholders.

Elena Kagan

–In a world in which most people own stock through mutual funds, in a world in which people own stock through retirement plans in which they have to invest, they have no choice, I think it’s very difficult for individual shareholders to be able to monitor what each company they own assets in is doing or even to know the extent of the–

Ruth Bader Ginsburg

–In that respect, it’s unlike the union, because the — the worker who does not want to affiliate with a union cannot have funds from his own pocket devoted to political causes.

But there is no comparable check for corporations.

Elena Kagan

–That’s exactly right, Justice Ginsburg.

In the union context, of course, it’s a constitutional right that the unions give back essentially the funds that any union member or employee in the workplace does not want used for electoral purposes.

The government has to keep an eye on their interests.

Elena Kagan

Joe Biden’s Expected 2020 Bid Is Likely to Rely on Big Donors

Former vice president’s fundraising structure is less focused on small-donor contributions, which many declared candidates are chasing

Former Vice President Joe Biden will initially rely on a decades-old network of big donors if he enters the Democratic presidential primary contest as expected, in contrast to the small-donor base that many of his 2020 rivals are racing to build.

Mr. Biden’s campaigns in the 2008 and 1988 primaries netted a combined $18.5 million and were financed by big donors and public funds—which candidates in recent years have stopped using because of spending limits they trigger. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, by contrast, fueled his insurgent 2016 presidential bid almost entirely with contributions of $200 or less, amassing $238 million in a little over a year.

.. There is little evidence that Mr. Biden, 76 years old, has worked to foster a base of small donors in the two years since he left office. He has expressed concern to Democratic fundraisers that he won’t be able to make a splash with early online donations the way Mr. Sanders and other candidates have.The political action committee that Mr. Biden started in May 2017 to help Democrats spent more than $550,000 in digital consultants, but that investment barely paid off, Federal Election Commission records show. The group, American Possibilities PAC, received $923,000 from donors giving $200 or less, out of the $2.6 million it raised.

.. The PAC had been paying Blue State Digital, a firm founded by Joe Rospars, the chief digital strategist for former President Obama’s two presidential campaigns and now an adviser to Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign.

Mr. Biden, who has spent much of the past few years giving paid speeches and promoting his book, said he wants to fund his presidential bid on his own terms—and has ruled out well-funded help from outside his potential campaign. Representatives for Mr. Biden didn’t respond to requests for comment.

I will not be part of a super PAC,” Mr. Biden said in a February appearance at the University of Delaware. “An awful lot of people have offered to help—and the people who are usually the biggest donors in the Democratic Party, and I might add some major Republican folks.”

Mr. Biden’s allies have been reaching out to their contacts in preparation for a campaign announcement, which could happen as early as Wednesday. Donors can give a maximum $2,800 per election.

Some of Mr. Biden’s longtime supporters are planning fundraisers for him soon after his likely campaign launch. Several donors said David L. Cohen, a Comcast Corp. senior executive vice president, is organizing a fundraiser that is expected to include former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell and several top donors from the Obama and Clinton campaigns, planned in Philadelphia, where Mr. Biden has deep ties.

“The vast majority [of Obama donors] who I’ve talked to are with Biden—and have been waiting for him,” said Alan Kessler, a Philadelphia attorney and Democratic fundraiser who has committed to Mr. Biden.

Dick Harpootlian, a South Carolina state senator and longtime Democratic fundraiser, said he plans to contribute the maximum to Mr. Biden “the second he announces.”

He has a natural advantage with fundraising, but not a natural advantage in the digital universe,” said Mr. Harpootlian, adding Mr. Biden can use large checks like the one he will write to invest in a small-dollar online fundraising program.

Bob Clark, chairman and chief executive of Chicago-based construction company Clayco Inc., raised more than $500,000 for each of Mr. Obama’s two presidential campaigns. He said he has been talking with Mr. Biden and his team for months and is ready to begin fundraising for him.

Mr. Clark said he has heard enthusiasm for Mr. Biden from his fellow contributors. “He has a strong following with his own donors and with the Obama network,” he said.

The Obama donor network includes about 250 people who each raised $500,000 or more for his re-election bid. But those so-called bundlers, who aggregate donations and write lump-sum checks, aren’t acting in unison—some are writing checks to multiple candidates or have committed to other Democratic presidential contenders ahead of Mr. Biden’s announcement.

Orin Kramer, a New York investor and major bundler for Mr. Obama’s campaigns, is helping Pete Buttigieg, the 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Ind., as is Steve Elmendorf, a Washington, D.C., strategist and fundraiser who supported Hillary Clinton in 2016. Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, meanwhile, is being helped by Mark Gallogly, a New York-based investment manager, and Louis Susman, a Chicago-based investment banker and former U.S. ambassador to the U.K. California Sen. Kamala Harris has attended fundraisers in Florida led by two top bundlers with deep Obama and Clinton ties: Kirk Wagar, a former U.S. ambassador to Singapore, and Alexander Heckler, a Miami Beach attorney.

Small donors help candidates save time and can provide constant cash infusions, Democratic strategists say.

Mr. Rospars wrote on Twitter this month: “The high-dollar chase is less and less sustainable as the contest unfolds—the lowest-hanging fruit is already collected, and in a crowded field it will suck up more time and money and organizational focus for candidates to raise it.”

Mr. Sanders said he raised $600,000 in his first 24 hours as a candidate from supporters who agreed to have monthly contributions to him deducted automatically. He raised more than $18 million in his first six weeks as a candidate, FEC records show.

Our politics fails us, so here’s what to do

We can re-engineer the system to create a new political centre, says Charles Wheelan of Dartmouth College and a former candidate for Congress

Strikingly, data from Beyond Conflict, an NGO that promotes reconciliation in conflict areas, show that Americans feel “dehumanised” by the opposing party—a sentiment often associated with political violence—at roughly the same level as Israelis and Palestinians viewed each other during the Gaza War in 2014.

Moreover democracy is being asked to deal with policy challenges that have longer time horizons and more complexity than in the past. So the urgency to fix problems can seem less apparent: it is more like termites in the basement than a collapsing roof. Complexity also opens up a space for demagoguery. Beating back Hitler was no easy feat—but the need to do so was easier to explain than why universal health care requires a health insurance mandate.

Many voters are convinced that politicians are selling them out. They have a point. When I ran for Congress in 2009 as a Democratic candidate in Illinois, I went hat-in-hand to rich donors, as all candidates must. After one meeting with a group of private-equity types, one of them pulled me aside and asked how I felt about the “taxation of carried interest”—an arcane policy that lets major investors pay less tax on their earnings.

I told the fellow that income was income, and that “carried interest” ought to be taxed the same way as everyone else’s paycheck, and not as capital gains.

“That’s too bad,” he said, and walked away. He did not write me a cheque. I lost the race.

.. It did not matter that I was taught by economists at the University of Chicago and took classes from three Nobel Prize winners. Political issues devolve into protecting one’s niche perks. In this case, some of the wealthiest people in the country cared about one issue: whether they could pay a lower tax rate than the people who make their lattes and mow their lawns. More cunning candidates tolerate this to get into office.

The constant need for fundraising also drives partisanship. Emails with subject-lines like “Help me strike a compromise to bring down the deficit” are certain to remain unopened. But drop into an inbox “The Republicans will end Medicare” or “The Democrats are killing babies” and the contributions will flow, helping to make the partisanship ever more toxic.

In this environment, the biggest threat to a candidate is not from an opposition party with a different set of policies but from the extremist end of his or her own party. Hence the rise of the word “primary” as a verb, as in “The Democrats may primary him.” The optimal strategy is ideological purity, even if it means getting nothing done as a legislator.

Now for the really dangerous part: changing demographics have made the electoral college and the Senate increasingly out of sync, as population grows in blue states and wanes in red ones. By 2040 it is possible that roughly 70% of Senate seats will be controlled by 30% of the population. If we are looking for something that can ignite the current partisan tinder, this is it: a prolonged period in which the political will of the majority is thwarted by a minority opposition.

There are lots of ways to do this but the two boldest ideas are to create an independent group of centrist legislators to act as the “king makers” to pass legislation, and to implement something called “ranked-choice” voting that would make it harder for candidates on the political extremes to win election. Consider both in turn.

First, the legislators. It is easy to imagine that a bipartisan group of prominent politicians could step aside from their parties, band together, and create a new movement of the centre. I called this the “fulcrum strategy” in my book “The Centrist Manifesto” in 2013, and it is similar to the recent moves by Labour MPs in Britain, now joined by a few Conservatives.

Just a small handful of defections would go a long way to changing America’s political dynamic. It could provide a pragmatic center of gravity, restore a shared political narrative, rebuild the connective tissue between the parties, and place a healthy check on the Trump administration and whoever comes after, in a way that is less partisan than the Democrats today.

Could it happen? Absolutely. Here is what Jeff Flake, a former Republican senator from Arizona said at a conference this month at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government: “With three or four Rs and three or four Dems, if they come together now, or just about any time—the Senate rarely has more than a three-, four-, five- or six-person majority on either side—you could really change that place. You could create a completely different power structure. And that would be very healthy right now.”

Joel Searby, a political consultant working to rebuild the centre ground of American politics, says there is “high interest” in doing something like this. Mr Searby has met with chiefs of staff for a handful of senators, both Republicans and Democrats, to pitch the fulcrum idea. “They’re taking meetings with me in their Senate offices, and they know exactly what I’m there to talk about,” he says.

Moreover the Senate just got a new member who is less beholden to the political establishment than most: Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential candidate in 2012 who is also a former governor of Massachusetts, one of the most liberal states in the country. He has been a critic of the president from his own party. Will Mr Romney be the guy to change American politics forever? Or could it be the senator for Maine, Susan Collins? Or West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, a Democrat in a red state? It will only take a few.

The same fulcrum strategy could work at the state level. For all the talk of “red” and “blue” states, the fact is that many state legislatures are as narrowly divided as the Senate, meaning that a mere handful of centrists could band together to restore sanity.

In fact, in Alaska this just happened. After the mid-term election in 2018, a single Republican lawmaker refused to be the 21st vote that would give his party control of the 40-person legislature. Instead, he negotiated a governing coalition of eight Republicans, 15 Democrats and two independents. Committee chairs will be shared across parties and there is an independent speaker of the house.

The public seems receptive to this. After all, the two most popular governors are Republicans in blue states: Larry Hogan in Maryland and Charlie Baker in Massachusetts. This suggests that there are politicians able to cross the partisan divide and that voters will embrace them.

Politics needs to evolve with the times like everything else. The Republican Party emerged to deal with the thorny issue of slavery. Emmanuel Macron built a new party in France and captured a parliamentary majority. If economists can count almost 5,000 breakfast cereals in America, why should its citizens settle for just two political parties?

Precedents exist, such as Israel’s centrist Yesh Atid party that emerged in 2012. There are also examples of tiny factions that exert outsized influence, such as small, religious parties in Israel and Japan. A centrist faction can play the same role in America.

Then there is the issue of voting. There is a powerful change that would be a force for moderation: replace the primary system with a “top four, ranked choice” voting system. Yes, it needs a better name. But it’s the best way to hold elections with multiple candidates.

It works like this: In the first round of voting, the four top vote-getters advance. In the second round, voters rank those four candidates.

If no candidate wins an outright majority, then the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated. Those who voted for that candidate get their second choice instead. And this process of counting the next-best-candidate continues until one person gets a majority.

This system has three huge advantages. First, it minimises partisanship. Candidates would no longer compete to attract support from the most ideological members of their party but from all voters, which would have a moderating influence.

Second, this would create space for new political competition since independents and third parties would no longer present a “spoiler problem”. For example, Ralph Nader would have been eliminated in 2000 after the first round; most of his votes would probably have gone to Al Gore, who then would have become president.

Third, ranked-choice voting also creates an incentive for candidates to behave more civilly because it is important to be many voters’ “second choice”. Maligning other candidates—and all the other nasty tactics of modern elections—would carry a higher price.

.. The political landscape could change quickly. Reforms like the “fulcrum strategy” and “ranked voting” will make it easier for independents and members of new parties to get elected. Public support for both parties is in secular decline. And much of the partisanship is negative partisanship, meaning that party identification is driven mostly by loathing for the other side. A solid majority of Americans say that the country needs a third major political party.

.. Indeed, the data from Beyond Conflict found that voters believe that members of the other party think worse of them than they actually do. It turns out that we have not dehumanised each other to the same degree as the Palestinians and the Israelis; it only feels that way.

.. There are four faces on America’s Mount Rushmore monument: Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt. With democracy under siege, it is worth thinking about each of them.

George Washington was an independent and warned about political “factions” in his farewell address. Thomas Jefferson said the greatest evil was “a Division of the Republic into two great Parties.” Abraham Lincoln was part of the new Republican Party that arose when the two extant parties could not manage the issue of slavery. Teddy Roosevelt made a third run for president with his own “Bull Moose Party.”

What the four leaders carved in stone share is an unease with partisanship, a willingness to challenge political orthodoxy, and an unwavering belief in democracy. Those are the right principles to bear in mind as we look to strengthen the foundations of our system.