On Saturday morning, during what Donald Trump disdained as the “Death Valley” of television viewership, the president’s lawyers made an excellent case—on behalf of the House managers’ prosecuting Trump’s Senate impeachment trial. They railed against the managers’ playing clips of witnesses who used the words “presume, assume, guess, speculate and belief.” Trump lawyer Michael Purpura claimed that “not a single witness testified that the president himself said that there was any connection between any investigations and security assistance and a presidential meeting or anything else.”
Obviously, if that’s a problem for Republicans, the Senate needs to hear from direct witnesses to the president’s words and deeds. But that’s been clear for a while.
On Sunday evening came absolute proof of the Trump defense’s unwitting self-own: the news that former national security adviser John Bolton’s forthcoming book The Room Where It Happened will reveal that Trump told him personally that “he wanted to continue freezing $391 million in security assistance to Ukraine until officials there helped with investigations into Democrats including the Bidens.” The New York Times reported that Bolton’s book will also disclose that he shared his concerns about Trump’s maneuvers with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, and Attorney General William Barr.
What’s become known as the “Bolton bombshell” should change the debate over calling witnesses entirely. So far, it has not. Only Senators Susan Collins and Mitt Romney, who had already signaled they were inclined to support hearing from witnesses, said the Bolton news strengthened the House case; most other Republicans insisted it changed nothing. Two possible Senate votes for witnesses, Lisa Murkowski and Lamar Alexander, said only that they would stick to their promise to decide on the need for witnesses after both sides present their evidence.
Others continued to defend Trump. Senate Republican whip John Thune insisted it doesn’t “change the facts” of the case against Trump (which actually happens to be true, but so far Thune and his colleagues are ignoring those facts). Senator John Cornyn essentially called Bolton a liar trying to sell books. “It seems awfully manipulated, the whole sequence,” he said. Newly appointed Georgia Senator Kelly Loeffler called Mitt Romney a “traitor” in a loony tweet. At a private Senate GOP luncheon, majority leader Mitch McConnell reportedly warned that subpoenaing Bolton and other witnesses could draw out the trial, at least partly because Trump would claim executive privilege and force the Senate to go to court.
Several senators, including Wisconsin’s Ron Johnson, have long insisted they wanted to avoid calling Bolton and others to prevent the “weakening of executive privilege,” and the president’s television defenders picked that up on Monday.
Except there’s no way that executive privilege can legally be used to block Bolton’s willing testimony. It’s true that when the House subpoenaed Bolton, and Trump tried to stop him from complying, his lawyers asked for a court ruling on whether he had to. Instead of a long court battle, the House chose to add that to its evidence of Trump’s obstruction of Congress, its second article of impeachment.
But for several weeks, Bolton has said he will comply with a Senate subpoena. The Senate has no choice but to call him—or else be part of an epic miscarriage of justice. (Actual lawyers explain why executive privilege doesn’t apply to Bolton’s willing testimony here and here.)
“We’re all staring a White House cover-up in the face,” Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer said in a Monday morning press conference. But it could be more than that: McConnell has been complicit in the cover-up every step of the way. There are now questions about whether White House counsel Pat Cipollone knew about Bolton’s book, since the former national security adviser submitted his manuscript for security clearance at the end of December.
Bolton’s manuscript, the Times reported, “intensified concerns among some of [Trump’s] advisers that they needed to block Mr. Bolton from testifying, according to two people familiar with their concerns.” Former Obama national security official Ned Price told The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent that “it’s within the purview of the White House counsel to review records in the possession of the executive office of the president,” adding that “it’s almost certain he would have sought the manuscript.”
Given the way McConnell has boasted about working with the Trump legal team on impeachment, one has to ask: What did McConnell know about the contents of Bolton’s book, and when did he know it? Is that part of why he was trying to rush the trial to a surreally speedy end? On Saturday, when Trump’s lawyers ended their haphazard, truncated defense after just two hours, McConnell gave them a thumbs up, which is not exactly standard practice for jury foremen during trials. (For the record, McConnell insisted on Monday afternoon that he had no heads-up on the impending publication of Bolton’s book; believe what you will.) In a sign that he was rattled, McConnell canceled a scheduled Monday morning press conference, instead choosing to share his thoughts about the Bolton news privately in a closed Senate GOP caucus session.
Meanwhile, Mulvaney and Barr have denied Bolton’s claims that they knew about Trump’s Ukraine extortion. Fair enough: They should also be subpoenaed so the Senate can hear their dueling stories, under oath.
But if the Senate won’t ask Bolton to testify—and the odds remain that the cowardly GOP will not—he has a duty to release the manuscript this week, during the impeachment trial. The scheduled publication date is March 17, seven weeks away. On Sunday night, Bolton’s publisher went live with a website meant to promote pre-release sales. There’s a special place in hell for former national security advisers who sell out our national security—which is indeed what Trump’s corruption has done—to hawk a book. I’m no Bolton admirer, far from it, but I don’t think he wants that to be his legacy. Besides, the details of some best-selling books about Trump’s perfidy have been leaked before their pub date, increasing anticipation.
Late on Monday, GOP Senator Pat Toomey proposed that the Senate sides trade witnesses, according to The Washington Post’s Robert Costa, one for one. He didn’t specify which ones, but some speculated it could be Bolton for Joe Biden (though wing nuts would prefer Hunter Biden). Democratic Senator Chris Murphy immediately pushed back on calling the Bidens, since they’re ultimately irrelevant to the articles of impeachment—but who knows what will be debated as this unspools?
Also on Monday, during the official “defense,” the Trump team did its best to distract from the Bolton news by sending out the independent prosecutor who presided over Bill Clinton’s impeachment, disgraced former Baylor University president Ken Starr, who wore a black hat as he entered the Senate so you couldn’t miss his villainy. Sorrowfully, Starr warned us that “we are living in what can aptly be described as the age of impeachment.” Irony is indeed dead. The rest of the day was equally ridiculous.
But democracy is neither dead nor ridiculous. Senate Republicans must do their duty and subpoena Bolton, at minimum, as soon as possible. If they don’t, Bolton must make his book public. There is no third alternative here that serves justice.