The news, first reported by The New York Times Sunday night, that President Donald Trump had told national security adviser John Bolton directly to continue to withhold approved military aid to Ukraine until that country agreed to announce investigations into Democrats, and specifically former Vice President Joe Biden, is an absolute bombshell with the very real possibility of fundamentally altering the calculus for Republican senators in the ongoing impeachment trial.
The accusation is made in a draft manuscript of Bolton’s time in the Trump White House and, for the first time, would provide — if confirmed — direct evidence that Trump not only personally ordered the hold but did so to target the leading Democratic candidate against him in 2020. Bolton’s claim — again, if confirmed — would be a smoking gun for Trump’s use of his office for personal and political gain. Period.
Which brings us to the debate within the Senate over whether any witnesses will be allowed to testify in the trial of Trump and, if so, who.
Prior to the Bolton news on Sunday, GOP sentiment seemed to be leaning away from allowing witnesses, with Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a key swing vote, offering criticism of the manner and style used by the House Democratic impeachment managers to make their case.
While official Washington is still processing the Bolton news, it’s hard to see both the accusation and the initial reaction to it not altering that voting calculus for Republicans.
Here’s why: There now exists a credible claim made by a longtime figure in Republican politics and the conservative movement that, if proven out, directly implicates the President of the United States in a quid pro quo. This isn’t Lev Parnas, a somewhat shady Ukrainian businessman under criminal indictment, saying a bunch of things about Trump. Parnas, Republican senators might be OK with dismissing. It’s a hell of a lot harder to dismiss someone with the resume of Bolton.
Then there’s this: Trump and his White House are flat-out denying the reported claim by Bolton.
“I NEVER told John Bolton that the aid to Ukraine was tied to investigations into Democrats, including the Bidens,” Trump tweeted early Monday. “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.”
On Fox News Monday morning, White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham echoed her boss. “I think the timing of all of this is very, very suspect,” she said. “Our team just went on Saturday in two hours and did all of the hours and hours in 24 hours that the Democrats did in the Senate trial and it’s very clear the President did nothing wrong and suddenly this manuscript has magically appeared in the hands of The New York Times making very, very big claims… This is the same publisher that [former FBI Director James] Comey used also.”
And it’s absolutely true that the publication date and front cover of Bolton’s book ”The Room Where it Happened” went public soon after the Times report!
But don’t the White House denials and the insistence this is all a publicity stunt to sell books for Bolton make it even more important that he be called in front of the Senate to testify — under oath — about all of this? With “under oath” being the key part of that last sentence? The President — or Bolton! — can say or tweet whatever they want about what happened or didn’t happen because there’s no criminal penalty for lying in a tweet or a public statement. But there are penalties associated with lying under oath.
So Bolton allegedly says one thing. Trump says the other. And the “thing” at issue is whether or not the President of the United States set up a quid pro quo with a foreign country to benefit his own personal and political interests. It seems like the sort of thing we should want to get to the bottom of, right? To find out who is lying and who isn’t? Or, short of that, who is willing to go under oath to testify what happened and who isn’t?
Short answer: Yes. Long answer: Also yes.
If you are a Republican senator on the fence about whether to allow witnesses in this trial, it’s going to be very hard after this Bolton news to find a way to vote against hearing from him. Very, very hard. And potentially politically damaging.