clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Trump makes up new impeachment rules in his latest arguments against witnesses

Trump falsely claimed the Senate can’t call witnesses and argued a key potential witness can’t be trusted.

President Trump addresses his supporters at a January 2020 rally in New Jersey.
Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Sean Collins is a news editor with Vox’s politics and policy team. He’s helped cover elections, Congress, and both the Biden and Trump administrations. Previously, Sean was Vox’s weekend editor.

President Donald Trump has not exactly been clear on whether he believes his Senate impeachment trial should include new witness testimony — he has both publicly endorsed and rejected the idea. But now, as senators consider the witness question in earnest, the president is offering an emphatic argument against calling a former official who looks to be a key witness.

He’s also claiming the issue to be moot, making the false assertion that the Senate doesn’t actually have the power to call witnesses at all.

Trump began a string of tweets on Wednesday by attacking the credibility of former National Security Adviser John Bolton, a witness under consideration, casting him as a feckless, sycophantic warmonger who frequently made mistakes and who is now looking to cash in by spreading gossip.

Trump claimed Bolton “‘begged’ me for a non Senate approved job, which I gave him despite many saying ‘Don’t do it, sir,’” and proceeded to accuse his former official of making a mess of his mandate, in particular complaining about Bolton stating the administration was thinking about following what he called the “Libya model” with North Korea — that is, having North Korea give up its nuclear capabilities for sanctions relief.

As Vox’s Alex Ward has pointed out, this statement wasn’t the most helpful; it came at a time when Trump was trying to leverage his then-budding personal relationship with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to achieve the US’s policy goals with respect to North Korea. And Kim, like any leader, did not want to meet the fate of Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi following the development of the so-called Libya model: “With American help, the leader was captured by anti-Qaddafi rebels, who then sodomized and killed him.”

Trump appeared to argue that the Libya statement was just the beginning of Bolton’s poor judgment and that his hawkish agenda would have led to ruin. That isn’t the best way to smear Bolton — as Ward has noted, Bolton’s hawkishness was common knowledge — but it helps underscore the president’s larger point here: If the Senate were to call Bolton, senators and the public ought to doubt the things he says.

And by pointing out that Bolton has a book coming out, Trump seems to suggest that observers should almost expect the former adviser to say incendiary things to boost his sales numbers — and, again, that these things should be taken with a grain of salt.

Trump followed his anti-Bolton screed with a pithier argument against witnesses in general, writing, “Witnesses are up to the House, not up to the Senate. Don’t let the Dems play you!”

This is untrue.

The House did call 17 witnesses, and those witnesses did give testimony that was so damning as to lead to the president’s impeachment. Republican witness requests were rebuffed because they asked for people who had nothing to do with Trump’s alleged abuses of power, like former Democratic National Committee staffer Alexandra Chalupa (who some conspiracy theorists are convinced helped Ukraine try to meddle in the 2016 election) and people like the whistleblower who helped launch the inquiry — whose anonymity is protected by federal law and whose account was corroborated by the White House.

And the Senate can call witnesses. The body has special rules that govern impeachment trial proceedings; Rule VI says, “The Senate shall have power to compel the attendance of witnesses,” and those rules go on to detail how witnesses ought to be treated, how they are to be examined and cross-examined, and what happens if a senator needs to be called as a witness.

And we don’t need to reference the rules to know this. Witnesses were called during President Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial (although they were deposed privately and senators watched their taped testimony). President Andrew Johnson’s impeachment trial included 45 witnesses.

Trump’s arguments aren’t overly persuasive (and the second is outright wrong), but they come at a critical time for Republicans: Support for calling additional witnesses is gaining steam, and it would appear Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is losing control of his caucus on the matter.

Momentum for witnesses is growing — and testimony from Bolton could be damning for Trump

On Sunday, the New York Times’s Maggie Haberman and Michael Schmidt reported on an excerpt from Bolton’s forthcoming book. That excerpt contained the explosive claim that Trump explicitly told Bolton he was withholding $391 million in military aid to Ukraine in order to pressure that country into investigating Joe and Hunter Biden — an investigation that could benefit the president politically given Biden could well be his rival in the 2020 election.

The revelation destroyed a key Republican defense of the president: that although the aid was obviously withheld, and that although Trump and his allies wanted the Bidens investigated, neither Trump nor any high-ranking official had expressly tied the two together as part of a quid pro quo scheme. It wasn’t the strongest defense — given statements like acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney’s admission of a quid pro quo scheme and other testimony, reporting, and evidence — but it was commonly employed.

As Vox’s Aaron Rupar has reported, that led Republicans to adopt a new strategy: to argue that the president may have tried to pressure Ukraine to his political benefit, but that there’s nothing wrong with that.

That issue aside, the Times’s reporting also increased calls to have witnesses testify, Bolton in particular.

Democrats have wanted new witness testimony since before the trial began, and proposed that a number of figures who refused to testify during the House impeachment inquiry be called. Republican leaders pushed back on that desire, and corralled GOP senators into blocking every Democratic effort to introduce witnesses and new evidence at the trial’s onset.

But despite voting with their party on the witness question last week, three moderate Republican senatorsMitt Romney, Lisa Murkowski, and Susan Collins — have said they would like to return to the issue at a later date. All have said they’d like to hear from witnesses, including Bolton. And Tuesday, Romney said the Bolton revelations have swayed some of his colleagues who were on the fence.

“It’s pretty fair to say John Bolton has relevant testimony,” Romney said. “I think it’s increasingly likely that other Republicans will join those of us who think we should hear from John Bolton.”

Democrats need at least four senators to join them to pass a resolution on calling witnesses; McConnell held a closed-door session with GOP senators Tuesday evening to assess whether Romney was right. It appeared he was, with reports stating the leader no longer has the votes to block witnesses.

It’s in the wake of those reports that Trump posted his latest tweets. Even if witnesses are called, the president is likely to be acquitted, given that Democrats would need at least 20 Republican senators to join them for him to be removed.

But it is not in the president’s interest to have new witnesses called, particularly Bolton. As Trump pointed out, he fired the man, and Bolton would seem to have little reason to try to protect the president in his testimony in the manner that, say, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo might be were he to be called.

During the House impeachment inquiry, Bolton’s legal team suggested he knew some things House lawmakers had not yet uncovered in their hearings, writing that the former official has knowledge of “many relevant meetings and conversations that have not yet been discussed.”

It isn’t clear whether the sum of that knowledge was revealed in the Times report, or if Bolton has more damning things to share. But even if Bolton has now shared all he knows, repeating the allegation he reportedly makes in his book on the Senate floor certainly can’t help the president — and it will make his allies in the Senate appear even more complicit in working to cover up concerning behavior.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.