Bolton suggests motivation behind Trump's policy decisions

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 doesn’t work, you move on to the next. The description was part of a broader portrait Bolton outlined of a president who lacks understanding of the interconnected nature of relationships in foreign policy and the need for consistency, these people said.

Bolton has kept a low public profile since he left the administration on Sept. 10, and Democrats' efforts 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.

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, essentially ruling that he can defy the White House’s position that he can’t speak to Congress.

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John Bolton, national security advisor, speaks during a White House press briefing in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, Aug. 2, 2018. Russian efforts to interfere in upcoming U.S. midterm elections have yet to reach the intensity of the Kremlin's campaign to disrupt the 2016 presidential vote, but they're only 'a keyboard click away' from a more serious attack, Director of National Intelligence�Dan Coats�said. Photographer: Zach Gibson/Bloomberg via Getty Images
OXON HILL, MD, UNITED STATES - 2018/02/22: John Bolton, Former United States Ambassador to the United Nations, at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) sponsored by the American Conservative Union held at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center in Oxon Hill. (Photo by Michael Brochstein/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 08: US Ambassador to United Nations John Bolton speaks at the National Oversight and Government Reform Committee on moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem on Capitol Hill on November 8, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)
Former US Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton speaks during the American Conservative Union Conference March 6, 2014 in National Harbor, Maryland. The annual conference is a meeting of politically conservatives Americans. AFP PHOTO/Brendan SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
NASHUA, NH - APRIL 17: Former Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton speaks at the First in the Nation Republican Leadership Summit April 17, 2015 in Nashua, New Hampshire. The Summit brought together local and national Republicans and was attended by all the Republicans candidates as well as those eyeing a run for the nomination. (Photo by Darren McCollester/Getty Images)
LAS VEGAS, NV - MARCH 29: Former United States ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton speaks during the Republican Jewish Coalition spring leadership meeting at The Venetian Las Vegas on March 29, 2014 in Las Vegas, Nevada. The Republican Jewish Coalition began its annual meeting with potential Republican presidential candidates in attendance, along with Republican super donor Sheldon Adelson. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
DES MOINES, IA - JANUARY 24: Former Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton speaks to guests at the Iowa Freedom Summit on January 24, 2015 in Des Moines, Iowa. The summit is hosting a group of potential 2016 Republican presidential candidates to discuss core conservative principles ahead of the January 2016 Iowa Caucuses. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON - DECEMBER 4: US President George W. Bush (R) and Ambassador to the UN John Bolton (L) meet in the Oval Office of the White House December 4, 2006 in Washington, DC. Bush accepted Bolton's resignation as Ambassador to the United Nations when his term is up in January 2007. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images)
HOUSTON, TX - MAY 03: Former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton speaks during the 2013 NRA Annual Meeting and Exhibits at the George R. Brown Convention Center on May 3, 2013 in Houston, Texas. More than 70,000 peope are expected to attend the NRA's 3-day annual meeting that features nearly 550 exhibitors, gun trade show and a political rally. The Show runs from May 3-5. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
John Bolton, former US ambassador to the United Nations (R) and Aaron Abramovitch, Director-General of Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs attend a panel during the eighth annual Herzliya Conference in Herzliya, 22 January 2008. The eight annual Herzliya Conference, entitled Balance of Israel's National Security, and coordinated by the Institute for Policy and Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya's Lauder School of Government, started yesterday and lasts for 3 days. The theme for this year's conference is 'Israel at 60: Tests of Endurance.' AFP PHOTO/JACK GUEZ (Photo credit should read JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images)
NEW YORK - OCTOBER 14: U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton addresses the Security Council after it unanimously voted in favor of the resolution for sanctions against North Korea at the United Nations headquarters October 14, 2006 in New York City. The council voted unanimously to approve the resolution which demands that North Korea destroy all of its nuclear weapons and bans the import and export of materials used for the creation of weapons of mass destruction. (Photo by Stephen Chernin/Getty Images)
(FILES) A file picture dated 10 October 2006 shows former US ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton speaking to the media after a meeting of the five permanent members of the Security Council (Britain, China, France, Russia and United States) plus Japan, where they discussed a resolution on the North Korea nuclear situation at the UN headquarters in New York. Bolton said 21 January 2008 that Israel may have to take military action to prevent its archfoe Iran from acquiring an atomic bomb. Bolton also said that further UN sanctions against the Islamic republic will be ineffective in stopping Iran's controversial nuclear programme which Israel and the US believe is aimed at developing a bomb -- a claim denied by Tehran. AFP PHOTO/Stan HONDA (Photo credit should read STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images)
UNITED NATIONS, UNITED NATIONS: John Bolton (C), United States Ambassador to the United Nations, speaks to the media 13 October 2006 before a Security Council meeting about Georgia, to be followed by discussions on the North Korea resolution at UN headquarters in New York. The UN Security Council on Friday was set to consider a compromise draft resolution mandating wide-ranging sanctions against North Korea over its declared nuclear test but specifically ruling out the use of force. AFP PHOTO/Stan HONDA (Photo credit should read STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images)
NEW YORK - NOVEMBER 13: John Bolton, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, speaks to the media after a meeting with the five permanent members of the Security Council and Germany concerning Iran at the French Mission to the UN November 13, 2006 in New York City. Bolton received a controversial recess appointment to the post by President Bush in August 2005 and was renominated last week, but would face confirmation from a new Democrat-controlled Senate if not voted on by the current Congress' recess in January. Democrats oppose the nomination. (Photo by Michael Nagle/Getty Images)
White House National Security Advisor John Bolton, U.S. Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, FBI Director Christopher Wray, arrive to attend a briefing on election security in the White House press briefing room at the White House in Washington, U.S., August 2, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Barria
U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton attends a news conference in Moscow, Russia June 27, 2018. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin
HELSINKI, FINLAND JULY 16, 2018: US Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman Jr (C) and US National Security Adviser John Bolton (R) talking as Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Donald Trump meet at the Presidential Palace. Alexei Nikolsky/Russian Presidential Press and Information Office/TASS (Photo by Alexei Nikolsky\TASS via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - AUGUST 02: National Security Advisor John Bolton, briefs the media on election interference, at the White House, on August 2, 2018 in Washington, DC. The administration's top security officials briefed the media on election interference. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
National Security Advisor John Bolton (R) attends a joint press conference of the US and Russian Presidents after a meeting at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, on July 16, 2018. - The US and Russian leaders opened an historic summit in Helsinki, with Donald Trump promising an 'extraordinary relationship' and Vladimir Putin saying it was high time to thrash out disputes around the world. (Photo by Brendan SMIALOWSKI / AFP) (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
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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 happens 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 Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, 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 posited 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 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.

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