In private speech, Bolton suggests some of Trump's foreign policy decisions are guided by personal interest

The former national security director was especially critical of the president's handling of Turkey, according to multiple sources present for his remarks.
Then-national security adviser John Bolton, in the Oval Office on Aug. 20, 2019.Alex Wong / Getty Images file
By Stephanie Ruhle and Carol E. Lee

Former national security adviser John Bolton derided President Donald Trump’s daughter and son-in-law during a private speech last week and suggested his former boss’ approach to U.S. policy on Turkey is motivated by personal or financial interests, several people who were present for the remarks told NBC News.

According to six people who were there, Bolton also questioned the merits of Trump applying his business acumen to foreign policy, saying such issues can’t be approached like the win-or-lose edict that drives real estate deals: When one deal doesn’t work, you move on to the next.

The description was part of a broader portrait Bolton outlined of a president who lacks an understanding of the interconnected nature of relationships in foreign policy and the need for consistency, these people said.

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Bolton has kept a low public profile since he left the administration on Sept. 10, and efforts by Democrats to have him testify in the House impeachment inquiry into the president have stalled. But his pointed comments, at a private gathering last Wednesday at Morgan Stanley’s global investment event in Miami, painted a dark image of a president and his family whose potential personal gain is at the heart of decision-making, according to people who were present for his remarks.

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Bolton served as Trump’s national security adviser for 17 months. The Ukraine scandal began to unfold about a week after his contentious departure. Trump said he’d fired him, though Bolton said he had resigned.

Multiple people who attended Bolton’s private speech in Miami did not recall him mentioning Ukraine but said he told attendees that he had kept a resignation letter in his desk for three months. Bolton declined to comment for this article.

Bolton is a potential linchpin witness in the inquiry into Trump’s efforts to elicit help from the Ukrainian government to investigate the family of former Vice President Joe Biden, given his central role in the White House during that time. The impeachment inquiry moves to public testimony this week.

Current and former administration officials have testified about Bolton’s strong opposition to the Ukraine pressure effort, which was led by Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani and allegedly involved withholding military aid and a presidential meeting until the Ukrainian government publicly committed to investigations, including into 2016 U.S. election interference and a business associated with Biden's son Hunter.

Bolton’s lawyer teased his client's value last week in a letter to House Democrats that noted that the former national security adviser had been present for “many relevant meetings and conversations” on Ukraine, including some that have yet to be disclosed to investigators. His lawyer, Charles Cooper, said Bolton is willing to testify if a federal court approves it and issues a ruling that essentially says he can defy the White House’s position that he can’t speak to Congress.

Bolton, a long-time foreign policy hawk who also served in the administration of President George W. Bush, expressed support in his private remarks for Trump’s stance against China on trade, people present said. But Trump and Bolton had a litany of policy differences — on Iran, North Korea, Syria and, apparently, Ukraine.

Bolton told the gathering of Morgan Stanley’s largest hedge fund clients that he was most frustrated with Trump over his handling of Turkey, people who were present said. Noting the broad bipartisan support in Congress to sanction Turkey after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan purchased a Russian missile defense system, Bolton said Trump’s resistance to the move was unreasonable, four people present for his speech said.

Bolton said he believes there is a personal or business relationship dictating Trump’s position on Turkey because none of his advisers are aligned with him on the issue, the people present said.

The Trump Organization has a property in Istanbul, and the president's daughter Ivanka Trump attended the opening with Erdogan in 2012. Though it’s a leasing agreement for use of the Trump name, Trump himself said in a 2015 interview that the arrangement presented “a little conflict of interest” should he be elected.

During an Oct. 6 phone call with Erdogan, Trump agreed to pull back U.S. troops from northeast Syria so Turkish forces could launch an attack against America’s Kurdish allies in the area. The presence of U.S. forces had deterred Erdogan from invading Syria, which he had threatened to do for years. Trump’s decision, followed by an order for all U.S. troops to exit Syria, was widely criticized even among the president’s Republican allies and was seen by many as a gift to the Turkish leader.

Erdogan is set to visit the White House on Wednesday.

Like other former Trump advisers, Bolton said regardless of how much evidence is provided to Trump that Russia interfered in the 2016 election, the president refuses to take any action because he views any move against Moscow as giving credence to the notion that his election is invalid, the people present for Bolton's remarks said.

At one point in his closed-door remarks, Bolton was asked what he thinks will happen in January 2021 if Trump is re-elected, people present for his remarks said. Bolton responded by taking a swipe at Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and Ivanka Trump — both of whom are senior White House advisers — and at Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., three people familiar with his remarks said.

Bolton said Trump could go full isolationist — with the faction of the Republican Party that aligns with Paul’s foreign policy views taking over the GOP — and could withdraw the U.S. from NATO and other international alliances, three people present for his remarks said.

He also suggested that Kushner and Ivanka Trump could convince the president to rewrite his legacy and nominate a liberal like Lawrence Tribe — a Harvard Law professor who has questioned Trump’s fitness for office and was a legal adviser to Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign — to the Supreme Court, the people present for Bolton's speech said.

Bolton said, with an eye roll that suggested he doesn’t take them seriously, that Kushner and Ivanka Trump could do so in an attempt to prove they had real influence and were in the White House representing the people they want to be in social circles with at home in New York City, the people present for his remarks said.

Those present said that at that point, the audience appeared shocked.

Bolton has been writing a book, having reached a deal with Simon & Schuster, and people present for his remarks in Miami said he suggested to the audience several times that if they read it, there would be much more material along the lines of what was in his speech.

Stephanie Ruhle
Carol E. Lee

Carol E. Lee is an NBC News correspondent.