Bolton memoir: Trump talks profanely about Ukraine, Zelensky
By Matthew Kupfer. Published June 22. Updated June 22 at 8:48 pm
In his new memoir, former U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton confirms what others have concluded: President Donald J. Trump doesn’t like Ukraine, had no interest in meeting Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and fawned over Russian President Vladimir Putin as well as other authoritarian leaders.
And Bolton quotes Trump in all the profane detail, although Trump has dismissed his former top aide as a “wacko” and “a grossly incompetent liar.”
“I don’t want to have any fucking thing to do with Ukraine,” Bolton quotes Trump as saying, citing his deputy’s account of a meeting. “They fucking attacked me. I can’t understand why… They tried to fuck me. They’re corrupt. I’m not fucking with them.”
As for Zelensky, Trump said, “I have no fucking interest in meeting with him.”
The two presidents still haven’t met in the White House, nearly a year after the infamous July 25, 2019, phone call leading to Trump’s impeachment by the U.S. House and acquittal by the U.S. Senate. Trump, in the conversation, tried to get Zelensky to investigate his Democratic rival, ex-U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden, as the Republican president withheld nearly $400 million in military and other aid to Ukraine.
Moreover, Bolton reveals:
— Former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko asked for re-election support from the U.S. government and sanctions against billionaire oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky, seen as backing Zelensky in the 2019 presidential race;
— Trump viewed Ukraine as an obstacle to closer relations with Russia;
— Trump harbored deep hostility against Marie Yovanovitch, then the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, based upon unfounded conspiracy allegations promoted by his personal lawyer, Rudolph Giuliani;
— Trump also took aim at George Kent, a top U.S. Department of State official; and
— The U.S. State Department didn’t want Bolton to meet individually with Ukrainian politician Yulia Tymoshenko.
Bolton served in the Trump White House from April 2018 to September 2019 and witnessed many events that would be hotly discussed during Trump’s impeachment.
In his memoir The Room Where It Happened — which was scheduled for release on June 23, but leaked online days earlier — Trump is portrayed as obsessively self-interested and hostile toward Ukraine.
For Bolton, it was no surprise that the U.S. president predicated aid for Ukraine on the country’s leadership opening criminal investigations that he felt would help him get reelected in November 2020. Therefore, the infamous July 25, 2019 phone call was “not a keystone for me, but simply another brick in the wall.”
“I am hard-pressed to identify any significant Trump decision during my tenure that wasn’t driven by reelection calculations,” Bolton writes. Eventually, in early September 2019 as Bolton resigned, Trump released the aid to Ukraine.
Trump’s personal feelings about Ukraine are hardly a secret. He and his political allies have pushed an unsubstantiated narrative that Kyiv interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election to help his competitor, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. This was widely viewed as an attempt to deflect attention from Russia’s proven interference in the election in support of Trump
In a September 2019 interview with the Columbia Journalism Review, Ambassador Kurt Volker, then the U.S. special representative to Ukraine, admitted that Trump has “a built-in, negative bias” against the country.
“He thinks it’s corrupt, they’re all terrible people, it’s a horribly corrupt country, you can’t fix it, and it’s not worth it,” Volker said.
Still, Bolton’s account of Trump’s obscene tirade against Ukraine is stark for its extreme vitriol.
On May 23, 2019, Trump met with a U.S. delegation that had just returned from the inauguration of Zelensky. It included Volker, Energy Secretary Rick Perry, U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland and Republican Senator Ron Johnson. The four men had returned home from Kyiv with a positive impression of the new president.
Bolton, who was in Tokyo at the time, would learn of the ensuing conversation — and Trump’s tirade — from his deputy, Charles Kupperman.
Trump lashed out against Ukraine, saying he wanted nothing to do with the country. When Perry tried to explain that helping Ukraine was important, Trump would hear nothing of it.
“Ukraine tried to take me down. I’m not fucking interested in helping them,” Trump said.
He also encouraged Perry to speak with his personal lawyer, Giuliani, and Joe DiGenova, a pro-Trump lawyer and pundit. Both have pushed the Ukrainian election interference narrative.
“I want the fucking DNC server,” Trump said, referring to a strange conspiracy theory that one of the Democratic National Committee’s servers, which were hacked by Russia in 2016, was being held somewhere in Ukraine. The theory is patently untrue.
According to Bolton, several weeks later, Johnson of Wisconsin admitted to being “shocked by the president’s response.”
“I thought it sounded just like another day at the office,” Bolton writes.
Another surprising episode in Bolton’s memoir is his 2018 one-on-one conversation with then-President Poroshenko.
On Aug. 24, Bolton had come to Ukraine to attend the country’s Independence Day parade. Afterwards, he held several meetings with top Ukrainian officials.
After one of those meetings, Poroshenko led him off into another room for a private talk and asked for the United States to endorse his reelection campaign, Bolton writes. “He also asked for a number of things that I addressed, allowing me to slide past the endorsement request without being too rude when I said no.”
But that wasn’t the only thing on the Ukrainian president’s mind.
“What he really wanted was for America to sanction Ihor Kolomoisky, a Ukrainian oligarch backing (former Ukrainian Prime Minister) Yulia Tymoshenko, who was, at least at this point, Poroshenko’s main competition in the 2019 elections.”
Bolton told Poroshenko that “if he had evidence on Kolomoisky, he should send it to the Justice Department.”
The Kyiv Post reached out to Poroshenko’s spokesperson for comment, but did not receive an answer.
Kolomoisky would go on to back Zelensky’s victorious presidential campaign. Later, he would manage to insert a number of his loyalists into the new president’s Servant of the People party during the July 2019 parliamentary elections. In May 2020, Buzzfeed News reported that Kolomoisky was under investigation by a U.S. federal grand jury for money laundering
After his conversation with Poroshenko, Bolton would have coffee at the U.S. ambassador’s residence with Ukrainian parliamentary leaders. Among them was Tymoshenko.
A long-time Ukrainian political heavyweight, Tymoshenko dominated the conversation, even noting that she had read Bolton’s book, Surrender Is Not an Option.
Bolton writes that the State Department “didn’t want me to meet with Tymoshenko separately because they thought she was too close to Russia, although typical of the department’s methods, that’s not how they put it.”
Giuliani vs. Yovanovitch
On May 20, 2019, U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch was formally removed from office after being recalled a month earlier.
Yovanovitch had lost her job to vicious rumors spread by Ukrainian politicians, people close to Trump and even the president’s own son. They claimed that she was bad-mouthing him and trying to undermine his presidency.
The career diplomat’s firing would deliver a serious blow to morale at the Department of State. She would go on to testify during Trump’s impeachment.
In his book, Bolton recalls that, on March 23, 2019, Trump complained that Yovanovitch was “bad-mouthing us like crazy” and that she was only concerned about LGBTQ issues.
“She is saying bad shit about me and about you,” he said, before demanding that she be fired immediately.
Several days later, on March 25, Bolton would learn that Giuliani was the source of Trump’s claims about Yovanovitch. Giuliani alleged that George Kent, the deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, was protecting Yovanovitch and was working with financier and philanthropist George Soros against Trump. This was also an unsubstantiated conspiracy theory.
“I reached (Secretary of State Michael) Pompeo by phone in the late afternoon to relay the latest news, now with the update that it came from Giuliani,” Bolton writes. “Pompeo said he had spoken with Giuliani before, and there were no facts supporting any of his allegations, although Pompeo didn’t doubt that, like 90 percent of the Foreign Service, Yovanovitch probably voted for Clinton.
“He said she was trying to reduce corruption in Ukraine and may well have been going after some of Giuliani’s clients.”
Soon, Bolton would speak with Pompeo again.
“He again mentioned his previous conversations with Giuliani, who couldn’t describe in any detail what had supposedly happened but who had raised it constantly with Trump over the past several months,” the former national security advisor writes. “But Pompeo also said that, in looking at the embassy, the State Department now had a pile of materials they were sending over to (the Department of) Justice that implicated Yovanovitch and her predecessor in some unnamed and undescribed activity that might be criminal.”
The Kyiv Post reached out to Yovanovitch for comment, but has not received a response.
Giuliani later denied that he had any clients involved in the firing of the ambassador — “which I found hard to believe,” Bolton writes.
On August 26, 2019, Bolton would again travel to Ukraine and meet with Zelensky, his chief of staff, top government officials and military leaders. Here he would finally attempt to address the claims being made by Giuliani, albeit somewhat obliquely.
After a meeting, Bolton pulled aside Ruslan Riaboshapka, then the country’s prosecutor general. Riaboshapka had not said much in the meeting, “which I hoped showed his discretion,” Bolton writes.
“Here I had my only conversation in Ukraine on Giuliani’s issues, and a very brief one at that,” he continues. “I urged Ryaboshapka (sic) to speak directly to (Attorney General William) Barr and the Justice Department as soon as he took office, figuring this was the best way to prevent fantasy from overwhelming reality.
“I didn’t mention the words ‘Rudy Giuliani,’ hoping the omission spoke volumes. Time would tell.”
After his visit to Ukraine, Bolton left Kyiv “confident Zelensky understood the magnitude of the task facing him, at home and abroad, as did his incoming team,” he writes. “These were people we could work with, so long as we didn’t get lost in the fever swamps, which remained to be seen.”
However, before Bolton left, acting U.S. Ambassador William Taylor, who had replaced Yovanovitch, asked him how to handle the Giuliani issue.
“I urged him to write a ‘first-person cable’ to Pompeo telling him what he knew,” Bolton writes. “‘First-person cables’ are rare, direct messages from a chief of mission straight to the secretary of state, reserved for extraordinary circumstances, which we obviously had here. Besides, it was past time to get Pompeo more actively into the fray.”