The John Bolton Super PAC ran ads, doled out campaign contributions and endorsed candidates for five years, all in the name of helping elect defense hawks to office.
But perhaps its greatest purpose was reflected in its name: It served as a hype machine for Bolton, boosting his image and political views.
Bolton raised more than $9 million during the 2016 elections and spent $2.6 million on television and other paid media that sometimes promoted the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations' brand as much as — if not more than — the candidates themselves. In one advertisement that aired in Nevada, Bolton issued stern warnings about President Barack Obama’s Iran deal and the threat from Islamic State militants. He mentioned the candidate he was promoting, Republican Joe Heck, 27 seconds into the 30-second ad.
During election season, Bolton — who weighed running for president more than once — could be found in New Hampshire and South Carolina, delivering stump speeches and rubbing elbows with state party chairs and candidates. For a $25 donation, fans could purchase a John Bolton coffee mug with his signature mustache printed on it.
Plenty of politicians have used super PACs to keep their names in the news until they launch a bid for elected office, but it’s an unusual approach for a Washington bureaucrat — and a surprising background for a White House national security adviser. But Bolton’s political operation shows his skill at courting public attention, a key to career success in President Donald Trump’s Washington.
“He’s become increasingly an independent spokesperson, as opposed to a spokesperson for other people’s policies,” said Vin Weber, a partner at the lobbying firm Mercury who first met Bolton during the Reagan administration. “He’s been around a long time. He’s clearly a person who wants to remain [at] the forefront of American conservative politics.”
Bolton’s super PAC, which shut down as of March 31, has drawn scrutiny since Trump named him national security adviser because of its ties to Cambridge Analytica, the data firm that allegedly used Facebook data harvested by an outside contractor without users’ knowledge. Bolton’s super PAC used the data to develop ads targeting voters with specific psychological profiles, The New York Times reported. Bolton paid Cambridge Analytica $1.1 million during the 2014 and 2016 election cycles.
Although Bolton — who left the George W. Bush administration in 2006 and worked for the American Enterprise Institute think tank — never launched a bid for president, his political operation was bigger during the 2016 elections than those supporting GOP candidate Bobby Jindal and many national labor unions.
But in a campaign cycle in which billions were spent on the presidential race and congressional candidates, Bolton wasn’t a huge factor either. His super PAC and a related PAC that could give directly to candidates, which raised a combined $9 million, doled out $700,000 to politicians and spent $2.6 million on ads promoting candidates. The rest went to consultants, fundraisers, travel companies, employees and other expenses associated with running a political outfit — including a direct-mail fundraising program that cost $1.8 million.
"Ambassador John Bolton set up his PAC and super PAC with the goal of electing sound, national-security-minded candidates, to help Republicans take and maintain control of Congress and to ensure that national security and foreign policy issues remained a top priority in elections,” said Sarah Tinsley, a senior adviser to Bolton who directed the super PAC. “He endorsed and his PAC contributed to more than 210 congressional candidates for elected office in the past two election cycles and in 2018.”
Others said the organization seemed more aimed at promoting Bolton’s views — which some conservatives welcomed.
“I personally always viewed it as a vehicle to promote John Bolton and an interventionist view of foreign policy,” said Fergus Cullen, former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party, who hosted a gathering for Bolton at his home in 2013.
At the time, Cullen said, protectionists like Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) were gaining steam during the slow lead-up to the 2016 elections, so Cullen and others were happy to see Bolton injecting his point of view into the debate.
“There were deep-pocketed donors in the conservative movement who wanted to have him out there,” Cullen said.
Top political donors including Robert Mercer, who helped start Cambridge Analytica, and shipping magnate Richard Uihlein contributed millions of dollars to Bolton’s effort. In several cases, Bolton had already long been acquainted with powerful Republican donors — such as Texas financier T. Boone Pickens — who he called to ask for funds.
Other times, Bolton attended corporate events and dinners in his capacity as a former diplomat that doubled as venues for meeting contributors. Joel Peterson, who teaches at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, gave $25,000 to Bolton after being seated next to him at a Hoover Institution dinner in 2017. “He gave a speech, I quite liked him. I was very impressed,” Peterson said.
Newt Gingrich, a close ally of Trump’s, said in an email that Bolton’s Fox News presence was crucial to the super PAC’s success. Fox “made him real to millions,” Gingrich said.
It attracted donors like Duane Burkholder, an 83-year-old retiree living in Germantown, Ohio, who made 30 donations via the mail totaling $1,500 to Bolton’s PAC in recent years, despite, he said, being on a pension.
“I’ve seen him on Fox News and I like him,” Burkholder said in an interview. “He’s a former ambassador to the U.N. — I just like what he says. I think he’ll be really good.”
The super PAC had made only one endorsement for the 2018 midterms: Kevin Nicholson, a Republican ex-Marine running for Senate in Wisconsin. An ad for Nicholson opened with a clip of the former U.S. ambassador wearing a suit, talking to the camera about dangers abroad, before turning to the candidate. “Courageous patriots like Kevin Nicholson put himself in harm’s way to defuse these tools of terror,” Bolton says in the ad.
Not every ad the super PAC ran stars Bolton, but many do. In an early ad for failed Senate candidate Scott Brown that ran in 2014 in New Hampshire, the first-in-the-nation primary state to which Bolton made repeated trips, the first half sounds like a clip cut for a Bolton for President campaign.
“Before I was our ambassador to the United Nations, they told us that Americans needed to whisper off from the world and that we had no interest overseas,” Bolton says in the ad, as a photo of him at the U.N. with Condoleezza Rice pans across on the screen. “I’m John Bolton — I’ve spent my career fighting that idea.”