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Impeachment state of play: Bolton’s surprise scrambles GOP strategy

Call it the October surprise of President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial.

John Bolton, the former national security adviser who has been playing his own personal game of footsie with impeachment negotiators for months, has written in a draft book manuscript in which he alleges the President did, in fact, condition US security assistance to Ukraine on investigations into a political rival. He represents a first-hand witness. He represents direct knowledge. He represents everything the White House defense team said in their Saturday presentation on the Senate floor didn’t exist.

Bottom line

Twenty-four hours ago, the impeachment trial was on track to be wrapped up by Friday or Saturday of this week. A vote to move to consider witnesses was short on GOP senators, and how quickly Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell could move to the vote to acquit Trump had become the central question in GOP circles. For the moment, in the wake of the Bolton manuscript first reported by The New York Times, all of that is scrambled and extremely fluid. Could it still end up that way? Yes. But GOP senators have an awful lot more on their mind as the White House defense team continues its presentation Monday.

What to watch

  • Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer holds press conference, 11 a.m. ET
  • Closed-door Senate lunches 11:30/12 p.m.
  • The US Senate gavels into session for the Senate impeachment trial at 1 p.m.

A ‘how this works’ reminder

The White House defense team has another 21 hours and six minutes to make their case on the Senate floor (they are not expected to use anywhere near that much time).

Then senators will have 16 hours to ask questions of both sides.

Then there will be four hours of arguments on the question of whether to move to consider subpoenas for witnesses and documents.

Then there will be a vote on whether to move to consider subpoenas for witnesses and documents. A simple majority is needed to advance to consider resolutions on specific witnesses or documents.

This is what it comes down to

Senate Republicans will have to decide whether to hear from an individual who has information that directly contradicts multiple central defenses presented by the White House defense team on their first day of presentations. They will have to decide that knowing Bolton’s full book, along with anything else he wants to unveil about how the White House operated during this period, will become public in short order. They’ll also have to make that decision knowing that there are a handful of other top White House officials who may one day also write books or break their silence, and as various lawsuits seeking to puncture the blockade on documents across the administration continue to move along.

In other words, everything will eventually come out, and the Bolton manuscript throws that reality into sharp relief.

Word of caution

If the natural assumption is that votes to subpoena John Bolton will certainly now be there because of the book manuscript, I’d caution you to remember the better part of the last three years. Are things now scrambled? According to multiple people involved with impeachment on the Senate GOP side, yes, of course. But that hardly means there will be a breakout of GOP senators.

“Nobody really knows at this point,” one senior GOP aide told me. “It could mean a lot and it could mean nothing at all. Just depends on how the White House plays things Monday.”

To underscore a general warning: To assume this guarantees four GOP senators will vote to consider subpoenas for witnesses and documents would seem to ignore how the Senate GOP has operated for the entirety of the Trump administration.

The most important meeting of the day

The Senate GOP closed-door lunch Monday is far and away the most important moment of this day, according to multiple GOP sources.

This is quite often the case with these lunches — it’s the first real opportunity for the GOP conference to get together, hear from leadership and voice or raise any concerns with the path forward.

What happens inside this meeting will go a long way toward letting McConnell and his team know if things really were just turned upside down or if Republicans and the White House are still on track to vote down the motion to consider witnesses and documents.

Where the votes were on Saturday

Multiple senior GOP officials, both in the Senate and at the White House, made clear on Saturday they believed they were on track to lose two votes when the question of witnesses came up, and possibly three depending on where Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska came down. But there was no fear — like none — that it was possible they’d lose four, and thus the vote.

The President’s rapid response

Getting ahead of his team and defenders, Trump tweeted his own rapid response effort just after midnight on Monday morning.

Democrats jump on Bolton

From the Democratic managers:

“Senators should insist that Mr. Bolton be called as a witness, and provide his notes and other relevant documents,” they said in a statement. “The Senate trial must seek the full truth and Mr. Bolton has vital information to provide. There is no defensible reason to wait until his book is published, when the information he has to offer is critical to the most important decision Senators must now make — whether to convict the President of impeachable offenses.”

From Speaker Nancy Pelosi:

“Amb. Bolton reportedly heard directly from Trump that aid for Ukraine was tied to political investigations.

The refusal of the Senate to call for him, other relevant witnesses, and documents is now even more indefensible.

The choice is clear: our Constitution, or a cover-up.”

From Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer:

“The @NYTimes report suggests multiple top Trump Admin officials knew the facts and deliberately misled Congress and the American people.

A massive White House cover-up.

All we need is four Republican Senators to get the truth.”

Big question #1

The biggest question I was getting from GOP sources Sunday night was how the White House defense team would work to address this on Monday. Would they address it on the Senate floor during their presentation? Would they address it in their regular press availabilities during breaks in the presentations? Would they ignore it all together?

“This can’t be slipped under a rug,” one senior GOP official told me. “They have to figure out a way to attack it head on or they’ll look weak.”

Big question #2

What are the House managers doing to get their hands on the Bolton manuscript?

Sen. Doug Jones, the Alabama Democrat in the toughest re-election fight of the 2020 cycle, flicked at this in a tweet Sunday night, saying in part: “If we can’t get Bolton let’s get a subpoena for the book!”

Why Bolton’s testimony is complicated for GOP leadership

Well, it contradicts the President’s own defense. Yes, of course that’s the primary reason.

But it also undercuts a central argument against witnesses that has been made — quite successfully — by McConnell to his conference. That’s the idea that executive privilege battles would both stretch the trial out weeks or months, and (perhaps most importantly, though people seem to overlook this) it would establish new precedent on the issue that would weaken Article Two powers — something Republicans generally aren’t in favor of.

But Bolton is no longer in the administration. Ostensibly, the Justice Department could seek a restraining order against him, but that’s never been tried before and it’s extremely suspect as to whether it would hold.

The Senate could technically vote to limit how his testimony is produced, if in fact he is subpoenaed, but that would take a simple majority, and if the votes are there to bring Bolton in, it’s hard to see how those same votes would want that testimony to take place in a closely-held non-public setting.

A reminder

I wrote about this last week when things still seemed fluid, but just a reminder that if the GOP conference starts moving toward considering witnesses and documents, your first sign likely won’t be individual senators announcing how they intend to vote.

Instead, it will be McConnell moving to control the situation by setting up the conditions for the witness and document consideration to be on his (and the White House’s) terms.

In other words, if McConnell sees at least four Republicans are going to vote with Democrats, the GOP view on witnesses and documents will shift very quickly. And yes, that means former Vice President Joe Biden, Hunter Biden and the whistleblower become very much a part of the witness conversation. (Sen. Josh Hawley, a Missouri Republican, already has motions teed up to do just that if the witness vote is adopted.)

A reminder, Part 2

There were almost certainly never going to be just four Republicans who broke with Trump and their leadership to vote to consider witnesses and documents. If there were four, there would almost certainly be somewhere between six and eight who would make the jump. In the Senate, safety in numbers is a cardinal rule, particularly in the current administration. That possibility completely evaporated by the end of last week — the senators who many of us thought were secretly in play made clear they simply weren’t. Now we’ll see if that changes.

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