Trump team braces for deeper impeachment drama after Bolton surprise

By Nancy Cook, Darren Samuelsohn and Meridith McGraw

Within just 24 hours, White House officials went from feeling self-assured about the speediness of the Senate impeachment trial to scrambling to squash John Bolton’s bombshell allegation.

Now, White House officials and Trump lawyers are preparing for the possibility that the Senate impeachment trial will summon witnesses — dragging out the trial for days or weeks, cutting into plans for the State of the Union address and delaying Trump’s pivot to his reelection campaign.

The “only good news for Trump is this f---- up the campaign schedule for the Senate [2020] candidates for weeks to come,” said one Republican close to the White House.

Calling witnesses would make the trial much more unpredictable for the White House and Republican Senate leadership, which was caught by surprise by the revelations in Bolton’s book manuscript. The book draft says Trump told Bolton to keep withholding military aid to Ukraine until officials there agreed to investigate his political rivals, a statement that undercuts a key element of the Trump’s legal defense.

Trump called that information “totally false” at the White House on Monday morning, after he launched a series of overnight tweets refuting the allegation.

“This opens up a can of worms because the senators don’t get to vote on calling individual witnesses,” said a former senior administration official. “If Bolton testifies, then what does that mean for Pompeo or Mulvaney and assertions of executive privilege? It gets complicated and uncertain really fast.”

Trump lawyers are already thinking through which witnesses would be best to rebut potential testimony from Bolton and are eyeing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Bolton has said he will testify if the Senate subpoenas him.

The White House is also viewing the calling of witnesses as a tit-for-tat situation — if Democrats want to call Bolton, then Republicans and Trump will try to call their own witnesses. Trump has long wanted the Senate to hear from witnesses like Hunter Biden or even the whistleblower who helped trigger the president’s impeachment.

“Does the White House assert executive privilege over Bolton? If so, who goes to court?” the Republican close to the White House added. “Does the court take jurisdiction or say this is a political question between the other two branches? Does Roberts make the decision? Does he have the power to do so? So many questions.”

In an interview, Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) called the Bolton book disclosures a “bombshell with political shrapnel going in all directions toward the Republican Party to figure out how to handle this.”

The White House press office did not respond to a request for comment.

On Sunday night, senior administration officials were taken by surprise and rushed to find out information about who knew what and when. The White House fielded concerns from Republicans on Capitol Hill who were not aware of the allegations in Bolton’s manuscript.

A senior Republican aide said GOP leadership was not made aware of the allegations ahead of time.

Bolton’s attorney was quick to point a finger at the White House for allegedly leaking the contents of the book to the New York Times and called the review process “corrupted and that information has been disclosed by persons other than those properly involved in reviewing the manuscript.”

“Ambassador John Bolton, Simon & Schuster, and Javelin Literary categorically state that there was absolutely no coordination with the New York Times or anyone else regarding the appearance of information about his book, THE ROOM WHERE IT HAPPENED, at online booksellers. Any assertion to the contrary is unfounded speculation,” said Bolton spokesperson Sarah Tinsley.

The revelations came just before the White House presented its second day of opening arguments in the Senate impeachment trial — though one aide insisted it would not change the overall legal strategy and promised the outreach to Republican senators would continue, as it has for the last several weeks.

Team Trump, while privately flustered and re-calibrating due to the Bolton disclosures, didn’t show any hint of concern Monday on the Senate floor. Jay Sekulow, the longest-serving personal attorney for Trump, opened the day’s proceedings with a cloaked reference to the former Trump aide.

“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,” he said.

Sekulow then served as an emcee to introduce a series of lawyers who’d defend the president, starting with former Clinton independent counsel Kenneth Starr. Starr delivered a sweeping historical look back at impeachment and warned against the long-term consequences of removing Trump. Jane Raskin then questioned the hyper focus on her fellow attorney colleague, Rudy Giuliani.

Meanwhile, talking points sent from the White House sought to discredit Bolton, saying the leaks of his book did little to change the facts of the impeachment case because Ukraine ultimately received its security assistance.

Trump campaign staffers and surrogates implied the leak of Bolton’s book was timed to goose his own book sales. “It’s really pretty remarkable that the leak to the NYTimes about the alleged contents of John Bolton’s book coincided precisely with the pre-order page going live on Amazon,” said Tim Murtaugh, communications director for Trump‘s 2020 campaign.

Before Trump’s lawyers took to the Senate floor in the early afternoon, several House lawmakers including Reps. Mark Meadows, Mike Johnson, Doug Collins and Debbie Lesko emerged from Vice President Mike Pence’s Capitol Hill office. One of them, Rep. Lee Zeldin, labeled the Bolton revelations as the Democrats’ “big shiny object of the day to distract what will be several hours of addressing as many things as you can possibly address.”

Several Trump advisers defended the president on Monday afternoon on TV, Trump’s preferred medium of communication.

“I don’t want to speak for my Senate colleagues, but there are always political repercussions for every vote you take,” Meadows said on CBS when asked about the consequences of party members breaking with Trump. “There is no vote that is higher-profile than this.”