(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump’s lawyers begin their final day of arguments Tuesday having only barely noted the bombshell revelation from former National Security Adviser John Bolton that threatens to upset White House plans for a quick end to the Senate impeachment trial.
Trump’s defense team is expected to speak for about two more hours as they wrap up their case, an administration official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. That will be followed by hours of questions from senators, set to begin Wednesday.
Then will come what promises to be a dramatic debate and a moment of reckoning for a handful of Republican moderates over whether to call Bolton or other witnesses, with a vote likely to come Friday.
“I think Bolton probably has something to offer us. We’ll figure out how we’re going to learn more,” said Alaska GOP Senator Lisa Murkowski, who is viewed as a barometer of whether there will be enough Republican votes to call witnesses.
Republicans have floated the idea of viewing Bolton’s manuscript before a decision on whether the Senate calls him as a witness. Democrats said that won’t be sufficient and are continuing to demand that he and other administration figures testify.
While Trump and his allies delivered broadsides against Bolton on Twitter and to reporters on Monday, his lawyers mostly stuck to making a subdued presentation of legal arguments against the charges in the House articles of impeachment that he abused his power and obstructed Congress.
It was left to celebrity lawyer and Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, who was given a prime-time slot at the end of the defense presentation on Monday, to fleetingly address what has become a looming issue in the trial.
“Nothing in the Bolton revelations, even if true, would rise to the level of an abuse of power or an impeachable offense,” Dershowitz said.
A New York Times report that Bolton wrote in a yet-to-be-published book that Trump directly linked the release of security aid to Ukraine to get the government there investigate a political rival divided Senate Republicans and could reset the course of the trial. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has been steering his GOP majority toward a vote as soon as Friday that is all but certain to result in Trump’s acquittal.
Bolton’s disclosure bolsters the Democrats’ impeachment articles and undercuts the president’s main defense, throwing the trial timeline into question.
Murkowski and her Republican colleagues Mitt Romney of Utah and Susan Collins of Maine are among the senators openly discussing whether to join Democrats to subpoena Bolton and perhaps others to testify. That would extend the trial past the Feb. 4 State of the Union address and perhaps much longer, though there’s still no expectation there will ever be the 67 votes needed to remove Trump from office.
“I’d like to hear from Mr. Bolton,” Romney said Tuesday morning, adding that he doesn’t know for sure whether any other Republicans will vote to subpoena new witnesses.
Senior Republican lawmakers continued to resist the idea of witnesses.
“Unless there’s a witness who’s going to change the outcome, I can’t imagine why we’d want to stretch this out for weeks and months,” said Republican Senator Roy Blunt, a member of McConnell’s leadership team.
A vote on witnesses could come by Friday after senators get up to 16 hours to question both sides. It would take four Republican senators to side with Democrats to get a 51-vote majority to call Bolton.
While they largely avoided Bolton, the president’s lawyers went directly after Hunter Biden, the son of former Vice President Joe Biden, who is seeking to challenge Trump in November. In his July 25 phone conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, Trump said “there’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son” and that Joe Biden tried to stop an investigation into a Ukrainian energy company that had Hunter Biden on its board.
“So if you can look into it,” Trump said according to a rough transcript of the conversation released by the White House after an intelligence community whistle-blower raised alarms about the call. “It sounds horrible to me.”
That conversation is at the heart of the abuse of power charge against Trump. The impeachment article says Trump withheld military aid and a meeting with Zelenskiy as leverage to get Ukraine to announce an investigation into Biden.
Trump lawyer Pam Bondi, a former Florida attorney general, focused on Burisma corruption allegations and concerns raised in media reports at the time about potential conflicts posed by Hunter Biden’s position on the board. She played video excerpts and pull-out quotes from coverage by major news organizations, including ABC and the Washington Post.
“All we are saying is that there was a basis to talk about this, to raise this issue, and that is enough,” Bondi said.
The focus on the Bidens could intensify if the Senate votes to seek witnesses. Several Republican senators have said they will force votes on calling Hunter Biden and perhaps others if the Senate votes to allow fresh evidence alter this week. That, in turn, could keep the issue of the Bidens front-and-center heading into the Iowa caucuses next week and beyond.
Democrats have argued that Trump only became interested in corruption in Ukraine after Biden entered the presidential race last April and polls showed that he could beat Trump in November. The political implications were illustrated by Iowa Republican Senator Joni Ernst, who wondered if Trump’s lawyers’ presentation could hurt Biden’s candidacy and his showing in Monday’s caucuses.
“I’m really interested to see how this discussion today informs and influences the Iowa caucus voters, those Democratic caucus-goers. Will they be supporting Vice President Biden at this point?” Ernst told reporters.
Biden dismissed the attempt to direct attention to him. A spokesman for his campaign, Andrew Bates, said Ernst “just said the quiet part out loud: Republicans are terrified that Joe Biden will be the Democratic nominee, defeat Donald Trump, and help progressives gain seats in the House and take the Senate.”
Top Democrats were clearly perturbed during Bondi’s presentation. Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer and his deputy, Dick Durbin of Illinois, stared straight ahead and didn’t look at the video monitors as she displayed the excerpts. Dianne Feinstein of California, another senior Democrat, sat with her arms folded tightly in front of her. John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 2 Senate Republican, gave Bondi a fist bump and thumbs up after the defense wrapped for a dinner break.
Trump’s lawyers spent the bulk of the day criticizing the case brought by the House, relying heavily on the lack of firsthand evidence in the House argument that Trump held up release of military aid for Ukraine to pressure its government for help to tarnish.
“We deal with transcript evidence, we deal with publicly available information. We do not deal with speculation, allegations that are not based on evidentiary standards at all,” Trump attorney Jay Sekulow said.
In an ironic twist, Trump’s defense turned to President Bill Clinton’s prosecutor Kenneth Starr to complain that impeachments are becoming too common.
“We are living in what I think can aptly be described as the age of impeachment,” said Starr, who investigated Clinton for years as independent counsel.
Starr said that after the Clinton impeachment both parties decided “enough was enough” and allowed the independent counsel statute allowed to expire.
But, he added, “the impeachment habit proved to be hard to kick.”
(Updates with Murkowski remarks in fourth paragraph)
--With assistance from Jordan Fabian, Daniel Flatley and Billy House.
To contact the reporters on this story: Steven T. Dennis in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org;Laura Litvan in Washington at email@example.com
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Joe Sobczyk at firstname.lastname@example.org, Kevin Whitelaw, John Harney
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