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Trump lawyer’s response to the Bolton bombshell is that it doesn’t matter

The sad thing is, he might be right.

Trump and Dershowitz at the White House.
Professor Alan Dershowitz listens to President Donald Trump speak during a Hanukkah Reception in the East Room of the White House on December 11, 2019, in Washington, DC.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

On Monday evening, Trump counsel Alan Dershowitz finally addressed the news that had been looming over the entire day’s impeachment proceedings: that President Trump explicitly told former National Security Adviser John Bolton he was withholding US military aid to Ukraine until the country began investigating the Biden family.

While other lawyers on the team refrained from mentioning it, Dershowitz explicitly confronted the revelations that were first reported Sunday night by the New York Times, citing sources familiar with a manuscript by Bolton that contained the assertion.

Bolton’s account is notable because it provides a first-person confirmation of Trump describing a quid pro quo, something that would seem to address a common Republican complaint about the lack of firsthand corroboration of a Ukrainian pressure campaign.

Dershowitz aimed to neutralize Bolton’s allegations in a bid to discourage growing discussion around calling the former White House official to testify. He argued that the actions Bolton describes in his book do not qualify as an impeachable offense, a common theme of his remarks Monday, in which he argued the articles of impeachment do not meet the standard needed to justify removal of the president.

“Nothing in the Bolton revelations, even if true, would rise to the level of an abuse of power or an impeachable offense,” Dershowitz said. “That is clear from the history, that is clear from the language of the Constitution. You cannot turn conduct that is not impeachable into impeachable conduct, simply by using words like quid pro quo and personal benefit.”

“Quid pro quo, alone, is not a basis for abuse of power. It’s part of the way foreign policy has been operated by presidents since the beginning of time,” Dershowitz added, citing a hypothetical example of a president withholding aid or a White House meeting to Israel, in exchange for a commitment from Israeli leaders to halt the construction of settlements.

What Dershowitz’s argument failed to note, however, is that the quid pro quo Trump is specifically charged with centers on his alleged leveraging of military aid to obtain personal political favors that could benefit his reelection.

Throughout his arguments on Monday, Dershowitz suggested that the charges Trump faces cannot be classified as “crimes,” and therefore do not meet the criteria of impeachable offenses. He also stated that “abuse of power” is a common complaint that’s been used against presidents in the past, and claimed it is too vague a charge to qualify as grounds for impeachment.

As Vox’s Ian Millhiser has written, this perspective is counter to the opinion of many constitutional law experts, who note that no crime is required for an act to be impeachable. Dershowitz acknowledged this reality himself both during his remarks on Monday and more explicitly in comments he made in 1998 during the impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton, which he says he’s since reevaluated.

“It certainly doesn’t have to be a crime. If you have somebody who completely corrupts the office of president and who abuses trust and who poses great danger to our liberty, you don’t need a technical crime,” Dershowitz said roughly two decades ago.

Given many Republicans’ reluctance to call witnesses, however, Dershowitz’s latest statements might be just enough to give lawmakers the cover they need to reject a vote on the matter later this week.

Dershowitz’s argument comes as Republican senators weigh whether to call more witnesses

Dershowitz’s Bolton comments had one primary goal: convincing Republican senators who are on the fence about calling new witnesses that no further testimony is necessary.

Although the majority of Republicans have been interested in a speedy trial and have balked at pushing for more witness testimony, a contingent of at least four lawmakers could sway a vote expected Friday.

The new Bolton revelations, especially, appeared to renew interest in calling witnesses. Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT), one of three moderates who has publicly signaled support for witnesses, posited that it was “increasingly likely” that more Republicans would do the same. And Sen. Angus King (I-ME), in an NPR interview, guessed that as many as five to 10 Republicans could vote in support of a motion for witnesses.

Trump’s defense team hopes to halt any movement toward having witnesses in order to curtail any new, damning revelations and proceed quickly to the president’s acquittal. But to succeed in this effort, they need to present Republicans who are still weighing this decision with convincing reasons why new testimony isn’t necessary.

Despite what even Republican lawmakers have said in the past, it seems the defense’s strategy is to do as Dershowitz did and argue that there’s nothing illegitimate about the quid pro quo alleged in Bolton’s manuscript.

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