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John Bolton’s impeachment bombshell, explained

A new report makes clear he’d provide a key piece of testimony Democrats had been missing.

Then-US National Security Adviser John Bolton answers journalists’ questions after his meeting with Belarus’s president in Minsk on August 29, 2019.
Sergei Gapon/AFP via Getty Images
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

Former National Security Adviser John Bolton claims that, contrary to President Trump’s denials, the president said outright that he was blocking aid to Ukraine unless Ukrainian officials helped with investigations into the Bidens.

That’s according to an unpublished book manuscript written by Bolton and reported on by the New York Times’s Maggie Haberman and Michael Schmidt Sunday night. And this revelation is enormously significant for Trump’s unfolding impeachment trial — since Bolton has offered to testify to the Senate. It may throw a wrench into Senate Republicans’ hope of wrapping up the trial quickly without any witness testimony.

Then-National Security Adviser John Bolton answers journalists’ questions after a meeting with the president of Belarus in Minsk on August 29, 2019.
Sergei Gapon/AFP via Getty Images

Purely from an evidentiary perspective, the news is a very big deal. There has been a lot of circumstantial evidence that Trump was pressuring Ukraine to agree to investigate the Bidens when he blocked $391 million in military aid to the country. Yet Democrats have so far lacked any direct evidence or testimony that Trump outright said this himself — in large part, probably, because the administration officials closest to Trump have refused to testify (following Trump’s instructions).

So Bolton’s account, if corroborated, would end any ambiguity there might have been about whether Trump did do what House Democrats have accused him of doing. (Trump denied Bolton’s account in a tweet, but Bolton is said to be a “voracious note-taker,” and the Times reports he took some notes with him after his ouster.)

The news could also scramble the dynamics of Trump’s trial. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has been patiently trying to line up the necessary votes to bring proceedings to a close without calling any witnesses. But Bolton has already made clear he’d testify willingly, and now the Times has made clear his testimony would be damaging for Trump.

So ending the trial without getting his testimony would now look even more like a cover-up. Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT) said Monday that the Bolton news made it “increasingly likely” that enough Republicans vote to get his testimony. And Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) said the reports “strengthen the case for witnesses and have prompted a number of conversations among my colleagues.”

Trump’s legal team will continue with their opening arguments at the beginning of this week. Then there will be two days of questioning from senators for both legal teams. And then the Senate will have to decide what to do next.

The Bolton and impeachment backstory

Bolton is a longtime Republican stalwart and extremely hawkish national security figure who has had roles in every GOP administration since Ronald Reagan’s. He joined the Trump administration as national security adviser in April 2018. In that role he frequently clashed with Trump, who has less interventionist instincts, and these clashes eventually resulted in his exit from the White House on bad terms last September.

Around the same time Bolton was ousted, news broke that Trump was urging Ukraine’s president to help him politically by investigating his opponents. And witnesses in the impeachment inquiry testified that Bolton was sharply critical about this effort as it was happening — disparaging it as a “drug deal” and calling Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani a “hand grenade who’s going to blow everybody up.” Beyond that, Bolton was known to have spoken to Trump about the Ukraine aid, but it wasn’t clear what was said. News also broke that Bolton was writing a book telling his side of the story.

President Donald Trump speaks to members of the media as National Security Adviser John Bolton listens during a meeting with President of Romania Klaus Iohannis at the White House on August 20, 2019.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

It seemed clear Bolton had relevant information. But when House Democrats asked him to testify voluntarily, he refused. And when House impeachment investigators subpoenaed his former deputy at the National Security Council, Charles Kupperman, Bolton backed Kupperman’s lawsuit challenging that subpoena, and suggested his own decision about testifying would hinge on the lawsuit’s outcome. Democrats then responded by withdrawing the subpoena to Kupperman, averting what could have been a lengthy legal battle.

So in the end, the House impeached Trump without getting Bolton’s story. And while Democrats lined up an impressive series of current and former administration officials to testify, they were conspicuously lacking testimony from officials who had much firsthand contact with Trump himself (except for EU Ambassador Gordon Sondland).

But once the action was about to move to the Senate, Bolton changed his tune. He announced on January 6 that he was “prepared” to testify if the Senate subpoenaed him, meaning he would not fight such a subpoena in court. Most Senate Republicans still did not seem eager to take him up on his offer. And though they punted on the witness question for the time being, Democrats appeared to have made little progress winning over wavering Republicans during the trial’s first week.

What Bolton’s manuscript says (according to the New York Times)

But the Times’s report of Bolton’s story Sunday could change this. Now, it is not clear whether the Times has obtained the actual manuscript of Bolton’s book (Haberman and Schmidt never quote from it directly). They quote “multiple people” who “described” Bolton’s “account.” But the reporters write that the Ukraine section of the book lasts “dozens of pages” and they sum up its key points.

First, and most importantly, Bolton writes about an August 2019 meeting he had with Trump, in which Trump said he wanted to keep blocking $391 million in military aid to Ukraine until “officials had turned over all materials they had about the Russia investigation that related to Mr. Biden and supporters of Mrs. Clinton in Ukraine.”

A transcript of a phone call between President Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is shown during the testimony from former Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch on November 15, 2019.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

That’s a huge deal because, up until now, Democrats hadn’t gotten any witnesses to testify that they heard about this linkage explicitly from Trump. Trump’s words to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on their call July 25 had some vagueness to them. And even Sondland, who (eventually) admitted telling the Ukrainians that their aid hinged on an investigation, testified that he merely “presumed” this and that he could not recall Trump telling him directly.

But now, Bolton says Trump told him directly. There is an intriguing twist in the Times’s description of Bolton’s account, though, as attorney Susan Simpson points out, Trump’s specific request was for Ukrainian officials to hand over “materials” they had related to Biden and to Clinton supporters that related to “the Russia investigation.”

Other witnesses have described pressure on Zelensky to make an announcement of investigations into the Bidens or purported 2016 election interference. But Trump’s apparent demand, as expressed to Bolton, was for the Ukrainians to hand over the dirt directly. This matches what Trump told Zelensky on the call: that he should get in touch with Giuliani and Attorney General William Barr.

Bolton’s account also implicates several other top administration officials, per the Times:

  • Secretary of State Mike Pompeo admitted to Bolton that the smear campaign against Ukraine Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch was baseless, and that Giuliani could have been acting on behalf of clients in trying to oust her. (Trump eventually had Yovanovitch fired and his allies have continued to smear her; Pompeo has refused to speak out publicly in her defense.)
  • Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, was present for at least one call in which Trump and Giuliani discussed Yovanovitch, according to Bolton. (Mulvaney has claimed he always avoided involvement in such conversations so Trump could preserve his attorney-client privilege.)
  • Bolton told Attorney General Bill Barr of his concerns about Giuliani’s influence on US foreign policy and told Barr that Trump had mentioned his name during Trump’s now-infamous call with Zelensky on July 25. (Barr has been cagey about his involvement in and knowledge of the effort to get dirt from the Ukrainians.)

The battle over the book

The timing of the leak of this news seems to be perfect for maximizing pressure on Senate Republicans to call Bolton for testimony — so, naturally, many have speculated that Bolton himself executed or authorized the leak.

While we can’t know for sure, some details about behind-the-scenes goings-on involving the book have emerged.

For one, Bolton’s attorney Chuck Cooper revealed that on December 30, 2019, he submitted Bolton’s manuscript to the National Security Council for “prepublication security review” (for the government to double-check that no classified information is disclosed).

So at least some officials at the National Security Council have had the manuscript since then. If proper procedures were followed, it shouldn’t have gotten into the White House’s hands. But Schmidt and Haberman report that the manuscript “intensified concerns” among some Trump advisers that Bolton must be blocked from testifying — seeming to suggest Trump’s inner circle did learn about it. (An NSC spokesperson has denied this.)

A spokesperson for Bolton, Sarah Tinsley, also insisted that Bolton “has not passed the draft manuscript” to anyone except the NSC. Some read that claim as disputing the Times’s reporting that Bolton had “circulated” drafts of a manuscript to close associates. However, that language could mean it’s possible Bolton shared earlier “drafts” but not the finalized manuscript.

But Bolton and his publisher certainly seem to have been prepared for this. Hours after the Times story broke, the Amazon preorder page for the book went live. It is titled The Room Where It Happened (an apparent reference to a song from the musical Hamilton) and is scheduled for a March 2020 release.

The battle over witnesses

This week, though, the main question is whether the Senate will decide it wants to hear from Bolton at all before Trump’s impeachment trial ends.

All along, McConnell has opposed having any witnesses at the trial and has privately urged his colleagues to wrap things up quickly. But notably, he did not firmly resolve this issue before the trial began. Instead, he ended up punting — saying that the Senate should not decide on whether to call witnesses until hearing the opening arguments from both sides and having a period of questioning from senators.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell heads toward the Senate chamber on January 21, 2020.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

But, practically, to line up the 51 votes he needs to end the trial, McConnell has to satisfy a small group of GOP senators who don’t want things to look like a total sham. This group includes Sens. Susan Collins (ME), Mitt Romney (UT), Lisa Murkowski (AK), and the retiring Lamar Alexander (TN).

Collins and Romney have so far been most public about suggesting they’d support calling witnesses, but they alone wouldn’t be enough. So as opening arguments kicked off last week, it was starting to look increasingly likely that McConnell would line up the votes to end the trial this week.

The Bolton news changes things. And the timing is particularly awkward because Trump’s team already began their opening arguments on Saturday — and touted how no witnesses said that Trump linked aid to investigations. “Not a single witness testified that the president himself said that there was any connection between any investigations and security assistance, a presidential meeting, or anything else,” deputy White House counsel Mike Purpura said.

Bolton would, it’s now clear, be that witness. As of midday Monday, it’s not clear from public comments whether the dam has broken among Senate Republicans, but both Collins and Romney have alluded to conversations happening behind the scenes about the way forward.

There are several possibilities for what comes next. The Senate could agree to call Bolton alone. They could subpoena documents from Bolton. They could open the door for several witnesses (Democrats have also demanded that Mulvaney and others testify, while Trump’s allies have called for testimony from Hunter Biden). Or they could, in the end, hold firm and cut off this trial anyway.

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