Opinion: Getting John Bolton to testify is only half the battle

Then-national security advisor John Bolton talks to reporters outside the White House on May 1.
(Evan Vucci/AP)

Are there Las Vegas odds yet on whether former national security advisor John Bolton reveals more in his book than he will in President Trump’s impeachment trial?

On Monday, Amazon revealed that Bolton’s account of his time in the White House will be published March 17 (hat tip to CNN’S Brian Stelter for noticing that). People who saw drafts of the book told the New York Times that it includes at least one impeachment-related bombshell: Bolton’s claim that Trump said he wanted crucial military aid to Ukraine held until the country’s new leaders had agreed to open two investigations seen as helpful to Trump’s reelection campaign.

The Senate is expected to be done with its quick-and-dirty review of L’Affaire Ukraine well before March 17 — unless four or more Republicans agree with the Senate minority to call Bolton and other witnesses.


(A bipartisan trio of legal experts argued in the New York Times on Monday that the trial’s presiding officer, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., could subpoena witnesses at the request of either side, and only a two-thirds majority vote could quash such a subpoena. Hmmm.)

Just getting Bolton to testify is only half the battle, though. Trump’s team would almost certainly raise objections based on executive privilege, the Supreme Court-endorsed separation-of-powers principle that Congress should not be able to force the administration to reveal what the president and his top advisors discussed. Roberts would rule from the bench on any such motion, and if it’s like any other ruling from the presiding officer, it could be overturned by a majority vote.

You could game this out in any number of head-spinning ways. Would a Republican who votes to compel Bolton to testify defy the GOP again to override executive privilege? That would certainly be an easier vote if Roberts ruled that it didn’t apply in this circumstance. What are the chances Roberts would do that?

The problem for anyone opposed to hearing Bolton testify, though, is that they’ll simply cede the narrative to whatever version Bolton tells in his book. Trump has already taken to Twitter to deny the New York Times’ version, of course:

If it’s a battle over whom the public will believe, do Republicans really want to bet on Trump?


The more that Senate Republicans outside the Trump orbit signal their willingness not just to call Bolton but also let him testify, the more likely it is that Republicans will pivot toward a different defense strategy: offsetting the impact of any Bolton testimony by summoning one or both of the Bidens. Although many Senate Democrats may recoil at the idea, they don’t have the votes to block a unified GOP on that front.