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John Bolton, Trump's ex-national security adviser, shares his views on the indictment

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Reaction to former President Trump's indictment this week on charges he tried to overturn the lawful results of the 2020 election tended to divide along partisan lines. No one, including the president of the United States, is above the law, Democratic leader Senator Chuck Schumer and Representative Hakeem Jeffries wrote in a joint statement - just as Republican Speaker Kevin McCarthy told reporters in his California district, you shouldn't be prosecuted for your thought. But some Republicans who served in the Trump administration have struck a different note. John Bolton was President Trump's national security adviser from April 2018 to September 2019. He joins us now. Ambassador Bolton, thank you so much for being with us.

JOHN BOLTON: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: What do you think of the charges as you've read them?

BOLTON: Well, I think the indictment is very persuasive, really demonstrating in a number of very specific instances what Trump tried to do to reverse the results of the election. I think the most dramatic and the most telling is the effort to have Vice President Pence violate his constitutional duty in the very limited role he and Congress have in counting the Electoral College votes. That could provide the most dramatic moments of trial, for example, if the prosecution calls Vice President Pence to testify.

SIMON: Is this the President Trump with whom you worked? Do you recognize the person described in the indictment?

BOLTON: Very much so. I think that it was a demonstration that the special counsel has done a lot of homework to get ready for this. The indictment - as they refer to it, as the speaking indictment - really tells the story. But in terms of the evidence that's accumulated and that could be presented at trial, this is obviously only the tip of the iceberg.

SIMON: Ambassador, what about the First Amendment argument that Mr. Trump is free to say he won the 2020 election, even though he didn't, as any American citizen is, you know, free to say that Elvis Presley still lives?

BOLTON: The president has those First Amendment rights, and he exercises them all the time. He's not being indicted for what he said. He's not being indicted for what he believed. He's being indicted for what he did illicitly to reverse the election and to prevent the government from functioning to reflect the actual results of the election. It's very different than somebody in a close election filing a contest in court, going through administrative procedures at the state level to get a ballot recount and that kind of thing. There are legitimate ways for a defeated candidate to get a review of the election process. And in fact, Trump did try some of those.

But he went well beyond that to the point of - well, people talk a lot about the fraud count in this indictment. I think it's also important to remember the count for attempting to obstruct a governmental function and conspiracy to obstruct the governmental function, specifically the - what happened on January the 6. And that is where the illegal conduct takes place. Illegal conduct involves speech all the time. Price fixing in business, an antitrust violation, involves speech. Conspiracies to commit burglary or wire fraud involves speech. The First Amendment is not implicated when you're engaged in illegal activity.

SIMON: Did he ever try and persuade you to do something unethical, improper, illegal?

BOLTON: Well, he suggested a lot of improper things, some of them probably illegal. I wrote about some of them in my book. But we were not faced at that time - thank goodness - with the kind of systematic effort that this indictment and other recountings of Trump's pre- and post-election behavior indicate. And I think that's what people have to focus on. It's - not to be distracted by what-about-ism, that he's being treated unfairly, or specious arguments that we've heard the past 48 hours. That's a difficult political task. Prosecutors don't do that very well. And so I think people need to wait for the trial, which I think should be scheduled as soon as it's practical, consistent with Trump's Sixth Amendment right to be protected in the course of a criminal prosecution. But the real public interest here is having this case and the document case in Miami tried before the November 2024 general election. Let the people have the benefit of two juries of their peers passing on these indictments. Stakes are high. Conviction, I think, sinks Trump politically. Acquittal may put him in the White House.

SIMON: You've expressed concerns about what you would foresee in a second Trump administration should he be elected. What would some of those concerns be?

BOLTON: In his first term, I do think he caused damage to the country domestically and internationally, damage that I thought was reparable and, in fact, even with just the passage of time, is being repaired. But a second term following directly after the first, I thought he could have caused irreparable damage. And I think that is true today even though separated by four years. I think he would start in 2025, at the beginning of a new term, right at the bottom of where he left off in 2021.

And I think - he has said - he has not tried to hide that his objective is to get retribution. Now, he says it's retribution on behalf of people who have been badly treated, and he's trying to indicate that's what he thinks of his base. But we all know that the most badly treated person in the country is Donald Trump. He - ask him. He'll tell you that. And that's what he's going to do against his adversaries. So it will be, I think, a very fraught period for the country. And if there's any way to avoid it politically, I think we need to do it. That's why it's important to deny him the Republican nomination, find a candidate who can beat him.

SIMON: Why did you go to work for Donald Trump?

BOLTON: Because I believed that I could contribute to the decision-making in the national security arena, and I thought that was going to be critical. I had certainly heard everything about Donald Trump that everybody else had. I'd met him several times beforehand. I met him several times after he became president. And I felt that - like his predecessors, that he would be disciplined by the gravity of the responsibility, the weight of the issues he would have to face, and that we could make good policy. And I found, to my dismay, that I was completely wrong on that. He was not like any previous president. He is the very definition of an aberration in American political life.

SIMON: Do you worry about what the trials could do to the country?

BOLTON: Well, I also worry about what not having trials would do to the country. You would be creating de facto presidential immunity. And I think that's a bad idea. It is a risk that this could open a Pandora's box. There's no doubt about it. But you have to measure it against the risk to the integrity of the Constitution to allow Trump to skate free. I mean, I hope, ultimately, we do get a political resolution to this. I'd love to see a clear Trump defeat for the Republican nomination or certainly a loss in the general election although I fear, what candidate would beat him? It's not a good place for the country to be in. But leaders have to be held accountable. And to fail to exercise that responsibility, I think, opens us up to more risk, more danger, than the risks and dangers which we will have by proceeding with the trial.

SIMON: Former national security adviser John Bolton, thanks so much for being with us, sir.

BOLTON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.