Bolton’s claims scramble impeachment trial but Trump’s lawyers ignore him
President Trump’s lawyers struggled to keep their impeachment defense on track Monday, insisting Democrats had failed to prove their case while resisting escalating attempts to subpoena former national security advisor John Bolton.
Bolton, an establishment Republican, has become a key figure in the Democrats’ case to remove the president from office after reports that Bolton’s unreleased memoir makes the explosive claim that Trump told him that he was withholding military aid to Ukraine to force its government to announce an investigation into a political rival.
The unfolding allegations sent a shock through an impeachment trial that was momentous but largely predictable as it entered its second week. Somnolent senators, shifting in their chairs to stay awake during lengthy arguments, charged the corridors during breaks to argue anew whether Bolton should be called to testify.
The new questions provide another stark test of Republican fealty to Trump, who has demanded unyielding loyalty, as senators quietly debated behind closed doors whether witnesses would ultimately need to be summoned to Capitol Hill.
But speaking one after another in the Senate well, Trump’s 10 lawyers all but ignored the debate raging elsewhere on Capitol Hill, instead insisting that Democrats had failed to prove their case and no further evidence was needed.
“We do not deal with speculation, allegations,” said Jay Sekulow, one of the lead Trump lawyers.
Alan Dershowitz, a defense lawyer known for his celebrity clients, was the only Trump lawyer to even mention Bolton’s name. “Nothing in the Bolton revelations, even if true, rise to the level of an abuse of power or an impeachable offense,” he told the Senate.
Democrats say Trump abused his power by asking Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, a potential opponent in this year’s election, while withholding nearly $400 million in security aid for Ukraine’s conflict with neighboring Russia. If Bolton is called as a witness, he could provide a first-hand account of the alleged connection between the two issues.
But on Monday, Trump’s lawyers continued to argue that Democrats had not provided any firsthand witnesses to Trump’s role. And in a nod to the president’s goal of tarnishing Biden, the legal team spent hours rehashing unproven allegations against the former vice president.
They accused Biden of forcing Ukraine to fire a prosecutor while his son Hunter was on the board of an Ukrainian energy company facing corruption allegations. Trump cited the allegations in a July 25 call with the newly elected Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky.
“All we are saying is that there was a basis to talk about this — to raise this issue,” said Pam Bondi, a member of Trump’s legal team.
As vice president, Biden was carrying out U.S. policy when he demanded the ouster of a Ukrainian prosecutor whose investigation of Burisma, the energy company, was said to be dormant. Both Bidens have denied wrongdoing.
The Trump team’s focus on Biden served two purposes — distracting from Democratic allegations against Trump and providing an avenue for him to besmirch a politician he views as a potential formidable challenger in November.
Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) made little secret that politics were at play, noting that the Iowa caucuses, the first votes of the Democrats’ nominating contest, take place Monday.
“Maybe [the lawyers’ arguments] will influence some of those voters as well,” she told reporters.
With Republicans in firm control of the Senate, Trump’s acquittal appears all but assured. The major question is whether four Republicans will side with Democrats to subpoena Bolton and possibly other witnesses, and whether their potential testimony would serve to incriminate the president or clear his name.
The news about Bolton’s unpublished manuscript threatened Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s efforts to choreograph a swift end to the trial and an acquittal before the president’s State of the Union address on Feb. 4. Many of Trump’s most loyal allies were urging colleagues to wait out the storm in hopes that the pressure to call Bolton as a witness would die down.
Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) told reporters that “it’s increasingly likely” that there will be enough votes to subpoena Bolton.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), another key moderate, said media reports of Bolton’s manuscript “strengthens the case for witnesses and have prompted a number of conversations among my colleagues.”
Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) predicted that five to 10 Republicans would join 47 Democrats to subpoena witnesses for the Senate trial.
“I don’t see how anybody at this point can say no,” said King, who caucuses with Democrats.
The dispute created another head-snapping moment in the Trump presidency.
Unlike some who testified during House impeachment hearings, Bolton is a prominent Republican with government service dating to President Reagan’s administration. His hawkish views and sharp elbows in bureaucratic battles made him controversial, but he’s respected by many high-profile Republicans. His book, “The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir,” is scheduled to be published March 17, his publisher said Monday.
Democrats now look to the former top Trump aide as a potential savior for their impeachment case against the president.
“We want Bolton,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said during a break in the trial.
Earlier, Schumer condemned Trump’s efforts to suppress testimony and documents.
“We’re all staring a White House cover-up in the face,” Schumer said. If Senate Republicans decide against calling witnesses, he added, “they’re going to be part of the cover-up too.”
Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) noted the irony of Democrats demanding to hear from a Republican they’ve demonized for decades.
“They have for 25 years undermined the credibility of John Bolton on item after item, in not trusting his judgment, his temperament,” he said.
Bolton could have additional evidence in his possession as well.
“He is known to be a voracious note taker,” said a Democratic aide working on the impeachment trial, and may have a “contemporaneous account” of his conversations with Trump on Ukraine.
Several Republicans tried to downplay Bolton’s claims, saying they presented nothing new or weren’t to be automatically trusted.
Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) criticized the media frenzy surrounding the impeachment trial. “I think everybody oughta pop a Zoloft, take their meds, and let’s wait and finish up,” Kennedy said.
Trump repeatedly denied Bolton’s allegations, telling reporters at the White House that they were “false.”
“I NEVER told John Bolton that the aid to Ukraine was tied to investigations into Democrats, including the Bidens,” he tweeted shortly after midnight. “In fact, he never complained about this at the time of his very public termination. If John Bolton said this, it was only to sell a book.”
Bolton wasn’t the only Washington figure prompting head-scratching role reversals.
Kenneth W. Starr, who led the four-year independent counsel investigation that led to President Clinton’s impeachment, warned that America had foolishly entered the “age of impeachment.”
“Instead of a once-in-a-century phenomenon,” Starr, now a member of Trump’s defense team, lamented from the Senate well, “presidential impeachment has become a weapon to be wielded against one’s political opponent.”
“Like war, impeachment is hell. Or, at least, presidential impeachment is hell,” Starr said in a slow, languorous delivery as he chronicled the history of the law and politics from President Nixon’s resignation to avoid threatened impeachment in 1974 to Clinton’s impeachment in 1998 and subsequent acquittal in the Senate.
“Those of us who lived through the Clinton impeachment, including members of this body, full well understand that a presidential impeachment is tantamount to domestic war, but thankfully protected by our beloved 1st Amendment, a war of words and a war of ideas. But it’s filled with acrimony and it divides the country like nothing else,” he said.
The senators listened to the president’s lawyers while fighting off sleep. Some rested their heads in their hands and hid yawns behind cupped hands.
Some diligently took notes; others tried to appear industrious before succumbing to the tedium. They uncapped their pens. They leaned to one side. They then leaned to the other side.
Trump’s lawyers are expected to wrap up on Tuesday. Senators then will get 16 hours to submit written questions followed by an opportunity to debate whether witnesses should be called. That debate could occur as soon as Thursday.
Bolton has offered to testify to the Senate if he is subpoenaed. He had resisted a request from the Democratic-controlled House during the impeachment proceedings there.
The president could try to block Bolton’s testimony on the basis of executive privilege, which allows presidents to keep confidential their deliberative conversations with aides. But it’s not clear that Trump has any enforcement provisions if Bolton decides to honor a Senate subpoena.
Democrats say a claim of executive privilege would fail because Bolton has already written his story in his book draft, which was submitted to the White House for classification review on Dec. 30 and because executive privilege is not a shield for presidential wrongdoing.
“Senators should insist that Mr. Bolton be called as a witness, and provide his notes and other relevant documents,” the House impeachment managers said in a joint statement Sunday after the New York Times reported the details from Bolton’s manuscript. “The Senate trial must seek the full truth and Mr. Bolton has vital information to provide.”
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