NYT: Bolton book claims Trump asked him to help pressure Ukraine

NYT: Bolton book claims Trump asked him to help pressure Ukraine

This is a heck of a show, isn’t it?

High-stakes legal drama, cartoonish last-minute plot twists, all you could want.

My exit question in this post yesterday was, “Is there going to be a new Bolton bombshell this afternoon or this evening? Last weekend’s leak about his book was obviously timed to try to influence tomorrow’s vote. It appears not to have worked. If the leaker has anything more incriminating in his pocket, it’s now or never.” And now here we are with a new scoop in the Times, one that’s extra zesty in that it introduces a new character into the Ukraine drama: One Pat Cipollone, who’s on the floor of the Senate right now representing Trump and who was in on a meeting with Trump and Bolton last May in which the president allegedly asked Bolton to call Zelensky and ask him to cooperate with Rudy Giuliani. Or so claims Bolton’s manuscript, per the Times.

Does Pat Cipollone have firsthand knowledge of Trump orchestrating the same quid pro quo that he’s spent the past two weeks telling the Senate doesn’t exist?

More than two months before he asked Ukraine’s president to investigate his political opponents, President Trump directed John R. Bolton, then his national security adviser, to help with his pressure campaign to extract damaging information on Democrats from Ukrainian officials, according to an unpublished manuscript by Mr. Bolton.

Mr. Trump gave the instruction, Mr. Bolton wrote, during an Oval Office conversation in early May that included the acting White House chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, the president’s personal lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani and the White House counsel, Pat A. Cipollone, who is now leading the president’s impeachment defense.

Mr. Trump told Mr. Bolton to call Volodymyr Zelensky, who had recently won election as president of Ukraine, to ensure Mr. Zelensky would meet with Mr. Giuliani, who was planning a trip to Ukraine to discuss the investigations that the president sought, in Mr. Bolton’s account. Mr. Bolton never made the call, he wrote.

“Absolutely, categorically untrue,” said Giuliani to the Times when asked for comment. Although this sounds more equivocal:

Trump also strongly denies it:

Does Bolton have any notes from that meeting, which allegedly lasted only 10 minutes? Either way, the timing of it is notable in light of that question Collins and Murkowski asked Trump’s lawyers on Wednesday: Did Trump show any interest in Ukraine’s interactions with the Bidens before Joe Biden became a candidate for president? That was their way of trying to tease out whether Trump’s motive in leaning on Ukraine was to benefit himself electorally or simply to expose corruption by a former U.S. official. You can follow that last link for a fuller analysis of that but it’s clear that Giuliani’s pressure campaign really started buzzing in May 2019, replete with comments on the record to the NYT about it at the time. Today’s story describing the alleged meeting between Trump, Bolton, Giuliani, Mulvaney, and Cipollone also supposedly took place in May 2019. Biden formally declared his candidacy on … April 25. Why did the Ukraine campaign heat up so soon after he jumped into the race?

By the way, it’s interesting that none of the Times’s three stories so far about revelations in Bolton’s book contain direct quotes from it (I think). My gut reaction about that is that it’s a clue that Bolton himself or someone in his inner circle is doing the leaking; the idea, maybe, is not to spoil the suspense around the book ahead of its launch by quoting Bolton’s own words lest that dampen sales. Just tease what’s in it, or what’s *alleged* to be in it, and let people wonder. But maybe there’s a legal rationale too. Since the book is currently being reviewed by the National Security Council and a White House lawyer has claimed, however dubiously, that it’s chock full of classified information, maybe the leaker thinks holding off on direct quotes might limit their criminal liability potentially somehow. You’d need a natsec lawyer to answer that more fully; logically, it doesn’t add up to me that relaying classified info without quoting it directly might somehow protect you from prosecution.

A few days ago, before the Times story appeared, law prof Stephen Gillers argued that it’s unethical for Cipollone to represent Trump at the trial since he’s a likely a witness to some of the events in the Ukraine matter. That case will get stronger today:

From all that appears, Cipollone is what the law calls a percipient witness to the relevant facts. He has personal and significant experience with the events that form the basis for the articles of impeachment. His testimony would not be hearsay. If the impeachment trial were in a courtroom, Cipollone could not head, or even be part of, the defense team. The same should be true in the Senate trial because, at bottom, the senators have taken an oath to perform the same job that we ask of traditional jurors – i.e., decide the facts. To do that job, they need to hear from the witnesses to those facts…

Because Cipollone participated in the underlying events, facts he implies in his advocacy can appear particularly credible. After all, he was there. Yet he will not have been placed under oath and he will escape cross-examination, traditional safeguards for ensuring that testimony is truthful. In this way, he gets advantages that hinder his opponents. He is both a witness and not a witness simultaneously.

Adam Schiff found out about the Times story before today’s hearing began and went after Cipollone about it during argument, as you’ll see below. Meanwhile, I wonder when, precisely, this new information about Trump nudging Bolton to call Zelensky was leaked to the paper. It’s possible that it was leaked days ago and the Times has been trying to run it down since then via corroborating sources; it’s also possible, I guess, that it was leaked on condition that the paper didn’t publish it until the morning of the big witness vote. Or it could be that it was hastily leaked last night or this morning after it became clear that the GOP was highly likely not to call Bolton as a witness after all. Maybe the source thought one last black eye for Trump in the media at Bolton’s hands would force them to subpoena him. If so, it didn’t work. Both Lisa Murkowski and Rob Portman announced their decision to vote no on calling witnesses in the hours after the new Times story appeared this morning.

Or, most cynically of all, maybe the source concluded that nothing was apt to get Senate Republicans to change their minds about Bolton and this was leaked simply to humiliate them by heightening the absurdity of not calling him as a witness. Every drop of new info that leaks makes their refusal to issue a subpoena that much harder to explain. Makes me wonder if this is the last of it or, since the trial’s now expected to stretch into early next week, whether more’s coming this weekend.

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Jazz Shaw 4:01 PM on December 03, 2023