Republicans brush off Bolton's bombshells

Senate Republicans faced another Trump-related crisis on Thursday, a day after media outlets reported bombshell claims by former national security adviser John BoltonJohn BoltonTrump flails as audience dwindles and ratings plummet Many Democrats want John Bolton's testimony, but Pelosi stays mum Trump envoy says US ready to talk to North Korea but rebukes Pyongyang counterpart MORE in his new memoir, “The Room Where It Happened.”

Privately, however, GOP senators who spoke to The Hill expressed little doubt that what Bolton has written about his interactions with President TrumpDonald John TrumpDavis: Supreme Court decision is bad news for Trump, good news for Vance Meadows trying to root out suspected White House leakers by feeding them info: Axios Pressley hits DeVos over reopening schools: 'I wouldn't trust you to care for a house plant let alone my child' MORE are by and large true.

It didn’t come as a shock to them that Trump asked Chinese President Xi Jinping to buy American soybeans and other farm commodities to help him win reelection, or that he didn’t know that Britain was a nuclear power, or that he spent most of the time in his intelligence briefings airing his own views instead of listening to what experts had to say, or that he intervened to lighten penalties on Chinese telecommunications giant ZTE.

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“I know John Bolton. I genuinely found him to be a straightforward [and] honest. The things that I hear that he reports being said, I wouldn’t be surprised if it were true,” said one Republican senator who requested anonymity.

The lawmaker, however, added that Bolton is not very much liked in Washington because he is perceived as arrogant, which may explain why he’s not getting as much public support from Republicans as former Secretary of Defense James MattisJames Norman MattisTrump flails as audience dwindles and ratings plummet Budowsky: Biden-Duckworth would be America's team Trump insulted UK's May, called Germany's Merkel 'stupid' in calls: report MORE, who also delivered a searing public critique of Trump earlier this month.

The senator called Bolton “condescending” and then rephrased the description as “very certain of his views.”

A second GOP senator criticized Bolton’s decision to air Trump’s laundry in a book published a few months before Election Day.

“I have a distaste for someone who leaves an administration and tries to make money off it in a sensational way,” the lawmaker said.

But the senator acknowledged: “At the same time, he was in and around” the president’s inner circle at the time of the described events and had a first-hand view that no one in Congress has.

Republican senators publicly fell into three camps.

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Some, such as Sen. James LankfordJames Paul LankfordSenate GOP hedges on attending Trump's convention amid coronavirus uptick Tulsa to resume search for race massacre mass graves next week GOP senators debate replacing Columbus Day with Juneteenth as a federal holiday MORE (R-Okla.), questioned Bolton’s motives, noting he stands to make a lot of money by selling books and has publicly feuded with Trump since leaving the White House under a cloud of acrimony.

“This looks more like book sales than it does anything else,” he said.

Others, such as Sens. Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyChris Christie: I wouldn't have commuted Roger Stone sentence We haven't seen how low it can go Trump lashes out at Toomey, Romney after Roger Stone clemency criticism MORE (R-Utah) and Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioGOP chairman vows to protect whistleblowers following Vindman retirement over 'bullying' Lincoln Project offers list of GOP senators who 'protect' Trump in new ad GOP Miami mayor does not commit to voting for Trump MORE (R-Fla.), are raising concerns about some of the conduct detailed in Bolton’s book but acknowledge they have no way to verify his claims.  

And others, such as Sens. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsMore Republicans should support crisis aid for the Postal Service GOP senators voice confidence over uphill Senate battle Republicans considering an outdoor stadium for Florida convention: report MORE (R-Maine), Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerDemocrats seek to tie GOP candidates to Trump, DeVos Senate GOP hedges on attending Trump's convention amid coronavirus uptick Finger-pointing, gridlock spark frustration in Senate MORE (R-Colo.) and Lamar AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar AlexanderRepublicans considering an outdoor stadium for Florida convention: report Sixth GOP senator unlikely to attend Republican convention Coronavirus Report: The Hill's Steve Clemons interviews Randi Weingarten MORE (R-Tenn.), are simply declining to comment.

Sen. John BarrassoJohn Anthony BarrassoSunday shows preview: Coronavirus poses questions about school safety; Trump commutes Roger Stone sentence Senate GOP hedges on attending Trump's convention amid coronavirus uptick Court upholds protections for Yellowstone grizzly bears MORE (R-Wyo.), one of the president’s outspoken defenders, said, “Every time I’ve been in a meeting with John Bolton, he wants to be considered the smartest guy in the room.”

“He thinks he ought to be president, Speaker of the House and chief justice of the Supreme Court all at the same time,” he said.

Barrasso said several of Bolton’s claims that have received a lot of media attention aren’t all that surprising.

“He makes claims that the president was concerned about his reelection. Tell me a president that’s not interested in his reelection,” he said. “He’s complaining that the president was trying to sell agriculture products in China. For Wyoming, we want him to be selling agriculture products in China.”

The strongest criticism Thursday came from Romney, who says he does not plan to vote for Trump’s reelection.

Asked about Bolton’s claim that Trump encouraged the Chinese president to go ahead and build concentration camps for Uighurs, a minority Muslim population, Romney said: “If that’s accurate, that would obviously be a reprehensible comment.”

Romney cautioned “we don’t whether that’s actually what happened” but added he has no reason to doubt Bolton’s claims.

“I think he’s a very credible person,” he said.

Romney noted that he was one of two Republicans, along with Collins, to vote for Bolton to testify at Trump’s impeachment trial.

“I wish we did have a trial with people testifying under oath, that’s one of the things I voted for,” he said.

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Collins told reporters that she has “started to” review Bolton’s claims but got into her car on the Capitol’s East Front after the last vote of the week and didn’t provide any reaction to media reports about Bolton’s book.

Gardner, who faces a tough reelection in November, declined to answer questions about Bolton’s claims because he had not yet reviewed them.

Asked if he Bolton should have been called to testify at the trial, Gardner told CNN that House Democrats made the decision not to subpoena the former national security adviser.

Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiSixth GOP senator unlikely to attend Republican convention Koch-backed group urges Senate to oppose 'bailouts' of states in new ads The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Trump backs another T stimulus, urges governors to reopen schools MORE (R-Alaska), a moderate who said earlier this month she is “struggling” over whether to vote for Trump in November, said she doesn’t regret her decision to vote against subpoenaing Bolton to testify at the impeachment trial.

“I made the decision that I made at the time that I made it, and there’s no going back,” she said. “I don’t regret that decision. Like I say, there’s no going back.”

Rubio, the second-ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, indicated Thursday that he’s not surprised by Bolton’s claim that Trump intervened to lighten a penalty on the Chinese telecommunications firm ZTE for evading sanctions on Iran and North Korea.

Rubio said it was “a big mistake” to weaken the penalty on ZTE.

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“I don’t think there was ever any dispute that part of the decision on ZTE was made as a way to de-escalate tensions with the Chinese,” Rubio said when asked about Bolton’s claim that politics factored into the ZTE decision.  

Rubio said the decision to lighten the penalty should be reviewed.

“I disagreed with that decision then and I still disagree with the decision to water down that penalty,” he said.

He said Bolton’s description of the decisionmaking process is “more explosive” and that “I have no way of knowing” if his version of events is entirely accurate.

Rubio didn’t seem shocked either by Bolton’s claim that Trump said it would be “cool” to invade Venezuela.

“I’ve never heard him say ‘cool.’ I know the president has been very forward-leaning on Venezuela policy and has talked about his belief that it could one day require stronger intervention than what we see now,” he said.

“I don’t think that’s news,” he added.