We already knew that from Fiona Hill’s testimony, I suppose. Hill told a House committee last week that Bolton knew enough about irregularities in Ukraine diplomacy to have once said to her, “Giuliani’s a hand grenade who’s going to blow everybody up,” and who instructed her to inform lawyers on the National Security Council, “I am not part of whatever drug deal Sondland and Mulvaney are cooking up.” Bolton knew something was up. But how much did he know, exactly?
WaPo has a story out tonight alleging that he knew enough to tell U.S. trade representative Robert Lighthizer in August that Trump was probably going to reject his recommendation to restore some of Ukraine’s trade privileges. August was a critical month in the Ukraine matter. That’s when Ukrainian officials reportedly finally figured out that their military aid had been delayed, and it’s also when Gordon Sondland and Kurt Volker were trying to get Ukraine’s president to release a statement publicly committing to reopening the Burisma and CrowdStrike probes.
Why did Bolton suspect that Trump might want to delay restoration of trade relations with Ukraine too at that moment?
The August exchange between Bolton and Lighthizer over the trade matter represents the first indication that the administration’s suspension of assistance to Ukraine extended beyond the congressionally authorized military aid and security assistance to other government programs. It is not clear whether Trump directed Bolton to intervene over Ukraine’s trade privileges or was even aware of the discussion.
“It was pulled back shortly before it was going to POTUS’ desk,” one administration official said, referring to the Ukraine paperwork and using an acronym for the U.S. president. “Bolton intervened with Lighthizer to block it.”…
Bolton’s intervention came as the president was telling White House aides that any assistance for Ukraine depended upon Zelensky publicly stating that his government would investigate Hunter Biden’s role as a board member of the Ukrainian gas company Burisma, according to congressional testimony this week by acting U.S. ambassador William B. Taylor Jr…
Taylor testified Tuesday that Bolton was “so irritated” by a linkage between “investigations” and a proposed meeting between Trump and Zelensky that he had shut down a July 10 White House Ukraine policy gathering and told National Security Council staffers there “that they should have nothing to do with domestic politics.”
There could be an innocent explanation for not restoring Ukraine’s trade privileges at the time, with a source telling WaPo that there had been a delay due to a routine “country review process.” It seems odd, though, that an official as high-ranking as the National Security Advisor would make a point of warning the trade representative not to bother trying to restore Ukraine’s privileges for a reason as mundane as that, to the point where Lighthizer eventually withdrew his recommendation. The claim from Taylor about Bolton being “irritated” about the “investigations” is tantalizing context: Exactly how much did John Bolton know about an illicit quid pro quo involving state business and “domestic politics”?
And where does this leave Trump’s justifications for delaying Ukraine’s military aid? At various times he’s claimed that he withheld the aid because he wanted to make sure Europe gave its fair share of aid too and because he feared that the aid would be misappropriated due to foreign corruption. The fact that trade privileges were being withheld at the same time points to a more comprehensive reluctance to reward Ukraine with any new largesse from the United States, including in matters where concerns about corruption and Europe’s behavior weren’t as strong. So maybe there’s a different explanation that connects the two.
In any case, the key question is what Bolton knew, or thought he knew, to make him so skeptical that the trade request would be denied. It’s hard to imagine that Trump put him up to talking to Lighthizer or kept him in the loop about what was going on with Giuliani, Burisma, and CrowdStrike. After all, the story of Bolton’s final few months in office as NSA was of him being left *out* of the loop on certain major foreign policy matters. That’s why he ended up quitting; he’d lost influence. Why the hell would Trump would have involved him in the Ukraine matter if he was unwilling to involve him on, say, Iran and North Korea? Maybe Bolton doesn’t know all that much about what was going on.
But by the same token, given his disgruntlement, maybe Bolton will be perfectly happy to share what he does know with Democrats instead of clamming up as a good soldier for Trump. And of course it’s possible that he knows plenty about Ukraine despite Trump not looping him in. If the whistleblower was able to glean a basic picture of what was happening from chatting with witnesses, surely the National Security Advisor was able.
We’re clearly building to a season finale in our real-life reality show in which John Bolton buries Trump with his Ukraine testimony, or at least tries to. In lieu of an exit question, here’s Trump’s new White House press secretary affirming to “Fox & Friends” this morning that Never Trumpers are “human scum,” just like the president tweeted yesterday. I think, after Sean Spicer and Sarah Huckabee Sanders, he finally found a spokesrobot who’s fully in sync with the tone of his White House. Meanwhile, if you can spare the time, I recommend reading this piece by law prof Philip Zelikow published a few days ago about what House Democrats might eventually charge Trump with in the articles of impeachment. Everyone believes it’ll be some generic “abuse of power” accusation but Zelikow makes a strong case that they can and should charge him with bribery. That’d be risky for Dems since then they’d have to prove the elements of an actual statutory crime, but it has the great advantage of being a crime that’s specifically named in the Constitution as proper grounds for impeachment. Senate Republicans couldn’t acquit Trump on grounds that what he’s done is “bad but not impeachable.” Bribery *is* impeachable, per Article II. The GOP would need to acquit him on the facts. And a battle for public opinion on the facts could be hard to win, especially if Bolton knows things and is willing to disclose them.