Twenty-four hours ago, it seemed highly likely that the eventual vote to call witnesses would fail 51/49, with only Romney and Collins joining the Democrats. Close but no cigar for Schumer. No need for either side to have a witness list in that case.
Twenty-four hours later, things look different.
There’s no mystery whom Team Trump will want as its top pick under “witness reciprocity” if Bolton is subpoenaed. There’s considerable mystery as to who its second pick would be. And we really are suddenly at the point at which multiple witnesses on each side might reasonably be called, now that we have reason to believe Bolton will accuse Trump directly of supporting a quid pro quo involving dirt on the Bidens. A man willing to accuse Trump is also a man willing to accuse Mike Pompeo, Mick Mulvaney, and others if he has firsthand information about their complicity. Last night’s Times story suggested that he did, claiming that Pompeo once told Bolton that Rudy Giuliani’s suspicions about Marie Yovanovitch were baseless.
If Bolton testifies to that effect and the media has another 24-hour feeding frenzy over it, what do Susan Collins and the rest do about calling Pompeo? The Collins crew really, really wants to limit this to a one-for-one trade of Bolton for Hunter Biden. But whether the politics of the situation will allow them to do so depends largely on what Bolton says. Gulp.
As the White House began Day 2 of its impeachment defense, lawyers were preparing for the possibility that senators would vote to call witnesses, and are looking at which witnesses they might ask for in return for testimony by John R. Bolton, the former national security adviser.
But members of the defense team also have told associates that they would fight Mr. Bolton’s testimony. It is not clear whether they would try to fight the issuance of a subpoena, which would play out before Chief Justice John G. Roberts, or whether they would they try to get a restraining order, which the Justice Department has never done…
Whether the White House will try to press for one of its edgier witnesses, like Hunter Biden, in exchange for Mr. Bolton remains to be seen.
“We’ll fight Bolton’s testimony” is a useful scare tactic aimed at the Collins contingent, an attempt to convince them that they’re better off not calling witnesses at all. Collins doesn’t want to end up in a proxy fight with Trump’s base. The whole point of voting “not guilty” in the end here is to solidify Republican support for her this fall.
But Team Trump also has to think about the politics of trying to block Bolton. The more damning the leaks from his book to the media are, the more any attempt to stop him from testifying will look like a cover-up rather than some principled stand for executive privilege. Collins and Murkowski aren’t going to feel great voting for acquittal either if Bolton is bottled up by the White House, knowing that his book is hanging over their heads and will drop just a month or so after the trial ends. At various points of this process the administration has attempted to play hardball and then backed off once the politics of the situation became too painful for them. One example was the IG of the intelligence community finally releasing the whistleblower complaint to Congress after holding it back for awhile; another may have been Trump himself releasing the military aid to Ukraine after Congress started squawking about the mysterious delay and rumors of a quid pro quo. Team Trump may decide that the cleanest way out now is to let Republicans call Bolton, trust that there’s nothing he can say that will affect the verdict, and hope that Collins, Murkowski, and Romney are sufficiently uncomfortable amid this mess that they won’t vote to call additional witnesses no matter who else Bolton might incriminate under oath.
Maybe there’s another way to bottle Bolton up:
Multiple sources say Bolton’s story blindsided GOP senators and top officials at WH. All want more info. Some talk of Bolton testifying in classified setting. Some GOP senators may want to see manuscript. GOP officials note Bolton is selling books but he’s not Lev Parnas.
— Jim Acosta (@Acosta) January 27, 2020
Let him talk, but make it secret. Or subpoena the manuscript and announce, however unpersuasively, that there’s just not enough damning info in it to justify subpoenaing Bolton himself. Again, though, the problem is that Bolton will talk to someone eventually. He could conceivably waltz into Rachel Maddow’s studio tonight and say, “Whaddaya wanna know?” There’s nothing the White House could do, provided he doesn’t reveal anything classified. (And if the DOJ tried prosecuting him, that would be a ferocious court battle itself.)
There’s one more complicating factor for Republicans, although more so Republican pols than Trump’s lawyers. Namely, Bolton isn’t as easily discredited as most of the other pertinent accusers in the case. Lev Parnas isn’t just shady, he’s under federal indictment. The various diplomats and bureaucrats who testified against Trump during the House hearings? They’re part of the official Washington “swamp” that hates the president and his foreign policy and wants to destroy him by any available means. Gordon Sondland? Ah, well, he’s … he’s a Trump donor, granted. But whatever. No one knows who he is. Just ignore him.
Bolton has his faults but he’s not shady, not a beloved figure among the careerist Washington natsec bureaucracy (sorry, Tucker Carlson), and not a left-winger. He was a respected figure among the Republican activist class until recently, a guy who spent years as a foreign-policy commentator on Fox News. (Sorry again, Tucker.) It was John Bolton who preached conservatism to Clarence Thomas when they were at Yale Law together decades ago. Senate GOPers and righty media are trying to grapple with that today, with different people showing different levels of enthusiasm about trying to fit a square peg like Bolton into the round hole of “traitor to the American right.” Some are having a hard time…
“He was fired from the job,” Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) said when asked about Bolton’s credibility. “People change. It’s kind of interesting, when that happened to Jeff Sessions, he didn’t change.”
Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) said he wouldn’t “bet my house” on Bolton telling the truth.
But their comments cut against Sens. Ron Johnson (R-Wisc.) and Mike Rounds (R-S.D.), who both said they consider Bolton credible.
“My guess is John Bolton tells the truth,” Johnson said.
…and others, not so much:
Rush Limbaugh today: "I’ve had dinner with John Bolton a couple times. I’ve met him two or three times, and if this passage in the book is true, and this is actually what he’s intending, it’s not the John Bolton I thought I knew, this kind of disloyalty."
— Oliver Darcy (@oliverdarcy) January 27, 2020
Rush went on to compare last night’s Bolton revelation to the eleventh-hour accusation by Christine Blasey Ford against Brett Kavanaugh in his confirmation hearings. Granted, both were surprise twists that disrupted the end of a process that otherwise appeared headed for a happy Republican outcome. One thing about “the Kavanaugh playbook,” though, is that the Kavanaugh playbook didn’t work. He got confirmed. Republicans haven’t paid any political price. If anything, it ended up boosting Kavanaugh’s stature on the right as a martyr to Democratic dirty tricks. And who the hell was his accuser, emerging out of nowhere to accuse him of something that didn’t comport with his known behavior then or now and wasn’t corroborated by anyone she knew at the time? It reeked of a hatchet job.
“The Kavanaugh playbook,” if it’s being used by Bolton, won’t work here either. There’s no scenario in which the trial doesn’t end in easy acquittal. But Bolton isn’t some rando with obvious ideological motives coming out of the woodwork to accuse Trump of misconduct. He’s his own former NSA, allegedly prepared to confirm that what all of those Democratic witnesses believed was happening with Ukraine actually was happening with Ukraine, according to Trump himself. He doesn’t have a strong ideological motive, especially after Trump went and eliminated Qassem Soleimani. If you want to believe he’d lie because he’s a disgruntled employee, okay, but at the moment it looks like the main political beneficiary of that lie would be Democratic frontrunner Bernie Sanders, a man with zero in common with Bolton politically. And if you want to believe he’d perjure himself simply to sell a few more books, okay to that too, I guess. But there’d be plenty of sales if he took a hardcore pro-Trump line. If he agreed to testify and told the Senate that Trump is perfectly innocent, he’d be a hero to the right and a mainstay once again on Fox. There’d lots of ways to monetize that in righty media. Apart from his book, I don’t know how many financial opportunities a guy despised by Democrats for decades as a warmonger will have on the left.
That doesn’t mean he’s not lying. Just that “the Kavanaugh playbook” isn’t a winner and would be apt to hurt what’s left of Bolton’s career more so than it would boost it.