WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump’s former national security adviser reportedly wrote in an unpublished book manuscript that Trump withheld military aid from a key ally, Ukraine, until he got guarantees that the country would investigate his political rivals, the Biden family.
The substance of that information, revealed Sunday in the New York Times, isn’t new — it’s one of the reasons the House voted to impeach the president. But the messenger is new, and significant.
Bolton, who has worked for presidential administrations dating back to Ronald Reagan’s, is highly regarded in conservative policymaking circles. Bolton’s recollections completely cut against Trump’s main defense: That withholding the aid had nothing to do with his desire for an investigation into the Biden family. He’s also the first to say he heard that directly from Trump, undercutting a major defense argument.
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Bolton’s revelation will reignite the argument over whether Senate Republicans will agree to call witnesses during the impeachment trial. Bolton was offered the chance to testify to the House — he declined, despite Trump lying and saying the House didn’t ask him to appear — saying he would only testify if subpoenaed. House Democrats did not ultimately subpoena him.
The question is if Bolton’s account is enough to move some Republican senators to vote in favor of calling witnesses. Already, far-right conservative figures are saying Bolton isn’t credible and withheld the revelation just to promote his upcoming book.
Republican senators discussed Bolton's book in a lunch on Monday, including, "what’s in the manuscript exactly, what’s the motivation for doing it, the timing of it," Sen. Mike Braun told reporters. "I think there was some snide remarks like ‘it’s a $2-million book advance’ and all that stuff.”
Braun added he thinks it is likely that senators will try to get a copy of the manuscript, but it remains unclear if Republicans will support calling Bolton himself to testify. "I think Leader McConnell had some good advice: take a deep breath, we’re going to get there anyway, and think about whether you need it," he said.
On Monday, a senior Democratic staffer on the impeachment trial dismissed speculation that Bolton had coordinated recently with Democrats on the release of the New York Times story.
“We’ve had no communication with Mr. Bolton or Mr. Bolton’s lawyers,” the staffer said.
Amid this, Trump’s lawyers are continuing to make their defense. They spoke for nearly 8 hours on Monday and will wrap up their case Tuesday.
Trump was charged with the two articles of impeachment in the House for his decision to withhold vital military aid from the country while pressuring it to investigate his political rival, former vice president Joe Biden.
Trump’s legal team, led by White House counsel Pat Cipollone and the president’s personal lawyer, Jay Sekulow, began their opening arguments Saturday, focusing their attacks on House Democrats and the impeachment process and citing an unfounded conspiracy theory that Ukraine hacked the 2016 election (as the intelligence community has concluded, it was Russia).
Monday was the second of three days the president’s team has to make their case. In total, they’ll have 24 hours to argue before the Senate, but they’ve said repeatedly they don’t intend to use their full time to draw contrast with Democrats (who argued for nearly 23 hours over three days) and appease tired senators.
Trump’s defense has so far argued that the president did not condition the military aid to Ukraine on his desire for the investigations into the Bidens, though multiple witnesses in the House investigation have said that link was clear.
Trump’s defense has also emphasized that the military aid to Ukraine was eventually released, in September, though that was after a whistleblower had filed a complaint about Trump’s call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky where Trump directly asked for the investigations. After the call, some federal officials had raised questions about the legality of continuing to withhold the aid.
Trump’s defense on Saturday focused heavily on an argument that House Democrats had withheld evidence from senators — though the House literally sent carts worth of testimony and other documents to the Senate when it wrapped up its own case. Trump’s lawyers argued that Democrats ignored some testimony that was helpful to the president, while themselves ignoring testimony that was not helpful to Trump.
The president's defense team opened Monday with a broad argument against the legitimacy of impeachment from the most unlikely of sources — Ken Starr, the former special counsel whose investigation led to the impeachment of former president Bill Clinton.
“Like war, impeachment is hell,” Starr told the Senate.
He argued that Trump should not be impeached because he was not accused of breaking a specific law. But he also expanded far beyond the current circumstances to make a sweeping argument against impeaching presidents in general. He warned that impeachment “overturns a national election” and causes a “grave disruption of the government.”
It was an abrupt break from Starr’s previous role as a champion of Congress’s impeachment powers. He even cited the Clinton impeachment he once championed as a reason that Congress should avoid this course of action.
“The very divisive Clinton impeachment demonstrates that, while highly relevant, the commission of a crime is by no means sufficient to warrant the removal of our duly elected president,” said Starr.
Over the course of an hour, Starr highlighted how unusual impeachment has been — Trump’s trial is just the third impeachment trial in American history. He implored the Senate to end the era in American history where Congress regularly wielded its impeachment powers.
“I respectfully submit that the Senate should close this chapter, this idiosyncratic chapter, on this increasingly disruptive act, this era, this age of resort to the Constitution’s ultimate democratic weapon for the presidency,” said Starr. “Let the people decide.”
Later in the day Democratic Sen. Tammy Duckworth, an Iraq war combat veteran, criticized Starr's statement. “[Ken Starr] compared his previous impeachment experience to being in war. I've been in war and sitting in a nice building, getting breaks for lunch and dinner is not like war," she said.
The Biden family took center stage in the afternoon portion of the trial Monday as Trump’s legal team turned their focus to the presidential contender and his son, Hunter Biden.
“We would prefer not to be talking about this,” said former Florida attorney general Pam Bondi, a member of Trump’s defense team — although Trump, his allies, and other Republicans have spent months talking about Hunter Biden. But Bondi said they had no choice but to bring up the Bidens because House impeachment managers first broached the issue in their opening statements.
The White House team heavily implied Biden, when he was vice president, forced Ukraine to fire a prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, who was investigating a company tied to the Biden family — a discredited conspiracy theory. Trump's defense quoted Shokin claiming that he was fired for investigating Burisma Holdings, a gas company that had Hunter Biden on its board — a theory Shokin only floated long after his removal.
Shokin was fired under pressure from Democrats and Republicans in the US and allies across the west and Biden bragged publicly about his role in Shokin's ouster. But Shokin was no longer investigating Burisma at the time and was widely seen by Western nations as a corrupt prosecutor who was blocking anti-corruption efforts.
Biden's campaign responded in a statement, saying that Trump's team was relying on a "conspiracy theory" that has been "conclusively refuted."
"Joe Biden was instrumental to a bipartisan and international anti-corruption victory. It's no surprise that such a thing is anathema to President Trump," Biden's rapid response director Andrew Bates wrote.
Constitutional lawyer Alan Dershowitz, another member of the White House's defense team, closed Monday's arguments with a lengthy legal argument, suggesting that the Founding Fathers did not intend for any president to be removed from office for abuse of power and that impeachment can only be used for violations of the criminal code. However, Clinton was charged with abuse of power among other articles and Dershowitz argued at the time that the president didn't need to commit a crime to be impeached.
Dershowitz went on to say Monday that even if Trump did withhold military aid from Ukraine in exchange for dirt on his political opponent, it wouldn't matter, and addressed Bolton's allegations directly.
"Nothing in the Bolton revelations even if true, would rise to the level of an abuse of power or an impeachable offense. That is clear from the history, that is clear from the language of the Constitution," he said. "You cannot turn conduct that is not impeachable into impeachable conduct simply by using words like ‘quid pro quo’ and ‘personal benefit.’ It is inconceivable that the framers would have intended so politically loaded and promiscuously deployed a term as ‘abuse of power’ to be weaponized as a tool of impeachment. It is precisely the kind of vague open-ended and subjective term that the framers feared and rejected.”
After the Senate wrapped up Monday night, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a former law professor, told reporters that Dershowitz' arguments were "contrary to both law and fact."
"His characterization of the law simply is unsupported. He is a criminal law professor who stood in the well of the Senate and talked about how law never inquires into intent and that we should not be using the president's intent as part of understanding impeachment. Criminal law is all about intent. Mens rea is the heart of criminal law. That's the very basis of it. So it makes his whole presentation just nonsensical. I truly could not follow it."
When Trump's defense team finishes their case Tuesday, the Senate will then enter a 16-hour period in which senators can submit handwritten questions to both legal teams. After that, senators will take up an issue that has loomed large over the trial: whether they will call any witnesses to give testimony.
Democrats have pushed hard for witnesses, while the majority of Republicans have argued it is unnecessary. Sens. Susan Collins and Mitt Romney both voted against calling witnesses (along with all Republicans) earlier in the trial but have suggested that they are likely to vote in favor of witnesses later this week.
"I would like to hear from John Bolton," Romney told reporters Monday. "I've said that for some time, in part because of the fact that he's been one-on-one with the president, and has been pointed out so far by the House managers as well as the defense that there has not been evidence if a direct nature of what the president may have said, or what his motives were, or what he did."
In addition to Bolton, Democrats have discussed calling acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney to testify. Mulvaney was allegedly deeply involved in the scheme to withhold the Ukraine aid. He acknowledged the link between those actions in a bizarre White House press conference in October, calling it “absolutely appropriate,” but later tried to walk back those comments.
"We've got both Mick Mulvaney and John Bolton publicly saying that the aid was conditioned upon the investigation," Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine said Monday, adding he's hopeful Republicans will support calling witnesses.
"I pray that they will because if they don't, they will assign this trial to a standard that's lesser than a trial in the traffic division of the Richmond General District Court," Kaine said.
Senate Majority Whip John Thune, whose job it is to count Republican votes in the Senate, declined to say Monday if there were enough votes to support bringing witnesses into the trial. "I think there's been some fluidity in people who have entertained the possibility but also have a lot of questions about what that looks like," he said. "There are a lot of mitigating factors right now and obviously our folks are evaluating it and listening to all the arguments."
Other new evidence has emerged as the trial has gone on. On Saturday, Lev Parnas — one of two indicted allies of Rudy Giuliani — released a tape, which was obtained by BuzzFeed News, of Trump explicitly telling him and others to “get rid of” the then-US ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch. Giuliani and Parnas have said that Yovanovitch, who testified in the House’s impeachment inquiry, was an obstacle to their campaign to pressure Ukraine to investigate the Bidens and had campaigned to remove her. Additionally, both Ukraine and the US are now investigating whether Yovanovitch was under surveillance by Giuliani associates at the time. She was ultimately recalled from her post in Kyiv and told that the president had wanted her out.