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News Brief: John Bolton On North Korea, Democratic Debate Recap, Australian Wildfires


Former national security adviser John Bolton has kept a low profile since President Trump fired him back in September. Now he is emerging in an interview on NPR.


Yeah. Bolton is a veteran diplomat, skilled in government and viewed with alarm by some of his critics as a warmonger. But by the time he left office, Bolton was widely seen as fighting for more conventional policies than the president, who tired of him. According to sworn testimony in the impeachment inquiry, John Bolton also had a view of the president's drive for investigations in Ukraine. His aides once included Fiona Hill.


FIONA HILL: I'd asked if there was anything that we could do about it. And Ambassador Bolton had looked pained, basically indicated with body language that there was nothing much that we could do about it. And he then, in the course of that discussion, said that Rudy Giuliani was a hand-grenade that was going to blow everyone up.

GREENE: Now, Bolton still has had little to say about that episode. He declined to testify in Congress, of course. But he is offering his views on North Korea. And he did that, Steve, in an interview with you.


GREENE: Why do you think he decided to give an interview after he has laid so low?

INSKEEP: He clearly feels strongly about the way the United States is trying to approach a nuclear deal with North Korea. John Bolton had a little fight with the White House to recover control of his own Twitter feed. And once he did a few days ago, he sent out a tweet that made it sound like he really disagreed with U.S. policy. So I called up and asked if he was willing to talk about it some more, and he agreed to do it.

GREENE: Well, what did he say about North Korea? And then is there a disagreement that emerged between him and the president?

INSKEEP: Oh, definitely. Definitely. There's a specific objection and a broader one that John Bolton has. The specific objection that seems to have set him off, that seems to have bothered him is that the Trump administration is widely believed to have quashed an effort by the United Nations to look into human rights in North Korea. Bolton thought there was no point in doing that. European allies wanted to do it. It was a way to interest people in pushing against the North Korean regime, which Bolton, as a hard-liner, would like to do.

And he did not like that the administration did that. He said it would be a big mistake to do that sort of thing. More broadly, he very flatly said that President Trump's effort to get North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons just isn't going to work. He didn't criticize the president by name, but he just said the entire enterprise is not possible. Let's listen.


JOHN BOLTON: I don't think North Korea will ever voluntarily give up nuclear weapons. It's been the pattern as we've watched it for over three decades now. The North Koreans are very happy to declare that they're going to give up their nuclear weapons program, particularly when it's in exchange for tangible economic benefits. But they never get around to doing it. And I think the inescapable conclusion is they're happy to sell that same bridge over and over again. But there's no serious chance they will ever voluntarily give it up.

GREENE: Did you ask him, Steve, about this weird, cryptic threat from the North Koreans about delivering a Christmas gift to the United States?

INSKEEP: Yeah. The North Koreans have been issuing various kinds of threats. They set a deadline of the end of the year for the U.S. to give them a better nuclear deal or that they would return to confrontation. Bolton essentially suggested ignoring that. He says it might be a bluff. And it's another example where he is a hard-liner and clearly doesn't want to give much of anything to the North Koreans, doesn't think they'll give anything real back.

GREENE: Sounds like he wanted to talk about North Korea, did not want to talk about impeachment. I mean, did you learn anything about his decision not to testify?

INSKEEP: Yeah. No. We put a couple of questions to him about that. His public position has been known up to now. He doesn't want to testify. And the way that he's termed it is he would rather leave it to the courts.


BOLTON: There's obviously a lot swirling around in that department, including some litigation that could affect my status. So I think, although I have a lot to say on the subject, the prudent course for me is just to decline to comment at this point.

INSKEEP: There are other presidential aides who have gone into the court system because there is this dispute between the White House, who doesn't want anybody to testify and Congress that wants people to testify. And Bolton essentially has said he would rather leave that up to the courts. Of course, some officials voluntarily stepped forward and testified. He doesn't want to. And he said very little on that subject when we questioned him about that in this interview.

GREENE: All right. Well, thanks for telling us about the interview, Steve.



GREENE: All right. So a day after a historic impeachment vote in the House, seven leading Democratic presidential candidates met for another debate.

INSKEEP: But instead of going after their newly impeached Republican rival, they sometimes turned their harshest words on each other.


ELIZABETH WARREN: Billionaires in wine caves should not pick the next president of the United States.

TIM ALBERTA: Mr. Mayor, your response?


PETE BUTTIGIEG: You know, according to Forbes magazine, I am the - literally the only person on the stage who's not a millionaire or a billionaire. So if...


BUTTIGIEG: This is important. This is the problem with issuing purity tests you cannot yourself pass.

INSKEEP: That was South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg responding to Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren.

GREENE: And NPR's Scott Detrow was at that debate just south of Los Angeles. And he has joined me here in our studios at NPR West, where I'm usually alone. It's nice to have someone here with me, Scott.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: It's exciting to be at NPR West.

GREENE: (Laughter) So billionaires in wine caves, seems like that was a way to go after Pete Buttigieg. He became the center of attention - maybe not in a good way. What's driving these attacks on him?

DETROW: Yeah. And I will also explain the wine caves reference in this answer, too.

GREENE: Oh, please.

DETROW: So a couple of things - first, the fact is Buttigieg has been rising in the polls, particularly in Iowa and New Hampshire. And other candidates are viewing him as a threat, as someone who has a good chance of winning the Iowa caucuses in a couple of months. He also seems to really get under the skin of other candidates in a way that other candidates on the stage have not.

But this gets to a broader philosophical difference that's played out the whole campaign - how to approach fundraising. Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren do not do high-dollar fundraisers at all. They point that out a lot. Their time is not for sale. Their access cannot be bought is the way that they frame it. Buttigieg does a lot of fundraisers, as do many other candidates. And a recent fundraiser that he held at a Napa winery in, yes, a...

GREENE: A cave.

DETROW: ...Fancy, chandeliered wine cave with a lot of high-dollar donors is something their campaigns really pounced on as a symbol of him being a candidate focused on those contributors. Buttigieg and Joe Biden do do a lot of fundraisers. Biden has allowed the press into every single one, Buttigieg did not until recently when he was pressured to do that.

His argument is that Democrats need to do everything they can to win elections. And, yes, that includes raising money the traditional way candidates do for most races and for previous presidential races - and that is meeting with donors who can help fund their campaigns. And, you know, he's benefited from raising a lot of money, running a lot of ads in Iowa, among other places.

GREENE: I mean, if this becomes a focus - fundraising - I mean, could this hurt a candidate like Buttigieg? Could it help some of the other candidates?

DETROW: He would probably be the candidate to come under the most scrutiny. You've seen this attack that you heard from Warren last night that he is really catering to the high contributors. That's something he really pushes back on. But you are increasingly seeing - for most of this year, the candidates were really friendly with each other. They seemed to generally get along. They agree on a lot of issues.

As the voting gets closer, you're starting to see more and more one-on-one confrontations, really harsh differences being hashed out. And that's kind of unpredictable in such a large field. If candidate A and B really go at each other, who benefits from that? Often in cases like this, it's neither of the two candidates engaging.

GREENE: Well, what does that change in tone tell us about the race at this moment?

DETROW: It has been a really static race, big picture, over much of the year. And as candidates start to attack, I think you could maybe see the dynamics of this big field shift. I think one person who really didn't get into too many confrontations last night was Joe Biden. He had a pretty strong debate. Often he seemed a little shaky, a little out of the loop in these debates. He was really strong last night, making a clear argument for himself.

GREENE: NPR's Scott Detrow talking to us about that debate last night in LA. Scott, thanks.

DETROW: Thank you.


GREENE: All right. We're going to move across the Pacific now to Australia, where bushfires are wreaking havoc along the country's east coast.

INSKEEP: Since August, these fires have destroyed more than 800 homes and burned roughly 7 1/2 million acres. Jenny Webb, who had to evacuate her home, is staying at an evacuation center in the small town of Picton, southwest of Sydney.


JENNY WEBB: It hasn't been confirmed, but my daughter thought that she saw our house burning on TV, so, yeah, little bit devastated.

GREENE: That was Jenny Webb. She was speaking with reporter Julia Holman from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. And Julia joins us this morning. Thanks for being here.

JULIA HOLMAN: Good morning. Thanks for having me.

GREENE: Well, thanks for coming on and reporting on this. Just listening to that woman there describe possibly her house burning and seeing it on TV, I mean, how bad is the situation right now along the east coast of Australia?

HOLMAN: It's just a horrendous year at the moment. I mean, New South Wales is an enormous state. It's bigger than the size of Texas. And the fires literally go from the top of the state right down to the bottom. These fires are also in very dense bushland. They cannot be put out by human effort. We're waiting for rain. But we're in the midst of the worst drought on record here in New South Wales. So there is no possible way that these fires can be put out no matter the enormous human effort that is going into it.

Overnight, two firefighters were killed when a tree fell on their truck and tipped it over. There have been a lot of firefighters who have been injured. And as you heard earlier, hundreds of homes destroyed. So this is a really desperate and worsening situation here in New South Wales.

GREENE: How did these fires start?

HOLMAN: I mean, fires are very common here in this part of the world. Fires start all the time from natural reasons or, you know, there are arsonists here like there are all over the world. The problem, though, is that it's so dry that we cannot put out these fires. And that is what is different this time around. As I've mentioned, the drought is so bad. It's been going on for years.

The trees are like paper, there's one spark and they just go up. And they cannot be put out. There's so much bushland around. And that bushland is, unfortunately, very close to many homes and very - and a lot of communities that are under threat as we speak.

GREENE: Oh, so this could actually - I mean, this could really impact some pretty significant population centers. This is not just rural bushland.

HOLMAN: No. And just a few weeks ago, homes in Sydney were under threat from bushfires. These bushfires can also spread embers kilometers, miles and miles away from the fire front. So while the majority of fires are in areas that aren't the major cities, there's still large towns that are under threat.

And just, you know, being in Sydney - I'm currently in Sydney right now. But the smoke is so thick here, when the sun comes up, it's a bright red, glowing color. So, you know, even in the middle of Sydney, we're still really feeling the effects of these bushfires.

GREENE: And is the government - I mean, the prime minister, Scott Morrison and his government, are they - do they have the confidence from people that they're taking care of this in some way?

HOLMAN: Look. They've already been criticized in the past for not linking these wildfires that we're seeing around the state to climate change. But there's been particular criticism for the prime minister because he spent the better part of the week in Hawaii on holidays, a huge error of judgment.

He's currently on his way back to Australia. We're expecting him here tomorrow. But there's a lot of trust that needs to be rebuilt from the communities that have been impacted so heavily by these bushfires.

GREENE: Julia Holman with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation joining us on Skype from Sydney. Thanks for your time.

HOLMAN: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.
Julia Holman