Trying to decide whom to trust when the choices are between Donald Trump and his former neocon-hawk adviser John Bolton can induce a political shame spiral. Why are these my choices? Why do I have to care about these has-beens? And why am I the one feeling shame, when both men should have been shamed off the public stage decades ago? I don’t trust either.
Yet Bolton has stepped up to state the obvious about the stunning seven-and-a-half-hour gap in Trump’s phone call records on the day of the January 6 insurrection. That revelation, reported by The Washington Post on March 29, has led to speculation that Trump was using either other people’s cell phones or disposable “burner phones” to communicate on that deadly day. Trump has denied the burner charge, claiming to the Post that “I have no idea what a burner phone is, to the best of my knowledge I have never even heard the term.” But that’s ludicrous on its face. Trump operates like the boss of a crime family; it’s impossible to believe that he wouldn’t know one of the basic tools of organized crime.
Interviewed by the Post on Tuesday, Bolton said he’d not only heard Trump use the term on numerous occasions but also discussed with him what people use the phones for. On CNN Thursday morning, Bolton reiterated this assertion: “It was a term he kind of liked. He would say, ‘They have these burner phones.’ The former president’s acquaintance with the truth is often very casual. This is a good example of it.” He went on to observe that the lack of call logs between the crucial hours of 11:17 am and 6:54 pm must have been a “deliberate” move by Trump, since we know he didn’t stay off the telephone: There are many accounts of people, including GOP lawmakers, talking to him during that time. “I don’t know what other explanation would make any sense, frankly,” Bolton told Brianna Keilar. “He didn’t want a record of the calls. And what he was saying in those calls is anybody’s guess. Some people say they have received calls. They have described what the subject of the conversation was. So we know he was making calls.”
Of course, Bolton had left Trump’s employ by that point, so he has no proof of his theory. But he’s one of the few conservatives willing to acknowledge that Trump dropped off the face of the call-log universe—at the very moment his supporters were rallying to overturn Joe Biden’s election, storming the Capitol to stop the certification of electoral votes, bludgeoning and tasering police officers, and finally retreating—because he wanted to hide whom he was talking to. The Presidential Records Act requires that logs of the president’s calls, as well as faxes, e-mails and memos, be kept and delivered to the National Archives. We already know of several examples of missing Trump records, as well as memos he tried to destroy that had to be taped together by White House staff—and some he reportedly tried to flush down a toilet.
The missing 457 minutes are especially interesting because the call log and presidential diary for January 6 reveal Trump talked to quite a few of his alleged co-conspirators in his plot to overturn the election both before and after the seven-hour gap, including former adviser Steve Bannon (who’s been indicted for contempt of Congress, for refusing to testify in the House Select Committee on January 6 investigation); aide Dan Scavino (who is about to be held in contempt for failing to testify); chief of staff Mark Meadows; and outlaw lawyers Rudy Giuliani and Cleta Mitchell. So, whom is Trump trying to protect here? Maybe merely: himself. He likely had to make an advance decision either to use a burner phone or borrow someone else’s for those dramatic hours. It seems like more evidence Trump knew in advance what was coming.
It’s hard to know what to pay closest attention to in the thousand-ring Trump circus this week, but Bolton ties together a few threads. On Tuesday, Trump suggested to marginal right-wing television anchor John Solomon that Russia’s Vladimir Putin might be persuaded to release dirt on a nonexistent $3 million payment from the wife of Moscow’s mayor to Hunter Biden and his father: “As long as Putin now is not exactly a fan of our country, let him explain.” It’s not just that the payment never happened, it’s that Trump is expressly using it to exacerbate tensions between Russia and the US, which seems a little, I don’t know, anti-American?
When that news broke, I wasn’t the only one who was reminded of Trump’s attempt to hold back $391 million in military aid to Ukraine, in September 2019, until new president V0lodymyr Zelensky provided dirt on Hunter Biden. Bolton himself confirmed the attempted blackmail—but only after he kept it to himself to sell his 2020 book, The Room Where It Happened. The House impeached Trump over that abuse of power, but the Senate, without calling witnesses, voted to acquit him. Oh, and now Ukraine is fighting off a crushing Putin invasion. It’s funny how all of that has come together.
Somehow, though, congressional GOP leaders are far more concerned about wing nut Representative Madison Cawthorn’s claim that he’s been invited to Republican cocaine orgies than about any of these Trump revelations—or about Cawthorn and other House GOP members’ incitement of violence or cozying up to anti-Semites and white nationalists. House minority leader Kevin McCarthy gave Cawthorn a stern talking to, telling him he’d lost his “trust.” Reportedly, House GOP members care more about Cawthorn’s creepy cocaine-orgy claims than his other wrongdoing—or Trump’s—because they’re getting complaints from voters. (Though I’m not a fan of cocaine orgies myself, I’d certainly prefer that the wing nuts indulge in them rather than armed insurrection aimed at toppling a lawfully elected president.)
It’s just another example of the toxic feedback loop in which Republican leaders’ support for political extremism leads to their voters’ tolerance, even welcoming, of such extremism. Trump led the way; now even mainstream Republicans are following.
Meanwhile, Merrick Garland’s Justice Department seems overmatched by the GOP’s many-year assault on justice. I don’t know how this ends, but Trump and his allies seem to believe they can simply outwait Democrats. If—I won’t say when—Republicans take the House in November, they’ll almost certainly be proven right.