The Bolton book bombshell: What it means for impeachment

Christopher Wilson
Senior Writer

On Sunday night the New York Times reported that former national security adviser John Bolton’s forthcoming book provides a firsthand account of a conversation with President Trump that supports a key element of the impeachment case against him: that Trump directly ordered a freeze on aid to Ukraine until that country’s government launched investigations into former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter. According to the Times account, which was based on information from sources who said they had seen the manuscript, Bolton said the conversation took place in August 2019, shortly before he was fired by Trump.

How does this affect the president’s defense against impeachment?

There was detailed testimony from witnesses in the House inquiry that the aid freeze was linked by the administration to the Biden investigation, but the accounts implicating Trump personally were mostly secondhand, a point repeatedly cited by the president’s defense lawyers in their opening statements on Saturday. Bolton’s account, if the Times report is accurate, is the first to link Trump directly to the effort to pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to take action that would benefit Trump politically.

What does this mean for the trial?

The rules set by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell postponed a decision on calling witnesses until near the end of the trial proceedings, following opening arguments by both sides and time for senators to ask questions. Democrats have sought testimony from Bolton and at least three other administration officials: acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, Mulvaney aide Robert Blair and Michael Duffey, an official at the Office of Management and Budget. At least four Republicans would have to join the 47 Democrats in the Senate to support calling witnesses, and the prospects were uncertain at best until the Times story appeared. As of Monday morning, it looked more likely that Bolton, at least, might be called.  

Bolton, who declined to testify before the House, has previously said that he would appear if subpoenaed by the Senate. 

“I think it’s increasingly likely that other Republicans will join those of us who think we should hear from John Bolton. Whether there are other witnesses and documents, that’s another matter,” Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, told reporters Monday morning.

Romney, asked if he was making this comment based on conversations with other senators, said he had “spoken with others who have opined on this as well.”

“I think the story that came out yesterday, it’s increasingly apparent that it would be important to hear from John Bolton,” Romney said.

President Trump with then-national security adviser John Bolton in April 2018. (Photo: Susan Walsh/AP)

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, tweeted, “The reports about John Bolton’s book strengthen the case for witnesses and have prompted a number of conversations among my colleagues.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., tweeted Monday morning that if witnesses were allowed, then the Trump team should be able to call their own. In a press conference, he said he wanted to read the Bolton manuscript and was open to subpoenaing it if necessary. 

“What we have to do here is evaluate the manuscript and see if it’s a reason to add to the record,” said Graham. When asked if he would support a subpoena to get it, he said, “I want to know what’s in the manuscript, yeah. I think that’s important.”

Who had access to the manuscript?

Bolton’s lawyer submitted the manuscript to the National Security Council at the end of December for review to make sure no classified information was disclosed in the book, which is scheduled for publication in March. The NSC has denied that anyone in the White House learned of its contents, with a spokesperson saying, “Ambassador Bolton’s manuscript was submitted to the NSC for pre-publication review and has been under initial review by the NSC. No White House personnel outside NSC have reviewed the manuscript.”

Jack Goldsmith, a White House lawyer under former President George W. Bush, said the executive branch “often circulates manuscripts submitted for prepub review widely, including to political officials, & it often asks for deletions for reasons having nothing to do w/ disclosure of classified info.”

Ned Price, an NSC official from 2014 to 2017, told the Washington Post, “It’s within the purview of the White House counsel to review records in the possession of the executive office of the president. It’s almost certain he would have sought the manuscript.”

Can the White House block the book from being published?

It’s possible that Trump could attempt to stop the book from being published based on executive privilege, but analysts questioned the strength of that case prior to a series of tweets from the president that could further undermine that position.

“I NEVER told John Bolton that the aid to Ukraine was tied to investigations into Democrats, including the Bidens,” Trump tweeted Monday morning. “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.”

Ryan Goodman, a former Department of Defense special counsel and New York University law professor, said Trump’s tweets could mean he can no longer invoke executive privilege on the contents of Bolton’s book.

“Another unforced error,” wrote Goodman. “What’s remarkable about this tweet thread by President Trump responding to specific allegations in [Bolton’s book]: These statements by Trump may constitute a WAIVER of executive privilege! Can’t publicly discuss the info, and then say [Bolton] can’t.”

Sen. Mitt Romney, seen during a break in President Trump’s impeachment trial on Thursday, said Monday that “it’s increasingly apparent that it would be important to hear from John Bolton.” (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Can the House request Bolton’s testimony now, and what effect would that have on the impeachment trial?

Though Trump stated otherwise on Twitter, the House did attempt to get Bolton to testify, sending a letter to his attorneys on Oct. 30, 2019. He declined to appear, citing the White House’s policy of not allowing former or current officials to comply with the impeachment investigation. The House opted not to subpoena Bolton, avoiding what could have been an extended court battle.

When Bolton announced earlier in January that he would testify in front of the Senate, Rep. Steny Hoyer, a member of Democratic leadership, said that calling Bolton to testify was possible. 

“I think that’s an option, but it’s not an option that we’re pursuing at this point in time,” Hoyer said before the House officially sent the articles of impeachment to the Senate. “We’ll need to see what the Senate’s doing.”

If the Senate acquits Trump without calling on Bolton, a House hearing that includes damaging testimony from the former national security adviser could be embarrassing to Republicans, in particular Collins and other senators from purple states who are up for reelection in the fall. 

Although the two articles of impeachment already passed by the House stand on their own, it’s also possible for the House to vote on additional articles. There is no constitutional barrier that prevents a president from being impeached more than once.

In such a scenario, if Bolton refused to comply with a House subpoena, it would likely trigger the legal process that Democrats chose not to pursue last fall. But Bolton’s book will presumably be public long before that process plays out.

Will this extend the trial?

If no witnesses are called, there is limited business remaining once Trump’s legal team concludes its arguments. There are 16 hours of question time allotted for senators to query both legal teams, followed by a debate over whether to call witnesses (that could be a closed session) and then separate votes on the two impeachment articles. Conviction and removal of the president would require the votes of 67 senators, still considered extremely unlikely.

If there are enough votes to hear from witnesses, they’d likely be privately deposed before any testimony on the Senate floor, which would extend the length of the process significantly. The threat of a prolonged fight in the courts over privilege that would extend the trial has been hanging over the heads of Republican senators who might prefer that the trial end as quickly as possible.

Republicans have also floated the idea of calling on testimony from Joe and Hunter Biden, and even Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., who led the impeachment investigation and is managing the House case in the trial.

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