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Opinion

Opinion: It looks like John Bolton isn’t going to get his C-SPAN moment after all

John Bolton and President Trump
The Senate appears poised to block former national security advisor John Bolton, left, from being called to testify in the impeachment trial of President Trump.
(Brendan Smialowski / AFP/Getty Images)

How interesting an impeachment witness would John Bolton have been? It looks like we’re going to have to wait a while to find out. Maybe a long while.

In a huge win for the publishers of Bolton’s forthcoming book, Senate Republicans reportedly have lined up the votes to block Democrats from calling the former national security advisor or any other witnesses to testify at President Trump’s impeachment trial. That vote is expected to happen Friday.

There’s just one wrinkle. Bolton’s book, “The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir,” was set to be released by Simon & Schuster in March. But Pat Philbin, Trump’s deputy White House counsel, told the Senate on Wednesday that the National Security Council was reviewing a draft of the book and had found it “contains a significant amount of classified information ... so that in its current form, it can’t be published.” The NSC has offered to help Bolton on revisions that would allow him to tell his story, Philbin added.

How nice. By the way, Philbin said that the review is being done by career employees at the NSC, not political appointees, and that the White House has played no role in it.

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I thought the leak from Bolton’s book — his assertion that Trump told him the security aid to Ukraine was on hold until the Ukrainian leaders announced two investigations that would help Trump politically — would force the Senate to hear from him before voting on Trump’s fate. Not because I thought he would change any minds, but because it would be hard for senators to explain to voters why they’d refused to hear from a central White House figure who is just about to tell the world (or rather, the book-buying public) everything he knows about Trump’s actions on Ukraine.

Besides, one problem for both sides here is the public’s suspicion that senators made up their minds before the trial started. Calling zero witnesses would only feed that suspicion.

But from the GOP perspective, maybe calling Bolton is all pain, no gain. As the leak and the testimony of other witnesses indicate, Bolton was not a fan of how the new Ukrainian government was being treated by the Trump administration. An attorney for Bolton also told lawmakers last year that his client had a lot to say about other, as yet unexplored aspects of the whole Ukrainian affair.

Assuming Bolton would testify, as expected, that Trump admitted to withholding vital aid from an ally at war with Russia-backed separatists until he got the investigations he was seeking, that would force Trump’s defenders to shift tactics. No longer could they argue that there was no persuasive evidence of a quid pro quo; instead, they’d have to argue, as Trump lawyer Alan Dershowitz has been doing lately, that such a quid pro quo is A-OK.

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Ugh.

So it must seem far more palatable for Republicans to explain to their constituents why Bolton’s testimony wouldn’t have fundamentally changed the contours of the case. And that has the benefit of being true: Bolton would merely shore up an assertion that House Democrats have been treating as if it were already proved. They impeached Trump in part because they believed that he’d withheld the aid to Ukraine as potential leverage in his effort to extract the investigations he sought, and that he released the aid only because someone within the White House blew the whistle on him.

Still, if the Senate decides to not call witnesses, it is a reminder of the short-term thinking that pervades even such consequential issues as impeachment. Because even if they don’t think Trump should be removed from office, they shouldn’t buy the argument that a president can flatly withhold documents and witnesses from Congress unless the House conducts an impeachment process by the president’s rules. They’re setting a precedent here that will provide a road map for future obstruction.

With the witness question apparently decided, the proceedings seem even more like Kabuki theater than before. It’s been clear for some time how the trial would end; the main question was how Republicans would justify the vote to not remove Trump.

Happily for them, they don’t have to rely on the weak tea offered by Dershowitz. A stronger argument, at least in terms of how it will resonate with the public, is that even if Trump had a personal interest in seeking an investigation by Ukraine into former Vice President Joe Biden, there were legitimate policy reasons for him to delay the aid and pursue allegations of corruption.

As Philbin argued Thursday, “If there’s both some personal motive but also some legitimate public interest motive, it can’t possibly be an impeachable offense.... There’s always some personal interest in the electoral outcome of policy decision, and there’s nothing wrong with that.”

The hole in that argument is the notion that there can be any legitimate public purpose in a president asking a foreign government to investigate a U.S. citizen who is that president’s political rival.

Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank) noted that there are legitimate avenues within the United States to investigate the sort of allegations raised here, but Trump did not pursue them.

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“I can’t imagine any circumstance where we would want to say, the president of the United States can target his rival, can solicit foreign help in an election, can help him cheat, and that’s OK,” Schiff told the Senate. As wrong as it would be for the president to seek “political prosecutions” by the Justice Department, Schiff added, it’s all the more egregious if he asks a foreign government to do it.

Besides, Schiff argued, the evidence showing that Trump “just wanted the investigation to be announced ... betrays the fact that there was no legitimate basis” to the inquiry the president sought.

Bolton’s testimony would have cut to the heart of the question of Trump’s motives. It seems certain now that we’ll have to wait for his memoir to learn more.


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