Making his testimony secret is Plan B, actually. Plan A, per WaPo, is to go to court and try to get an injunction barring Bolton from testifying entirely on executive privilege grounds. I don’t think they’d win that fight, but the point wouldn’t be to win. It would be to convince Collins, Murkowski, Romney, and Gardner that insisting on calling Bolton will be too much of a hassle, delaying the trial for weeks or months and leaving them all in impeachment limbo into the spring. The more political pain Team Trump can cause the Collins crew if they insist on subpoenaing Bolton, the less inclined they’ll be to do it.
But I don’t know. Collins et al. are also worried about Democrats screaming “COVER UP!” at them all year long on the campaign trail. That’s destined to happen no matter what, but the accusation will be more or less persuasive to voters depending upon how transparent the trial is. At last check 69 percent of Americans want to hear from witnesses, including a plurality of Republicans, and Bolton’s the most obvious witness to call. If they go into closed session to hear his testimony and then Democrats and Republicans walk out and say, “Can’t talk about it, it was classified” and then the inevitable “not guilty” verdict is duly rendered, it’ll be tantamount to Bolton having not testified at all. The public wouldn’t know whether his testimony was damning or exonerating. Even the verdict wouldn’t tell us since the “jurors” in this case on either side aren’t impartial and will be voting their political interests rather than fairly assessing the evidence. The only clue voters would have about Bolton’s testimony are the self-serving leaks to the media afterward. How would that work out politically for the Collins crew?
Team Trump knows who the real jury is in this trial. If they can’t stop the Senate from hearing Bolton — and maybe they can! — they can at least try to stop the voting public from hearing from him.
One option being discussed, according to a senior administration official, would be to move Bolton’s testimony to a classified setting because of national security concerns, ensuring that it is not public…
[T]he White House has indicated in conversations with Republican lawmakers that it could appeal to federal courts for an injunction that would stop Bolton if he refuses to go along with their instructions, according to a senior administration official, who, like others interviewed for this article, was not authorized to speak publicly and so spoke on the condition of anonymity…
For now, if enough senators vote to call witnesses after the initial arguments by House Democratic managers and Trump’s team, McConnell is expected to ensure that those individuals are questioned in a closed-door session rather than a public setting, according to people close to the Senate GOP.
And a private session, these people said, would apply to Bolton and perhaps Hunter Biden, since Republicans would almost certainly agree to witnesses only if they could call their own. Whether Bolton’s testimony would be classified or a closed deposition remains a point of negotiation, should Republicans ever reach that point.
Witnesses during the Clinton trial also testified via closed deposition, notes WaPo, but the transcripts were released afterward and some of the videotaped testimony was played during the trial. Team Trump’s “national security” complaint seems designed to prevent that, to suppress Bolton’s testimony entirely on grounds that it would somehow endanger the United States to reveal whether the president was trying to squeeze a foreign government for dirt on his presumptive opponent in the next election.
How’s that going to work with a closed deposition, though? Normally when natsec personnel testify before Congress they do it first in an open session, which the public can watch, and then follow up with a closed session from which the public is excluded so that sensitive national security information can be discussed. But that’s live testimony. Bolton’s testimony won’t be live, it’ll be videotaped and then shared with the Senate; as such, if there are any truly sensitive natsec revelations in what he has to say, those could be individually redacted and the rest played at the trial for the public to see. Think of the Muller report, which was released to the public mostly as-is with a few select passages here and there blacked and out.
That’s not how Team Trump wants this to go, I assume. They want to use “national security” as a backdoor route to “absolute immunity.” Because Bolton was the NSA, I assume they’ll argue, *everything* he has to say risks damaging national security and therefore his entire testimony should be confidential. That’s ludicrous, but again the point here isn’t to win a court battle on the issue. It’s to give the Collins crew a reason to decline to call Bolton in the first place. “The White House won’t let us hear from him,” they’ll tell voters, “so whaddaya gonna do.” Maybe that excuse will satisfy those voters. Maybe it won’t.
I wonder how Dems would counter if Team Trump failed to block Bolton from testifying altogether but succeeded in getting the Senate to treat his testimony as secret. House Dems want that testimony out there, of course, and they’ll have a record of what Bolton said in the form of a videotape and/or transcript. Would Schiff or Nadler stroll over to the House and read it (or the unclassified parts of it) into the record, relying on the Speech or Debate Clause to protect them from prosecution? Trump and his lawyers have been pounding the table about executive privilege since the impeachment process began. “Well,” Dems might say, “we have our own constitutional privilege that entitles us to raise matters of public interest on the floor of the House without fear of retribution.” Would they have the stones to do that? How would *that* play politically, with the White House howling that they’re endangering national security by sharing what Bolton said?
Senate Republicans will end up taking a wait-and-see approach on whether to make his testimony public. There’s always a chance that what he has to say will be good for Trump on balance. (“Is this guy who’s cheering on the president’s foreign policy right now really going to break?” said one Trump ally to WaPo.) If it is, the White House’s “national security” concerns about his testimony will magically melt away and the Senate will decide that his testimony can be entered into the record anyway. The substance of Hunter Biden’s own closed-door deposition may affect that calculation too. The Collins crew will want to treat both witnesses similarly in the interest of “fairness” even though Bolton’s testimony obviously has greater natsec implications than Biden’s does. If Bolton largely exonerates Trump and Biden comes off as shady, Collins et al. will logically want both of their depositions to be made public. If Bolton incriminates Trump and Biden has nothing interesting to say, obviously the Collins crew will swing around to preferring secrecy.
In lieu of an exit question, here’s a late-90s highlight reel from the Media Research Center of journalists wanting to speed up Bill Clinton’s trial.
FLASHBACK: The liberal media hated the idea of calling more witnesses during Bill Clinton's impeachment, saying it was a "distraction" and a "sham." pic.twitter.com/ibHWKLJjfk
— MediaResearchCenter (@theMRC) January 20, 2020