The Number Zero and Bitcoin

Satoshi gave the world Bitcoin, a true “something for nothing.” His discovery of absolute scarcity for money is an unstoppable idea that is changing the world tremendously, just like its digital ancestor: the number zero.

Zero is Special

“In the history of culture the discovery of zero will always stand out as one of the greatest single achievements of the human race.” — Tobias Danzig, Number: The Language of Science

Many believe that Bitcoin is “just one of thousands of cryptoassets”—this is true in the same way that the number zero is just one of an infinite series of numbers. In reality, Bitcoin is special, and so is zero: each is an invention which led to a discovery that fundamentally reshaped its overarching system—for Bitcoin, that system is money, and for zero, it is mathematics. Since money and math are mankind’s two universal languages, both Bitcoin and zero are critical constructs for civilization.

For most of history, mankind had no concept of zero: an understanding of it is not innate to us—a symbol for it had to be invented and continuously taught to successive generations. Zero is an abstract conception and is not discernible in the physical world—no one goes shopping for zero apples. To better understand this, we will walk down a winding path covering more than 4,000 years of human history that led to zero becoming part of the empirical bedrock of modernity.

Numerals, which are symbols for numbers, are the greatest abstractions ever invented by mankind: virtually everything we interact with is best grasped in numerical, quantifiable, or digital form. Math, the language of numerals, originally developed from a practical desire to count things—whether it was the amount of fish in the daily catch or the days since the last full moon. Many ancient civilizations developed rudimentary numeral systems: in 2000 BCE, the Babylonians, who failed to conceptualize zero, used two symbols in different arrangements to create unique numerals between 1 and 60:

Babylonian cuneiform was a relatively inefficient numeral system — notice how many more written strokes are necessary for each number symbol — and calculation using it was even more cumbersome.

Vestiges of the base-60 Babylonian cuneiform system still exist today: there are 60 seconds in a minute, 60 minutes in an hour, and 6 sets of 60 degrees in a circle. But this ancient system lacked a zero, which severely limited its usefulness. Ancient Greeks and Mayans developed their own numeral systems, each of which contained rough conceptions of zero. However, the first explicit and arithmetic use of zero came from ancient Indian and Cambodian cultures. They created a system with nine number symbols and a small dot used to mark the absence of a number—the original zero. This numeral system would eventually evolve into the one we use today:

The first known written zero: from the Bakhshali manuscript which contains pages dating back to the 3rd and 4th centuries AD.

Inscription K-127 bears the earliest zero ever discovered—dated from the 7th century, it was discovered in the 19th century in Cambodia.

In the 7th century, the Indian mathematician Brahmagupta developed terms for zero in addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division (although he struggled a bit with the latter, as would thinkers for centuries to come). As the discipline of mathematics matured in India, it was passed through trade networks eastward into China and westward into Islamic and Arabic cultures. It was this western advance of zero which ultimately led to the inception of the Hindu-Arabic numeral system—the most common means of symbolic number representation in the world today:

The Economization of Math

When zero reached Europe roughly 300 years later in the High Middle Ages, it was met with strong ideological resistance. Facing opposition from users of the well-established Roman numeral system, zero struggled to gain ground in Europe. People at the time were able to get by without zero, but (little did they know) performing computation without zero was horribly inefficient. An apt analogy to keep in mind arises here: both math and money are possible without zero and Bitcoin, respectively—however both are tremendously more wasteful systems without these core elements. Consider the difficulty of doing arithmetic in Roman numerals:

If you thought you were bad at arithmetic using numbers, just try doing it with letters.

Calculation performed using the Hindu-Arabic system is significantly more straightforward than with Roman numerals—and energy-efficient systems have a tendency to win out in the long run, as we saw when the steam engine outcompeted animal-sourced power or when capitalism prevailed over socialism (another important point to remember for Bitcoin later). This example just shows the pains of addition—multiplication and division were even more painstaking. As Amir D. Aczel described it in his book Finding Zero:

Roman numeral inefficiency would not be tolerated for long in a world enriching itself through commerce. With trade networks proliferating and productivity escalating in tandem, growing prospects of wealth creation incentivized merchants to become increasingly competitive, pushing them to always search for an edge over others. Computation and record-keeping with a zero-based numeral system was qualitatively easier, quantitatively faster, and less prone to error. Despite Europe’s resistance, this new numeral system simply could not be ignored: like its distant progeny Bitcoin would later be, zero was an unstoppable idea whose time had come:

Functions of Zero

Zero’s first function is as a placeholder in our numeric system: for instance, notice the “0” in the number “1,104” in the equation above, which indicates the absence of value in the tens place. Without zero acting as a symbol of absence at this order of magnitude in “1,104,” the number could not be represented unambiguously (without zero, is it “1,104” or “114”?). Lacking zero detracted from a numeral system’s capacity to maintain constancy of meaning as it scales. Inclusion of zero enables other digits to take on new meaning according to their position relative to it. In this way, zero lets us perform calculation with less effort—whether its pen strokes in a ledger, finger presses on a calculator, or mental gymnastics. Zero is a symbol for emptiness, which can be a highly useful quality—as Lao Tzu said:

More philosophically, zero is emblematic of the void, as Aczel describes it:

“…the void is everywhere and it moves around; it can stand for one truth when you write a number a certain way — no tens, for example — and another kind of truth in another case, say when you have no thousands in a number!”

Drawing analogies to the functions of money: zero is the “store of value” on which higher order of magnitude numerals can scale; this is the reason we always prefer to see another zero at the end of our bank account or Bitcoin balance. In the same way a sound economic store of value leads to increased savings, which undergirds investment and productivity growth, so too does a sound mathematical placeholder of value give us a numeral system capable of containing more meaning in less space, and supporting calculations in less time: both of which also foster productivity growth. Just as money is the medium through which capital is continuously cycled into places of optimal economic employment, zero gives other digits the ability to cycle—to be used again and again with different meanings for different purposes.

Zero’s second function is as a number in its own right: it is the midpoint between any positive number and its negative counterpart (like +2 and -2). Before the concept of zero, negative numbers were not used, as there was no conception of “nothing” as a number, much less “less than nothing.” Brahmagupta inverted the positive number line to create negative numbers and placed zero at the center, thus rounding out the numeral system we use today. Although negative numbers were written about in earlier times, like the Han Dynasty in China (206 BCE to 220 BCE), their use wasn’t formalized before Brahmagupta, since they required the concept of zero to be properly defined and aligned. In a visual sense, negative numbers are a reflection of positive numbers cast across zero:

Zero is the center of gravity for our entire numeral system, just as money is central to any economic system.

Interestingly, negative numbers were originally used to signify debts—well before the invention of double-entry accounting, which opted for debits and credits (partly to avoid the use of negative numbers). In this way, zero is the “medium of exchange” between the positive and negative domains of numbers—it is only possible to pass into, or out of, either territory by way of zero. By going below zero and conceptualizing negative numbers, many new and unusual (yet extremely useful) mathematical constructs come into being including imaginary numbers, complex numbers, fractals, and advanced astrophysical equations. In the same way the economic medium of exchange, money, leads to the acceleration of trade and innovation, so too does the mathematical medium of exchange, zero, lead to enhanced informational exchange, and its associated development of civilizational advances:

The Mandlebrot Set: one of the most famous examples of a fractal, a mind-bending mathematical structure formed with complex numbers that models the geometry of nature and its intrinsic complexity. One of the best known examples of mathematical beauty, this fractal exhibits infinite depth, breadth, and non-repeating self-similarity. Zero is a necessary prerequisite to such fractal modeling.

Zero’s third function is as a facilitator for fractions or ratios. For instance, the ancient Egyptians, whose numeral system lacked a zero, had an extremely cumbersome way of handling fractions: instead of thinking of 3/4 as a ratio of three to four (as we do today), they saw it as the sum of 1/2 and 1/4. The vast majority of Egyptian fractions were written as a sum of numbers as 1/n, where n is the counting number—these were called unit fractions. Without zero, long chains of unit fractions were necessary to handle larger and more complicated ratios (many of us remember the pain of converting fractions from our school days). With zero, we can easily convert fractions to decimal form (like 1/2 to 0.5), which obsoletes the need for complicated conversions when dealing with fractions. This is the “unit of account” function of zero. Prices expressed in money are just exchange ratios converted into a money-denominated price decimal: instead of saying “this house costs eleven cars” we say, “this house costs $440,000,” which is equal to the price of eleven $40,000 cars. Money gives us the ability to better handle exchange ratios in the same way zero gives us the ability to better handle numeric ratios.

Numbers are the ultimate level of objective abstraction: for example, the number 3 stands for the idea of “threeness” — a quality that can be ascribed to anything in the universe that comes in treble form. Equally, 9 stands for the quality of “nineness” shared by anything that is composed of nine parts. Numerals and math greatly enhanced interpersonal exchange of knowledge (which can be embodied in goods or services), as people can communicate about almost anything in the common language of numeracy. Money, then, is just the mathematized measure of capital available in the marketplace: it is the least common denominator among all economic goods and is necessarily the most liquid asset with the least mutable supply. It is used as a measuring system for the constantly shifting valuations of capital (this is why gold became money—it is the monetary metal with a supply that is most difficult to change). Ratios of money to capital (aka prices) are among the most important in the world, and ratios are a foundational element of being:

“In the beginning, there was the ratio, and the ratio was with God, and the ratio was God.” — John 1:1*

*(A more “rational” translation of Jesus’s beloved disciple John: the Greek word for ratio was λόγος (logos), which is also the term for word.)

An ability to more efficiently handle ratios directly contributed to mankind’s later development of rationality, a logic-based way of thinking at the root of major social movements such as the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment. To truly grasp the strange logic of zero, we must start with its point of origin—the philosophy from which it was born.

Philosophy of Zero

“In the earliest age of the gods, existence was born from non-existence.” — The Rig Veda

Zero arose from the bizarre logic of the ancient East. Interestingly, the Buddha himself was a known mathematician — in early books about him, like the Lalita Vistara, he is said to be excellent in numeracy (a skill he uses to woo a certain princess). In Buddhism, the logical character of the phenomenological world is more complex than true or false:

Or not true,

Or both true and not true,

Or neither true nor not true.

This is the Lord Buddha’s teaching.”

This is the Tetralemma (or the four corners of the catuskoti): the key to understanding the seeming strangeness of this ancient Eastern logic is the concept of Shunya, a Hindi word meaning zero: it is derived from the Buddhist philosophical concept of Śūnyatā (or Shunyata). The ultimate goal of meditation is the attainment of enlightenment, or an ideal state of nirvana, which is equivalent to emptying oneself entirely of thought, desire, and worldly attachment. Achievement of this absolute emptiness is the state of being in Shunyata: a philosophical concept closely related to the void—as the Buddhist writer Thich Nhat Hanh describes it:

“The first door of liberation is emptiness, Shunyata

Emptiness always means empty of something

Emptiness is the Middle Way between existent and nonexistent

Reality goes beyond notions of being and nonbeing

True emptiness is called “wondrous being,” because it goes beyond existence and nonexistence

The concentration on Emptiness is a way of staying in touch with life as it is, but it has to be practiced and not just talked about.”

Or, as a Buddhist monk of ancient Wats temple in Southeast Asia described the meditative experience of the void:

A direct experience of emptiness is achievable through meditation. In a true meditative state, the Shunyata and the number zero are one and the same. Emptiness is the conduit between existence and nonexistence, in the same way zero is the door from positive to negative numbers: each being a perfect reflection of the other. Zero arose in the ancient East as the epitome of this deeply philosophical and experiential concept of absolute emptiness. Empirically, today we now know that meditation benefits the brain in many ways. It seems too, that its contribution to the discovery of zero helped forge an idea that benefits mankind’s collective intelligence — our global hive-mind.

Despite being discovered in a spiritual state, zero is a profoundly practical concept: perhaps it is best understood as a fusion of philosophy and pragmatism. By traversing across zero into the territory of negative numbers, we encounter the imaginary numbers, which have a base unit of the square root of -1, denoted by the letter i. The number i is paradoxical: consider the equations x² + 1 = 0 and x³ + 1 = 0, the only possible answers are positive square root of -1 (i) and negative square root of -1 (-i or i³), respectively. Visualizing these real and imaginary domains, we find a rotational axis centered on zero with orientations reminiscent of the tetralemma: one true (1), one not true (i), one both true and not true (-1 or ), and one neither true nor not true (-i or i³):

Zero is the fulcrum between real and imaginary number planes.

Going through the gateway of zero into the realms of negative and imaginary numbers provides a more continuous form of logic when compared to the discrete either-or logic, commonly accredited to Aristotle and his followers. This framework is less “black and white” than the binary Aristotelean logic system, which was based on true or false, and provides many gradations of logicality; a more accurate map to the many “shades of grey” we find in nature. Continuous logic is insinuated throughout the world: for instance, someone may say “she wasn’t unattractive,” meaning that her appeal was ambivalent, somewhere between attractive and unattractive. This perspective is often more realistic than a binary assessment of attractive or not attractive.

Importantly, zero gave us the concept of infinity: which was notably absent from the minds of ancient Greek logicians. The rotations around zero through the real and imaginary number axes can be mathematically scaled up into a three-dimensional model called the Riemann Sphere. In this structure, zero and infinity are geometric reflections of one another and can transpose themselves in a flash of mathematical permutation. Always at the opposite pole of this three-dimensional, mathematical interpretation of the tetralemma, we find zero’s twin—infinity:

Scaling the real and imaginary number planes into the third dimension, we discover zero’s twin: infinity.

The twin polarities of zero and infinity are akin to yin and yang — as Charles Seife, author of Zero: Biography of a Dangerous Idea, describes them:

In Eastern philosophy, the kinship of zero and infinity made sense: only in a state of absolute nothingness can possibility become infinite. Buddhist logic insists that everything is endlessly intertwined: a vast causal network in which all is inexorably interlinked, such that no single thing can truly be considered independent — as having its own isolated, non-interdependent essence. In this view, interrelation is the sole source of substantiation. Fundamental to their teachings, this truth is what Buddhists call dependent co-origination, meaning that all things depend on one another. The only exception to this truth is nirvana: liberation from the endless cycles of reincarnation. In Buddhism, the only pathway to nirvana is through pure emptiness:

Nirvana, the ultimate spiritual goal in Buddhism, is attained by entering the void in meditation—this is where zero was discovered.

Some ancient Buddhist texts state: “the truly absolute and the truly free must be nothingness.” In this sense, the invention of zero was special; it can be considered the discovery of absolute nothingness, a latent quality of reality that was not previously presupposed in philosophy or systems of knowledge like mathematics. Its discovery would prove to be an emancipating force for mankind, in that zero is foundational to the mathematized, software-enabled reality of convenience we inhabit today.

Zero was liberation discovered deep in meditation, a remnant of truth found in close proximity to nirvana — a place where one encounters universal, unbounded, and infinite awareness: God’s kingdom within us. To buddhists, zero was a whisper from the universe, from dharma, from God (words always fail us in the domain of divinity). Paradoxically, zero would ultimately shatter the institution which built its power structure by monopolizing access to God. In finding footing in the void, mankind uncovered the deepest, soundest substrate on which to build modern society: zero would prove to be a critical piece of infrastructure that led to the interconnection of the world via telecommunications, which ushered in the gold standard and the digital age (Bitcoin’s two key inceptors) many years later.

Blazing a path forward: the twin conceptions of zero and infinity would ignite the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment — all movements that mitigated the power of The Catholic Church as the dominant institution in the world and paved the way for the industrialized nation-state.

Power of The Church Falls to Zero

The universe of the ancient Greeks was founded on the philosophical tenets of Pythagoras, Aristotle, and Ptolemy. Central to their conception of the cosmos was the precept that there is no void, no nothingness, no zero. Greeks, who had inherited their numbers from the geometry-loving Egyptians, made little distinction between shape and number. Even today, when we square a number (x²), this is equivalent to converting a line into a square and calculating its area. Pythagoreans were mystified by this connection between shapes and numbers, which explains why they didn’t conceive of zero as a number: after all, what shape could represent nothingness? Ancient Greeks believed numbers had to be visible to be real, whereas the ancient Indians perceived numbers as an intrinsic part of a latent, invisible reality separate from mankind’s conception of them.

The symbol of the Pythagorean cult was the pentagram (a five-pointed star); this sacred shape contained within it the key to their view of the universe—the golden ratio. Considered to be the “most beautiful number,” the golden ratio is achieved by dividing a line such that the ratio of the small part to the large part is the same as the ratio of the large part to the whole. Such proportionality was found to be not only aesthetically pleasing, but also naturally occurring in a variety of forms including nautilus shells, pineapples, and (centuries later) the double-helix of DNA. Beauty this objectively pure was considered to be a window into the transcendent; a soul-sustaining quality. The golden ratio became widely used in art, music, and architecture:

A simple sequence of calculations converges on the golden ratio, the “beautiful number” bountiful in nature. Beauty of this caliber heavily influenced many domains including architecture (as seen in the design of The Parthenon here).

The golden ratio was also found in musical harmonics: when plucking a string instrument from its specified segments, musicians could create the perfect fifth, a dual resonance of notes said to be the most evocative musical relationship. Discordant tritones, on the other hand, were derided as the “devil in music.” Such harmony of music was considered to be one and the same with that of mathematics and the universe—in the Pythagorean finite view of the cosmos (later called the Aristotelean celestial spheres model), movements of planets and other heavenly bodies generated a symphonic “harmony of the spheres”—a celestial music that suffused the cosmic depths. From the perspective of Pythagoreans, “all was number,” meaning ratios ruled the universe. The golden ratio’s seemingly supernatural connection to aesthetics, life, and the universe became a central tenet of Western Civilization and, later, The Catholic Church (aka The Church).

Zero posed a major threat to the conception of a finite universe. Dividing by zero is devastating to the framework of logic, and thus threatened the perfect order and integrity of a Pythagorean worldview. This was a serious problem for The Church which, after the fall of the Roman Empire, appeared as the dominant institution in Europe. To substantiate its dominion in the world, The Church proffered itself as the gatekeeper to heaven. Anyone who crossed The Church in any way could find themselves eternally barred from the holy gates. The Church’s claim to absolute sovereignty was critically dependent on the Pythagorean model, as the dominant institution over Earth—which was in their view the center of the universe—necessarily held dominion in God’s universe. Standing as a symbol for both the void and the infinite, zero was heretical to The Church. Centuries later, a similar dynamic would unfold in the discovery of absolute scarcity for money, which is dissident to the dominion of The Fed—the false church of modernity.

Ancient Greeks clung tightly to a worldview that did not tolerate zero or the infinite: rejection of these crucial concepts proved to be their biggest failure, as it prevented the discovery of calculus—the mathematical machinery on which much of the physical sciences and, thus, the modern world are constructed. Core to their (flawed) belief system was the concept of the “indivisible atom,” the elementary particle which could not be subdivided ad infinitum. In their minds, there was no way beyond the micro barrier of the atomic surface. In the same vein, they considered the universe a “macrocosmic atom” that was strictly bound by an outermost sphere of stars winking down towards the cosmic core—Earth. As above, so below: with nothing conceived to be above this stellar sphere and nothing below the atomic surface, there was no infinity and no void:

A finite universe with Earth at the center was the central tenet of ancient Greek philosophy and, later, of The Catholic Church’s institutional dominion over the world.

Aristotle (with later refinements by Ptolemy) would interpret this finite universe philosophically and, in doing so, form the ideological foundation for God’s existence and The Church’s power on Earth. In the Aristotelean conception of the universe, the force moving the stars, which drove the motion of all elements below, was the prime mover: God. This cascade of cosmic force from on high downward into the movements of mankind was considered the officially accepted interpretation of divine will. As Christianity swept through the West, The Church relied upon the explanatory power of this Aristotelean philosophy as proof of God’s existence in their proselytizing efforts. Objecting to the Aristotelean doctrine was soon considered an objection to the existence of God and the power of The Church.

Infinity was unavoidably actualized by the same Aristotelean logic which sought to deny it. By the 13th century, some bishops began calling assemblies to question the Aristotelean doctrines that went against the omnipotence of God: for example, the notion that “God can not move the heavens in a straight line, because that would leave behind a vacuum.” If the heavens moved linearly, then what was left in their wake? Through what substance were they moving? This implied either the existence of the void (the vacuum), or that God was not truly omnipotent as he could not move the heavens. Suddenly, Aristotelean philosophy started to break under its own weight, thereby eroding the premise of The Church’s power. Although The Church would cling to Aristotle’s views for a few more centuries—it fought heresy by forbidding certain books and burning certain Protestants alive—zero marked the beginning of the end for this domineering and oppressive institution.

An infinite universe meant there were, at least, a vast multitude of planets, many of which likely had their own populations and churches. Earth was no longer the center of the universe, so why should The Church have universal dominion? In a grand ideological shift that foreshadowed the invention of Bitcoin centuries later, zero became the idea that broke The Church’s grip on humanity, just as absolute scarcity of money is breaking The Fed’s stranglehold on the world today. In an echo of history, us moderns can once again hear the discovery of nothing beginning to change everything.

Zero was the smooth stone slung into the face of Goliath, a death-stroke to the dominion of The Church; felled by an unstoppable idea, this oppressive institution’s fall from grace would make way for the rise of the nation-state—the dominant institutional model in modernity.

Zero: An Ideological Juggernaut

Indoctrinated in The Church’s dogma, Christianity initially refused to accept zero, as it was linked to a primal fear of the void. Zero’s inexorable connection to nothingness and chaos made it a fearsome concept in the eyes of most Christians at the time. But zero’s capacity to support honest weights and measures, a core Biblical concept, would prove more important than the countermeasures of The Church (and the invention of zero would later lead to the invention of the most infallible of weights and measures, the most honest money in history—Bitcoin). In a world being built on trade, merchants needed zero for its superior arithmetic utility. As Pierre-Simon Laplace said:

“…[zero is] a profound and important idea which appears so simple to us now that we ignore its true merit. But its very simplicity and the great ease which it lent to all computations put our arithmetic in the first rank of useful inventions.”

In the 13th century, academics like the renowned Italian mathematician Fibonacci began championing zero in their work, helping the Hindu-Arabic system gain credibility in Europe. As trade began to flourish and generate unprecedented levels of wealth in the world, math moved from purely practical applications to ever more abstracted functions. As Alfred North Whitehead said:

The point about zero is that we do not need to use it in the operations of daily life. No one goes out to buy zero fish. It is in a way the most civilized of all the cardinals, and its use is only forced on us by the needs of cultivated modes of thought.”

As our thinking became more sophisticated, so too did our demands on math. Tools like the abacus relied upon a set of sliding stones to help us keep track of amounts and perform calculation. An abacus was like an ancient calculator, and as the use of zero became popularized in Europe, competitions were held between users of the abacus (the abacists) and of the newly arrived Hindu-Arabic numeral system (the algorists) to see who could solve complex calculations faster. With training, algorists could readily outpace abacists in computation. Contests like these led to the demise of the abacus as a useful tool, however it still left a lasting mark on our language: the words calculate, calculus, and calcium are all derived from the Latin word for pebble—calculus.

The algorists competing against the abacists: contests like these empirically proved the supremacy of a zero-based numeral system over others, even when aided by ancient mathematical tools like the abacus.

Before the Hindu-Arabic numerals, money counters had to use the abacus or a counting board to keep track of value flows. Germans called the counting board a Rechenbank, which is why moneylenders came to be known as banks. Not only did banks use counting boards, but they also used tally sticks to keep track of lending activities: the monetary value of a loan was written on the side of a stick, and it was split into two pieces, with the lender keeping the larger piece, known as the stock—which is where we get the term stockholder:

An ancient loan tracking device called a tally stick: the lender kept the larger portion, the stock, and became a stockholder in the bank that made the loan.

Despite its superior utility for business, governments despised zero. In 1299, Florence banned the Hindu-Arabic numeral system. As with many profound innovations, zero faced vehement resistance from entrenched power structures that were threatened by its existence. Carrying on lawlessly, Italian merchants continued to use the zero-based numeral system, and even began using it to transmit encrypted messages. Zero was essential to these early encryption systems—which is why the word cipher, which originally meant zero, came to mean “secret code.” The criticality of zero to ancient encryption systems is yet another aspect of its contribution to Bitcoin’s ancestral heritage.

At the beginning of the Renaissance, the threat zero would soon pose to the power of The Church was not obvious. By then, zero had been adapted as an artistic tool to create the vanishing point: an acute place of infinite nothingness used in many paintings that sparked the great Renaissance in the visual arts. Drawings and paintings prior to the vanishing point appear flat and lifeless: their imagery was mostly two-dimensional and unrealistic. Even the best artists couldn’t capture realism without the use of zero:

Pre-Renaissance art: still better than a banana duct taped to a canvas.

With the concept of zero, artists could create a zero-dimension point in their work that was “infinitely far” from the viewer, and into which all objects in the painting visually collapsed. As objects appear to recede from the viewer into the distance, they become ever-more compressed into the “dimensionlessness” of the vanishing point, before finally disappearing. Just as it does today, art had a strong influence on people’s perceptions. Eventually, Nicholas of Cusa, a cardinal of The Church declared, “Terra non est centra mundi,” which meant “the Earth is not the center of the universe.” This declaration would later lead to Copernicus proving heliocentrism—the spark that ignited The Reformation and, later, the Age of Enlightenment:

By adding the vanishing point (a visual conception of zero) to drawings and paintings, art gained the realistic qualities of depth, breadth, and spatial proportion.

A dangerous, heretical, and revolutionary idea had been planted by zero and its visual incarnation, the vanishing point. At this point of infinite distance, the concept of zero was captured visually, and space was made infinite—as Seife describes it:

“It was no coincidence that zero and infinity are linked in the vanishing point. Just as multiplying by zero causes the number line to collapse into a point, the vanishing point has caused most of the universe to sit in a tiny dot. This is a singularity, a concept that became very important later in the history of science—but at this early stage, mathematicians knew little more than the artists about the properties of zero.”

The purpose of the artist is to the mythologize the present: this is evident in much of the consumerist “trash art” produced in our current fiat-currency-fueled world. Renaissance artists (who were often also mathematicians, true Renaissance men) worked assiduously in line with this purpose as the vanishing point became an increasingly popular element of art in lockstep with zero’s proliferation across the world. Indeed, art accelerated the propulsion of zero across the mindscape of mankind.

Modernity: The Age of Ones and Zeros

Eventually, zero became the cornerstone of calculus: an innovative system of mathematics that enabled people to contend with ever-smaller units approaching zero, but cunningly avoided the logic-trap of having to divide by zero. This new system gave mankind myriad new ways to comprehend and grasp his surroundings. Diverse disciplines such as chemistry, engineering, and physics all depend on calculus to fulfill their functions in the world today:

Calculus enables us to make symphonic arrangements of matter in precise accordance with our imaginations; this mathematical study of continuous change is fundamental to all physical sciences.

Zero serves as the source-waters of many technological breakthroughs—some of which would flow together into the most important invention in history: Bitcoin. Zero punched a hole and created a vacuum in the framework of mathematics and shattered Aristotelean philosophy, on which the power of The Church was premised. Today, Bitcoin is punching a hole and creating a vacuum in the market for money; it is killing Keynesian economics—which is the propagandistic power-base of the nation-state (along with its apparatus of theft: the central bank).

In modernity, zero has become a celebrated tool in our mathematical arsenal. As the binary numerical system now forms the foundation of modern computer programming, zero was essential to the development of digital tools like the personal computer, the internet, and Bitcoin. Amazingly, all modern miracles made possible by digital technologies can be traced back to the invention of a figure for numeric nothingness by an ancient Indian mathematician: Brahmagupta gave the world a real “something for nothing,” a generosity Satoshi would emulate several centuries later. As Aczel says:

A composition of countless zeroes and ones, binary code led to the proliferation and standardization of communications protocols including those embodied in the internet protocol suite. As people freely experimented with these new tools, they organized themselves around the most useful protocols like http, TCP/IP, etc. Ossification of digital communication standards provided the substrate upon which new societal utilities—like email, ride sharing, and mobile computing—were built. Latest (and arguably the greatest) among these digital innovations is the uninflatable, unconfiscatable, and unstoppable money called Bitcoin.

A common misconception of Bitcoin is that it is just one of thousands of cryptoassets in the world today. One may be forgiven for this misunderstanding, as our world today is home to many national currencies. But all these currencies began as warehouse receipts for the same type of thing—namely, monetary metal (usually gold). Today, national currencies are not redeemable for gold, and are instead liquid equity units in a pyramid scheme called fiat currency: a hierarchy of thievery built on top of the freely selected money of the world (gold) which their issuers (central banks) hoard to manipulate its price, insulate their inferior fiat currencies from competitive threats, and perpetually extract wealth from those lower down the pyramid.

Given this confusion, many mistakenly believe that Bitcoin could be disrupted by any one of the thousands of alternative cryptoassets in the marketplace today. This is understandable, as the reasons that make Bitcoin different are not part of common parlance and are relatively difficult to understand. Even Ray Dalio, the greatest hedge fund manager in history, said that he believes Bitcoin could be disrupted by a competitor in the same way that iPhone disrupted Blackberry. However, disruption of Bitcoin is extremely unlikely: Bitcoin is a path-dependent, one-time invention; its critical breakthrough is the discovery of absolute scarcity—a monetary property never before (and never again) achievable by mankind.

Like the invention of zero, which led to the discovery of “nothing as something” in mathematics and other domains, Bitcoin is the catalyst of a worldwide paradigmatic phase change (which some have started calling The Great Awakening). What numeral is to number, and zero is to the void for mathematics, Bitcoin is to absolute scarcity for money: each is a symbol that allows mankind to apprehend a latent reality (in the case of money, time). More than just a new monetary technology, Bitcoin is an entirely new economic paradigm: an uncompromisable base money protocol for a global, digital, non-state economy. To better understand the profundity of this, we first need to understand the nature of path-dependence.

The Path-Dependence of Bitcoin

Path-dependence is the sensitivity of an outcome to the order of events that led to it. In the broadest sense, it means history has inertia:

Path-dependence entails that the sequence of events matters as much as the events themselves: as a simple example, you get a dramatically different result if you shower and then dry yourself off versus if you dry yourself off first and then shower. Path-dependence is especially prevalent in complex systems due to their high interconnectivity and numerous (often unforeseeable) interdependencies. Once started down a particular pathway, breaking away from its sociopolitical inertia can become impossible—for instance, imagine if the world tried to standardize to a different size electrical outlet: consumers, manufacturers, and suppliers would all resist this costly change unless there was a gigantic prospective gain. To coordinate this shift in standardization would require either a dramatically more efficient technology (a pull method—by which people stand to benefit) or an imposing organization to force the change (a push method—in which people would be forced to change in the face of some threat). Path-dependence is why occurrences in the sociopolitical domain often influence developments in the technical; US citizens saw path-dependent pushback firsthand when their government made a failed attempt to switch to the metric system back in the 1970s.

Bitcoin was launched into the world as a one of a kind technology: a non-state digital money that is issued on a perfectly fixed, diminishing, and predictable schedule. It was strategically released into the wild (into an online group of cryptographers) at a time when no comparative technology existed. Bitcoin’s organic adoption path and mining network expansion are a non-repeatable sequence of events. As a thought experiment, consider that if a “New Bitcoin” was launched today, it would exhibit weak chain security early on, as its mining network and hash rate would have to start from scratch. Today, in a world that is aware of Bitcoin, this “New Bitcoin” with comparatively weak chain security would inevitably be attacked—whether these were incumbent projects seeking to defend their head start, international banking cartels, or even nation-states:

Bitcoin’s head start in hash rate is seemingly insurmountable.

Path-dependence protects Bitcoin from disruption, as the organic sequence of events which led to its release and assimilation into the marketplace cannot be replicated. Further, Bitcoin’s money supply is absolutely scarce; a totally unique and one-time discovery for money. Even if “New Bitcoin” was released with an absolutely scarce money supply, its holders would be incentivized to hold the money with the greatest liquidity, network effects, and chain security. This would cause them to dump “New Bitcoin” for the original Bitcoin. More realistically, instead of launching “New Bitcoin,” those seeking to compete with Bitcoin would take a social contract attack-vector by initiating a hard fork. An attempt like this was already made with the “Bitcoin Cash” fork, which tried to increase block sizes to (ostensibly) improve its utility for payments. This chain fork was an abject failure and a real world reinforcement of the importance of Bitcoin’s path-dependent emergence:

Bitcoin Cash is considering a rebrand to Bitcoin Crash.

Continuing our thought experiment: even if “New Bitcoin” featured a diminishing money supply (in other words, a deflationary monetary policy), how would its rate of money supply decay (deflation) be determined? By what mechanism would its beneficiaries be selected? As market participants (nodes and miners) jockeyed for position to maximize their accrual of economic benefit from the deflationary monetary policy, forks would ensue that would diminish the liquidity, network effects, and chain security for “New Bitcoin,” causing everyone to eventually pile back into the original Bitcoin—just like they did in the wake of Bitcoin Cash’s failure.

Path-dependence ensures that those who try to game Bitcoin get burned. Reinforced by four-sided network effects, it makes Bitcoin’s first-mover advantage seemingly insurmountable. The idea of absolute monetary scarcity goes against the wishes of entrenched power structures like The Fed: like zero, once an idea whose time has come is released into the world, it is nearly impossible to put the proverbial genie back in the bottle. After all, unstoppable ideas are independent lifeforms:

Finite and Infinite Games

Macroeconomics is essentially the set of games played globally to satisfy the demands of mankind (which are infinite) within the bounds of his time (which is strictly finite). In these games, scores are tracked in monetary terms. Using lingo from the groundbreaking book Finite and Infinite Games, there are two types of economic games: unfree (or centrally planned) markets are theatrical, meaning that they are performed in accordance with a predetermined script that often entails dutifulness and disregard for humanity. The atrocities committed in Soviet Russia are exemplary of the consequences of a theatrical economic system. On the other hand, free markets are dramatic, meaning that they are enacted in the present according to consensual and adaptable boundaries. Software development is a good example of a dramatic market, as entrepreneurs are free to adopt the rules, tools, and protocols that best serve customers. Simply: theatrical games are governed by imposed rules (based on tyranny), whereas rulesets for dramatic games are voluntarily adopted (based on individual sovereignty).

From a moral perspective, sovereignty is always superior to tyranny. And from a practical perspective, tyrannies are less energy-efficient than free markets because they require tyrants to expend resources enforcing compliance with their imposed rulesets and protecting their turf. Voluntary games (free market capitalism) outcompete involuntary games (centrally planned socialism) as they do not accrue these enforcement and protection costs: hence the reason capitalism (freedom) outcompetes socialism (slavery) in the long run. Since interpersonal interdependency is at the heart of the comparative advantage and division of labor dynamics that drive the value proposition of cooperation and competition, we can say that money is an infinite game: meaning that its purpose is not to win, but rather to continue to play. After all, if one player had all the money, the game would end (like the game of Monopoly).

In this sense, Bitcoin’s terminal money supply growth (inflation) rate of absolute zero is the ultimate monetary Schelling point a game-theoretic focal point that people tend to choose in an adversarial game. In game theory, a game is any situation where there can be winners or losers, a strategy is a decision-making process, and a Schelling point is the default strategy for games in which the players cannot fully trust one another (like money):

Among many spheres of competing interpersonal interests, scarcity is the Schelling point of money.

Economic actors are incentivized to choose the money that best holds its value across time, is most widely accepted, and most clearly conveys market pricing information. All three of these qualities are rooted in scarcity: resistance to inflation ensures that money retains its value and ability to accurately price capital across time, which leads to its use as an exchange medium. For these reasons, holding the scarcest money is the most energy-efficient strategy a player can employ, which makes the absolute scarcity of Bitcoin an irrefutable Schelling point—a singular, unshakable motif in games played for money.

A distant digital descendent of zero, the invention of Bitcoin represents the discovery of absolute scarcity for money: an idea as equally unstoppable.

Similar to the discovery of absolute nothingness symbolized by zero, the discovery of absolutely scarce money symbolized by Bitcoin is special. Gold became money because out of the monetary metals it had the most inelastic (or relatively scarce) money supply: meaning that no matter how much time was allocated towards gold production, its supply increased the least. Since its supply increased the slowest and most predictable rate, gold was favored for storing value and pricing things—which encouraged people to voluntarily adopt it, thus making it the dominant money on the free market. Before Bitcoin, gold was the world’s monetary Schelling point, because it made trade easier in a manner that minimized the need to trust other players. Like its digital ancestor zero, Bitcoin is an invention that radically enhances exchange efficiency by purifying informational transmissions: for zero, this meant instilling more meaning per proximate digit, for Bitcoin, this means generating more salience per price signal. In the game of money, the objective has always been to hold the most relatively scarce monetary metal (gold); now, the goal is to occupy the most territory on the absolutely scarce monetary network called Bitcoin.

A New Epoch for Money

Historically, precious metals were the best monetary technologies in terms of money’s five critical traits:

  1. divisibility,
  2. durability,
  3. portability,
  4. recognizability, and
  5. scarcity.

Among the monetary metals, gold was relatively the most scarce, and therefore it outcompeted others in the marketplace as it was a more sound store of value. In the ascension of gold as money, it was as if free market dynamics were trying to zero-in on a sufficiently divisible, durable, portable, and recognizable monetary technology that was also absolutely scarce (strong arguments for this may be found by studying the Eurodollar system). Free markets are distributed computing systems that zero-in on the most useful prices and technologies based on the prevailing demands of people and the available supplies of capital: they constantly assimilate all of mankind’s intersubjective perspectives on the world within the bounds of objective reality to produce our best approximations of truth. In this context, verifiable scarcity is the best proxy for the truthfulness of money: assurance that it will not be debased over time.

As a (pre-Bitcoin) thought experiment, had a “new gold” been discovered in the Earth’s crust, assuming it was mostly distributed evenly across the Earth’s surface and was exactly comparable to gold in terms of these five monetary traits (with the exception that it was more scarce), free market dynamics would have led to its selection as money, as it would be that much closer to absolute scarcity, making it a better means of storing value and propagating price signals. Seen this way, gold as a monetary technology was the closest the free market could come to absolutely scarce money before it was discovered in its only possible form—digital. The supply of any physical thing can only be limited by the time necessary to procure it: if we could flip a switch and force everyone on Earth to make their sole occupation gold mining, the supply of gold would soon soar. Unlike Bitcoin, no physical form of money could possibly guarantee a permanently fixed supply—so far as we know, absolute scarcity can only be digital.

Digitization is advantageous across all five traits of money. Since Bitcoin is just information, relative to other monetary technologies, we can say: its

  1. divisibility is supreme, as information can be infinitely subdivided and recombined at near-zero cost (like numbers); its
  2. durability is supreme, as information does not decompose (books can outlast empires); its
  3. portability is supreme, as information can move at the speed of light (thanks to telecommunications); and its
  4. recognizability is supreme, as information is the most objectively discernible substance in the universe (like the written word). Finally, and most critically, since Bitcoin algorithmically and thermodynamically enforces an absolutely scarce money supply, we can say that its
  5. scarcity is infinite (as scarce as time, the substance money is intended to tokenize in the first place). Taken in combination, these traits make absolutely scarce digital money seemingly indomitable in the marketplace.

In the same way that the number zero enables our numeric system to scale and more easily perform calculation, so too does money give an economy the ability to socially scale by simplifying trade and economic calculation. Said simply: scarcity is essential to the utility of money, and a zero-growth terminal money supply represents “perfect” scarcity — which makes Bitcoin as near a “perfect” monetary technology as mankind has ever had. Absolute scarcity is a monumental monetary breakthrough. Since money is valued according to reflexivity, meaning that investor perceptions of its future exchangeability influence its present valuation, Bitcoin’s perfectly predictable and finite future supply underpins an unprecedented rate of expansion in market capitalization:

Bitcoin is truly unique: a perfectly scarce and predictably supplied money.

In summary: the invention of Bitcoin represents the discovery of absolute scarcity, or absolute irreproducibility, which occurred due to a particular sequence of idiosyncratic events that cannot be reproduced. Any attempt to introduce an absolutely scarce or diminishing supplied money into the world would likely collapse into Bitcoin (as we saw with the Bitcoin Cash fork). Absolute scarcity is a one-time discovery, just like heliocentrism or any other major scientific paradigm shift. In a world where Bitcoin already exists, a successful launch via a proof-of-work system is no longer possible due to path-dependence; yet another reason why Bitcoin cannot be replicated or disrupted by another cryptoasset using this consensus mechanism. At this point, it seems absolute scarcity for money is truly a one-time discovery that cannot “disrupted” any more than the concept of zero can be disrupted.

A true “Bitcoin killer” would necessitate an entirely new consensus mechanism and distribution model; with an implementation overseen by an unprecedentedly organized group of human beings: nothing to date has been conceived that could even come close to satisfying these requirements. In the same way that there has only ever been one analog gold, there is likely to only ever be one digital gold. For the same quantifiable reasons a zero-based numeral system became a dominant mathematical protocol, and capitalism outcompetes socialism, the absolute scarcity of Bitcoin’s supply will continue outcompeting all other monetary protocols in its path to global dominance.

Numbers are the fundamental abstractions which rule our world. Zero is the vanishing point of the mathematical landscape. In the realm of interpersonal competition and cooperation, money is the dominant abstraction which governs our behavior. Money arises naturally as the most tradable thing within a society—this includes exchanges with others and with our future selves. Scarcity is the trait of money that allows it to hold value across time, enabling us to trade it with our future selves for the foregone opportunity costs (the things we could have otherwise traded money for had we not decided to hold it). Scarce money accrues value as our productivity grows. For these reasons, the most scarce technology which otherwise exhibits sufficient monetary traits (divisibility, durability, recognizability, portability) tends to become money. Said simply: the most relatively scarce money wins. In this sense, what zero is to math, absolute scarcity is to money. It is an astonishing discovery, a window into the void, just like its predecessor zero:

Actual footage of Bitcoin devouring fiat currencies.

Fiat Currency Always Falls to Zero

Zero has proven itself as the capstone of our numeral system by making it scalable, invertible, and easily convertible. In time, Bitcoin will prove itself as the most important network in the global economic system by increasing social scalability, causing an inversion of economic power, and converting culture into a realignment with Natural Law. Bitcoin will allow sovereignty to once again inhere at the individual level, instead of being usurped at the institutional level as it is today—all thanks to its special forebear, zero:

Central planning in the market for money (aka monetary socialism) is dying. This tyrannical financial hierarchy has increased worldwide wealth disparities, funded perpetual warfare, and plundered entire commonwealths to “bail out” failing institutions. A reversion to the free market for money is the only way to heal the devastation it has wrought over the past 100+ years. Unlike central bankers, who are fallible human beings that give into political pressure to pillage value from people by printing money, Bitcoin’s monetary policy does not bend for anyone: it gives zero fucks. And in a world where central banks can “just add zeros” to steal your wealth, people’s only hope is a “zero fucks” money that cannot be confiscated, inflated, or stopped:

Central banks literally “just add zeros” to steal vast swathes of societal wealth.

Bitcoin was specifically designed as a countermeasure to “expansionary monetary policies” (aka wealth confiscation via inflation) by central bankers. Bitcoin is a true zero-to-one invention, an innovation that profoundly changes society instead of just introducing an incremental advancement. Bitcoin is ushering in a new paradigm for money, nation-states, and energy-efficiency. Most importantly, it promises to break the cycle of criminality in which governments continuously privatize gains (via seigniorage) and socialize losses (via inflation). Time and time again, excessive inflation has torn societies apart, yet the lessons of history remain unlearned—once again, here we are:

Thank you internet for all the hilarious yet meaningful memes.

The Zero Hour

How much longer will monetary socialism remain an extant economic model? The countdown has already begun: Ten. Nine. Eight. Seven. Six. Five. Four. Three. Two. One. Liftoff. Rocket technicians always wait for zero before ignition; countdowns always finalize at the zero hour. Oil price wars erupting in Eurasia, a global pandemic, an unprecedented expansionary monetary policy response, and another quadrennial Bitcoin inflation-rate halving: 2020 is quickly becoming the zero hour for Bitcoin.

Inflation rate and societal wellbeing are inversely related: the more reliably value can be stored across time, the more trust can be cultivated among market participants. When a money’s roots to economic reality are severed—as happened when the peg to gold was broken and fiat currency was born—its supply inevitably trends towards infinity (hyperinflation) and the functioning of its underlying society deteriorates towards zero (economic collapse). An unstoppable free market alternative, Bitcoin is anchored to economic reality (through proof-of-work energy expenditure) and has an inflation rate predestined for zero, meaning that a society operating on a Bitcoin standard would stand to gain in virtually infinite ways. When Bitcoin’s inflation rate finally reaches zero in the mid 22nd century, the measure of its soundness as a store of value (the stock-to-flow ratio) will become infinite; people that realize this and adopt it early will benefit disproportionately from the resultant mass wealth transfer.

Zero and infinity are reciprocal: 1/∞ = 0 and 1/0 = ∞. In the same way, a society’s wellbeing shrinks towards zero the more closely the inflation rate approaches infinity (through the hyperinflation of fiat currency). Conversely, societal wellbeing can, in theory, be expanded towards infinity the more closely the inflation rate approaches zero (through the absolute scarcity of Bitcoin). Remember: The Fed is now doing whatever it takes to make sure there is “infinite cash” in the banking system, meaning that its value will eventually fall to zero:

Market value of money always converges to its marginal cost of production: “Infinite cash” means dollars will inevitably become as valuable as the paper on which they are printed.

Zero arose in the world as an unstoppable idea because its time had come; it broke the dominion of The Church and put an end to its monopolization over access to knowledge and the gates to heaven. The resultant movement—The Separation of Church and State—reinvigorated self-sovereignty in the world, setting the individual firmly as the cornerstone of the state. Rising from The Church’s ashes came a nation-state model founded on sound property rights, rule of law, and free market money (aka hard money). With this new age came an unprecedented boom in scientific advancement, wealth creation, and worldwide wellbeing. In the same way, Bitcoin and its underlying discovery of absolute scarcity for money is an idea whose time has come. Bitcoin is shattering the siege of central banks on our financial sovereignty; it is invoking a new movement—The Separation of Money and State—as its revolutionary banner; and it is restoring Natural Law in a world ravaged by a mega-wealth-parasite—The Fed.

Only unstoppable ideas can break otherwise immovable institutions: zero brought The Church to its knees and Bitcoin is bringing the false church of The Fed into the sunlight of its long-awaited judgement day.

Both zero and Bitcoin are emblematic of the void, a realm of pure potentiality from which all things spring forth into being — the nothingness from which everything effervesces, and into which all possibility finally collapses. Zero and Bitcoin are unstoppable ideas gifted to mankind; gestures made in the spirit of “something for nothing.” In a world run by central banks with zero accountability, a cabal that uses the specious prospects of “infinite cash” to promise us everything (thereby introducing the specter of hyperinflation), nothingness may prove to be the greatest gift we could ever receive…

Thank you Brahmagupta and Satoshi Nakamoto for your generosity.

The Last Chance to Defeat China and Win Back the Cyber Domain?

Two months ago, when Zooming In did a story on Huawei and global 5G deployment, Huawei was poised to take control of much of the world’s cyber domain. We talked about the national security implications of that prospect. And we observed the U.S. efforts to raise awareness of that risk. Two months later, when we did another story on this topic, we realized the world knows Huawei a lot better through these efforts, but Huawei’s momentum has not stopped. In fact, Huawei and China are playing a grander game. They have a brilliant strategy that is working well with the very nature of a crony capitalism. Can this battle still be won by the free world? And what does it take to win? Let’s find out in this edition of Zooming In.
F

The Only Time Trump Wants International Cooperation

PABLO MARTINEZ MONSIVAIS / AP
Love your nation. Celebrate its sovereignty. Never buy into the misguided idea that someone else’s country should tell you how to run yours. President Donald Trump’s speech to the United Nations General Assembly last week was an ode to chest-thumping nationalism. But in one specialized field of human endeavor, Trump seems to believe that America is not nearly great enough: sliming political rivals.

As a presidential candidate, now and in 2016, Trump has tried to outsource opposition research to countries whose legal systems are awash in corruption or tainted by political influence.

Three years ago, he looked into a bank of TV cameras and implored Russia, “if you’re listening,” to find Hillary Clinton’s deleted State Department emails. (Russia was listening and, we’ve since learned, hopped right to it, as Robert Mueller’s investigation showed.) Trump now faces an impeachment investigation in the House for pressuring Ukraine to dig up damaging information about the 2020 Democratic front-runner, former Vice President Joe Biden. Heedless of the impeachment machinery whirring on Capitol Hill, he stood outside the White House on Thursday and told reporters that he’d like to see the Chinese investigate the business dealings of Biden’s son Hunter in their country.

In so many other arenas, Trump has denounced and ditched international cooperation. He pulled out of the Iran nuclear agreement and the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership, both of which Barack Obama had negotiated. He’s questioned whether the NATO military alliance is worth the price. “America first” was the slogan that helped Trump win the presidency. But he doesn’t seem to believe it’s the tactic that will help him keep it.

Trump sees foreign-policy priorities as bargaining chips, advancing or discarding them as his needs change. In an example from 2017, he dialed back public criticism of China because he wanted the country’s help ending North Korea’s nuclear program. That summer, his aides had drafted a speech aimed at intellectual-property theft, which they viewed as a bedrock Chinese trade practice. At Trump’s insistence, they eliminated virtually all references to China in hopes of not offending its leadership at a time when he was coaxing them to lean on North Korea.

These sorts of calculations fall within the bounds of traditional statecraft. What happens, though, when Trump tosses domestic politics into the mix? What if China agreed to plow forward with an investigation into the Bidens at Trump’s behest? Could that induce Trump to go softer in U.S.-China trade talks—negotiations that influence the price of consumer goods, the livelihood of American farmers, and employment levels? When a president conflates personal politics with the national interest, we’re left to wonder.

If Trump was worried about possible corruption involving Americans overseas, he could turn to his own country’s investigators for help examining their dealings. There is, of course, a law-enforcement agency with a long tradition of investigatory work here in the sovereign United States: the FBI. It would be an abuse of power for Trump to order the FBI or the Justice Department to fast-track an investigation into any political opponent, but he would be within his rights to pass along what information he may have, Richard Painter, who was the chief White House ethics lawyer under President George W. Bush, told me.

But Trump doesn’t want the bureau on the case. He’s spent much of his presidency savaging the FBI and the broader U.S. intelligence community, airing baseless accusations that they spied on him during the 2016 election. In an interview with ABC News in June, Trump was dismissive of the notion that it’s wrong for foreign governments to provide dirt on political opponents, and that the right thing for campaigns to do when they’re contacted is to involve the FBI.

“But when somebody comes up with oppo research, right, they come up with oppo research, ‘Oh, let’s call the FBI.’ The FBI doesn’t have enough agents to take care of it,” Trump told the network’s George Stephanopoulos.

Trump conveyed his disdain for the bureau’s leadership—officials he appointed—when Stephanopoulos reminded him that FBI Director Christopher Wray had recently testified to Congress that campaigns should report instances of foreign interference in U.S. elections. “The FBI director is wrong, because frankly it doesn’t happen like that in life,” Trump said. What’s wrong is not only saying, as Trump once did, that you’d accept help from foreign countries in an election, but strong-arming them into tarring a political opponent. After he said he’d like China to probe the Bidens, the Federal Election Commission chairwoman, Ellen Weintraub, retweeted a message she’d sent over the summer that it’s illegal to solicit something of value from a foreign national as part of a U.S. election.

“Is this thing on?” Weintraub wrote, cheekily, using a microphone emoji.

Between the entreaties made to China and Ukraine, it’s clear the blowback from 2016 has not made the president any more cautious, and he continues to blur the lines between his own interests and his duties as head of state. Take the batch of text messages released by House Democrats late Thursday night. Right before a July phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Kurt Volker, a former U.S. special envoy to Ukraine, sent a message to a Zelensky aide. The note suggests that a summit meeting between the two leaders was conditioned on Ukraine’s willingness to investigate a discredited theory that Russia might not have been the ones that pilfered Democratic emails in the 2016 race.

Writing that he had “heard from the White House,” Volker told the aide that if Zelensky would agree in the call to “get to the bottom of what happened in 2016,” the administration would “nail down” a meeting between the presidents.

The texts show Ukraine was reluctant to go along with the scheme, which smacks of a quid pro quo. In one note in July, William Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat there, wrote that Zelensky was “sensitive about Ukraine being taken seriously, not merely as an instrument in Washington domestic, reelection politics.” Yet Ukraine may have decided that defying Trump is too risky. New reports show that Ukraine’s prosecutor general is reviewing how the country handled an investigation into the energy company Burisma Group, on whose board Hunter Biden sat. That inquiry could ostensibly lead to the sort of renewed investigation into the Bidens that Trump wants done.

There’s no obvious parallel to a president so brazenly enlisting foreign countries in schemes to discredit political rivals. As a Republican candidate in the 1968 presidential race, Richard Nixon took steps to sabotage then-President Lyndon Johnson’s efforts to reach a Vietnamese peace deal. Using private surrogates, Nixon delivered a message to South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu that if he delayed, he might get better terms in a Nixon presidency. Nixon’s aim was to deprive the Democrats of a breakthrough in the war that might tip the election in Vice President Hubert Humphrey’s favor. Johnson would later complain that the ploy amounted to “treason,” as the author John Farrell described in his biography of Nixon.

But Nixon was only a candidate at the time, a private citizen. Trump is a sitting president.

“If you want democracy, hold onto your sovereignty,” he said in his U.N. speech. In the months leading up to that address, we now know, he was compromising U.S. sovereignty and weakening its democracy, all to extinguish the chances of a campaign opponent. In the week after the speech, nothing’s changed.

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.” ♦

Trump’s Administration Used to Fight Corruption in Guatemala. Then Guatemala Moved Its Embassy to Jerusalem

For a decade, the United States backed an international body investigating corruption in Guatemala. Now experts are asking why the White House is silent as the country’s president, Jimmy Morales, wages war on the panel

In May, Guatemala became the first country in the world to follow in the Trump administration’s footsteps and move its Israeli embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The White House promised at the time that it would reward the small Latin American country for its decision. Could that reward come in the form of turning a blind eye to attacks by Guatemala’s president on an international anti-corruption body?

Experts and former U.S. officials see a possible link between Guatemala’s decision to move the embassy and the Trump administration’s change of policy with regards to the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), a U.N.-supported panel that has uncovered vast corruption scandals in the country.

The administration, according to experts on U.S. policy in Latin America, is looking the other way while Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales tries to dismantle CICIG by sending military forces to its local office and barring the panel’s head, Iván Velásquez, from entering the country.

The American position on this issue has shifted dramatically – not just in comparison to how the Bush and Obama administrations treated it, but also in comparison to how the Trump administration treated it just last summer,” said Benjamin Gedan, an expert on Latin America at the Wilson Center in Washington.

Gedan said he has no direct knowledge of a connection between Guatemala’s policy on Jerusalem and Trump’s policy on the Latin American state. He notes, though, that “this seems like a possible explanation. The change in American policy on CICIG makes no sense.”

The Guatemalan government has accused CICIG of being a “super-national entity that dictates to governments how to exercise their duties” on behalf of the UN. An article in The Economist called this accusation “flimsy”.

He mentioned another possible explanation: That, unlike other Latin American countries, Guatemala has not cozied up to China and continues to hold diplomatic relations with Taiwan.
CICIG was established in 2007 with the strong backing of the George W. Bush administration. “Fighting corruption in politics is an urgent need in Guatemala and elsewhere in Latin America,” said Gedan, who worked on Latin America policy in the Obama White House. Over the past decade, he added, the panel has contributed to the downfall of a number of senior politicians in Guatemala, including the country’s previous president, Otto Pérez Molina. He is currently in detention and awaits trial on corruption charges.

Molina was replaced in 2016 by Morales, who was a comedian prior to entering politics. Over the past year, Morales has been showing an increasing level of hostility toward CICIG, probably as a result of an investigation regarding his campaign finances. The panel is looking into allegations that Morales’ party received more than $1 million of illegal campaign donations in the 2015 election, according to a report last week in The Washington Post.

Morales’ attacks on CICIG first surfaced in the summer of 2017 when he tried to expel Velásquez from the country and get him replaced. The Trump administration reacted quickly and forcefully, signaling to Morales that the United States had the anti-corruption body’s back.

This was not the first time a U.S. administration thwarted attempts by the Guatemalan government to weaken CICIG. Under the Obama administration, Vice President Joe Biden at one point threatened to cancel all U.S. aid to Guatemala, in light of attempts by the country’s previous president, Molina, to shut down the panel’s investigations.

“When you compare those past responses to how the Trump administration is reacting to Morales’ current attack on CICIG, there truly is no good explanation for what they are doing,” said Gedan.

Morales announced last week he was shutting down the panel and barring Velásquez from entering Guatemala. He also sent military forces, driving U.S.-manufactured vehicles, to CICIG’s offices. While the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala released a statement expressing support for CICIG’s work, the statement did not include direct criticism of Morales’ actions.

On September 6, at the height of Morales’ attacks on CICIG, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke to the Guatemalan president over the phone. The State Department readout of the conversationcontained no criticism of Morales’ actions. Instead, it opened by stating that Pompeo “reiterated the United States’ support for Guatemalan sovereignty.”

According to the readout, Pompeo “expressed continued support of the United States for a reformed CICIG and committed to continue working with Guatemala on implementing the reforms in the coming year.”

A former senior U.S. official who worked on Latin America policy told Haaretz that this statement was “a huge achievement” for Morales in his fight against CICIG.

The former official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that “Pompeo basically told Morales that America had his back, and that CICIG is viewed as a problematic organization that needs to go through reforms. The fact that the readout included no mention of Morales’ aggressive steps against CICIG is a sad capitulation to violence, and it sends a message that has already been received by other leaders in the region,” the official added.

“Since 2007, across the Bush and Obama administrations, and in both the Senate and the House of Representatives, a bipartisan commitment to CICIG has been a fundamental element of our foreign policy,” the legislators wrote in their letter. They also mentioned Morales’ use of U.S.-manufactured military vehicles against CICIG, writing that “such a gesture is unacceptable and does not comply with the purpose for which the United States donated the vehicles.”

It should be noted that all four lawmakers are considered strong supporters of Israel. This could indicate that, on the congressional level at least, Guatemala’s decision on Jerusalem has not affected, so far, their response to Morales’ attacks on his own investigators.

Flight on Adelson’s private jet

Morales may be losing popularity on Capitol Hill, but there are other places where he still enjoys support and appreciation. One such place is Jerusalem.

Over the weekend, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu released a statement congratulating Guatemala on its Independence Day, personally applauding Morales for his leadership.

Morales is also popular in pro-Israel circles in the United States. Last May, for example, when Morales visited Israel to celebrate the relocation of his country’s embassy to Jerusalem, gambling tycoon and Republican megadonor Sheldon Adelson let Guatemala’s government use his personal Boeing 767 aircraft for the journey. The plane carried government officials and other guests, according to a statement by Guatemala’s foreign minister.

Morales also spoke in March at the annual conference of the AIPAC pro-Israeli lobby in Washington, where he received a warm welcome from thousands of participants. An AIPAC official told Haaretz that it was not doing anything to help Morales push back against the current criticism he is facing in Congress. “We are not involved,” the official said.

The Israeli Embassy in Washington also said it was not aiding Guatemala on Capitol Hill or with the Trump administration.

But perhaps Morales doesn’t need any help. Hector Silva Avalos, a journalist and former diplomat who has written extensively on corruption in Latin America, wrote in InSight Crime last week that “mixed messages from Washington have left the door open for Morales to strengthen his fight against the institutions investigating him for alleged illicit campaign financing.”

Avalos added that “with several Trump administration officials in his corner, Jimmy Morales has the advantage in his battle against CICIG.”

Guatemala’s president tries to shut down anti-corruption group investigating him

Last year, Morales tried to expel the head of CICIG, Colombian prosecutor Iván Velásquez, but the Consitutional Court blocked the move.

Over the past week, the conflict has flared up again. On Friday, Morales said he would not renew CICIG’s mandate, which expires next year. The same day, Guatemalan military vehicles stood guard outside CICIG’s offices and descended on a central plaza. On Tuesday, Morales ordered that Velásquez, who has led CICIG since 2013, not be allowed back in Guatemala.

. On Tuesday, Morales ordered that Velásquez, who has led CICIG since 2013, not be allowed back in Guatemala.

.. While Velásquez remains in the United States, the work of CICIG continues, said a spokesman, Matias Ponce. The organization, which has about 200 staff members, is also waiting for the Guatemalan government to renew work visas of CICIG’s foreign staff, he said.

Apart from blocking Velásquez’s entrance into Guatemala, the Morales government this year removed 25 police personnel assigned to guard CICIG, cutting its security force in half.

Morales has argued that CICIG, as a foreign body that receives U.S. funding, constitutes a violation of Guatemalan sovereignty and that Guatemala’s own judicial institutions should be handling such graft cases.

CICIG works in conjunction with the Guatemalan attorney general’s office in building corruption cases.

In a letter to U.N. Secretary General António Guterres last week, Morales said CICIG has had more than “sufficient” time over the course of its mandate to achieve its goals.

.. “For some time now, there have been efforts to derail anti-corruption efforts in Guatemala and continued attacks against the commission and the commissioner,” said Adriana Beltrán, a Guatemala expert at the Washington Office on Latin America. Morales’s actions, she said, are “his attempt to protect himself, given the continuing probe against him.”

.. CICIG works in conjunction with the Guatemalan attorney general’s office in building corruption cases.

.. CICIG was set up in 2006 to bolster Guatemala’s weak judicial institutions. At the time, impunity was rampant in the country, and murders were hardly ever solved. The group, composed of investigators from around the world, used sophisticated investigative techniques, wiretapping and examination of financial records to pursue high-profile crimes. Its work became a model and inspiration in Latin America, where corruption often goes unpunished.

But CICIG has also been polarizing. Critics see it as overzealous and manipulated for political reasons. Earlier this year, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) put on hold $6 million in State Department funding to CICIG, saying he was concerned that Russia had “manipulated” the group into pushing for the prosecution of a Russian family in Guatemala.

CICIG’s investigation against Morales had also been gaining steam. Last month, Velásquez, along with Guatemalan Attorney General María Consuelo Porras, asked the nation’s Congress to strip Morales of his immunity from prosecution. A congressional commission has been formed to weigh the request.

Time for G.O.P. to Threaten to Fire Trump

Republican leaders need to mount an intervention.

Up to now I have not favored removing President Trump from office. I felt strongly that it would be best for the country that he leave the way he came in, through the ballot box. But last week was a watershed moment for me, and I think for many Americans, including some Republicans.

It was the moment when you had to ask whether we really can survive two more years of Trump as president, whether this man and his demented behavior — which will get only worse as the Mueller investigation concludes — are going to destabilize our country, our markets, our key institutions and, by extension, the world. And therefore his removal from office now has to be on the table.

I believe that the only responsible choice for the Republican Party today is an intervention with the president that makes clear that if there is not a radical change in how he conducts himself — and I think that is unlikely — the party’s leadership will have no choice but to press for his resignation or join calls for his impeachment.

It has to start with Republicans, given both the numbers needed in the Senate and political reality. Removing this president has to be an act of national unity as much as possibleotherwise it will tear the country apart even more. I know that such an action is very difficult for today’s G.O.P., but the time is long past for it to rise to confront this crisis of American leadership.

Trump’s behavior has become so erratic, his lying so persistent, his willingness to fulfill the basic functions of the presidency — like

  • reading briefing books,
  • consulting government experts before making major changes and
  • appointing a competent staff — so absent,

his readiness to accommodate Russia and spurn allies so disturbing and his obsession with himself and his ego over all other considerations so consistent, two more years of him in office could pose a real threat to our nation. Vice President Mike Pence could not possibly be worse.

The damage an out-of-control Trump can do goes well beyond our borders. America is the keystone of global stability. Our world is the way it is today — a place that, despite all its problems, still enjoys more peace and prosperity than at any time in history — because America is the way it is (or at least was). And that is a nation that at its best has always stood up for the universal values of freedom and human rights, has always paid extra to stabilize the global system from which we were the biggest beneficiary and has always nurtured and protected alliances with like-minded nations.

Donald Trump has proved time and again that he knows nothing of the history or importance of this America. That was made starkly clear in Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis’s resignation letter.

Trump is in the grip of a mad notion that the entire web of global institutions and alliances built after World War II — which, with all their imperfections, have provided the connective tissues that have created this unprecedented era of peace and prosperity — threatens American sovereignty and prosperity and that we are better off without them.

So Trump gloats at the troubles facing the European Union, urges Britain to exit and leaks that he’d consider quitting NATO. These are institutions that all need to be improved, but not scrapped. If America becomes a predator on all the treaties, multilateral institutions and alliances holding the world together; if America goes from being the world’s anchor of stability to an engine of instability; if America goes from a democracy built on the twin pillars of truth and trust to a country where it is acceptable for the president to attack truth and trust on a daily basis, watch out: Your kids won’t just grow up in a different America. They will grow up in a different world.

The last time America disengaged from the world remotely in this manner was in the 1930s, and you remember what followed: World War II.

You have no idea how quickly institutions like NATO and the E.U. and the World Trade Organization and just basic global norms — like thou shalt not kill and dismember a journalist in your own consulate — can unravel when America goes AWOL or haywire under a shameless isolated president.

But this is not just about the world, it’s about the minimum decorum and stability we expect from our president. If the C.E.O. of any public company in America behaved like Trump has over the past two years —

  • constantly lying,
  • tossing out aides like they were Kleenex,
  • tweeting endlessly like a teenager,
  • ignoring the advice of experts —

he or she would have been fired by the board of directors long ago. Should we expect less for our president?

That’s what the financial markets are now asking. For the first two years of the Trump presidency the markets treated his dishonesty and craziness as background noise to all the soaring corporate profits and stocks. But that is no longer the case. Trump has markets worried.

.. The instability Trump is generating — including his attacks on the chairman of the Federal Reserve — is causing investors to wonder where the economic and geopolitical management will come from as the economy slows down.

  • What if we’re plunged into an economic crisis and we have a president whose first instinct is always to blame others and
  • who’s already purged from his side the most sober adults willing to tell him that his vaunted “gut instincts” have no grounding in economics or in law or in common sense. Mattis was the last one.

We are now left with the B team — all the people who were ready to take the jobs that Trump’s first team either resigned from — because they could not countenance his lying, chaos and ignorance — or were fired from for the same reasons.

I seriously doubt that any of these B-players would have been hired by any other administration. Not only do they not inspire confidence in a crisis, but they are all walking around knowing that Trump would stab every one of them in the back with his Twitter knife, at any moment, if it served him. This makes them even less effective.

Indeed, Trump’s biggest disruption has been to undermine the norms and values we associate with a U.S. president and U.S. leadership. And now that Trump has freed himself of all restraints from within his White House staff, his cabinet and his party — so that “Trump can be Trump,” we are told — he is freer than ever to remake America in his image.

And what is that image? According to The Washington Post’s latest tally, Trump has made 7,546 false or misleading claims, an average of five a day, through Dec. 20, the 700th day of his term in office. And all that was supposedly before “we let Trump be Trump.”

If America starts to behave as a selfish, shameless, lying grifter like Trump, you simply cannot imagine how unstable — how disruptive —world markets and geopolitics may become.

We cannot afford to find out.