Written by Michael D. Shear and Nicholas Fandos
The White House and Senate Republican leaders struggled Monday to salvage their plans to push toward a quick acquittal of President Donald Trump this week in his impeachment trial, after his former national security adviser corroborated a central piece of the charges against him, angering key Republicans and reinvigorating a bid to hear from witnesses.
Three Republican moderates indicated they were inching closer to joining Democrats in a vote to subpoena John Bolton, the former adviser whose forthcoming book details how Trump conditioned military aid for Ukraine on the country’s willingness to furnish information on his political rivals. Feeling political pressure, other members of the president’s party privately expressed new openness to including witnesses in the trial, even as their leaders insisted that doing so would only delay the president’s inevitable acquittal.
“I think it’s increasingly likely that other Republicans will join those of us who think we should hear from John Bolton,” Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, told reporters. At a closed-door lunch with Republican senators Monday, Romney made a strong case for witnesses, arguing that calling them would be a wise choice for Republicans politically and substantively.
As they opened the second day of their defense in the impeachment trial, Trump’s lawyers ignored the revelations from Bolton, reported Sunday by The New York Times, which bolstered the case made by the Democratic prosecutors from the House that the president had sought to use his position to gain foreign help in his reelection campaign.
Instead, the White House team doubled down with a defense that was directly contradicted by the account in Bolton’s book, due out in March. Trump’s lawyers again told senators that no evidence existed tying the president’s decision to withhold security aid from Ukraine to his insistence on the investigations, which they have claimed were requested out of a concern for corruption.
“Anyone who spoke with the president said that the president made clear that there was no linkage between security assistance and investigations,” said Michael Purpura, the deputy White House counsel.
But behind closed doors, Republicans were singularly focused on the revelations from Bolton, which stoked turmoil in their ranks and opened new cracks in their so far near monolithic support for the White House strategy of denying witnesses and rushing toward a final verdict, almost certain to be an acquittal.
Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., sought to calm his colleagues at the private lunch, telling them to “take a deep breath” and not to leap to conclusions about how to proceed. But according to people familiar with McConnell’s thinking, he was also privately angry at having been blindsided by the White House about Bolton’s account, which aides there have had since late December.
Inside the gathering near the Senate floor, just before the trial got underway, Sen. Patrick J. Toomey, R-Pa., told colleagues that he might be willing to support calling witnesses as long as the roster would include someone friendlier to Trump’s case, according to people familiar with the gathering who were not authorized to discuss it. At least one other Republican senator who was previously opposed to the idea also spoke favorably about it.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and usually a reliable ally of the president, voiced new openness to calling witnesses, too, and said he would like to see a copy of Bolton’s manuscript.
Graham, who was among those who privately complained to the White House about the out-of-the-blue disclosure, said the former national security adviser “may be a relevant witness.”
At the White House, Trump raged throughout the morning at Bolton, accusing him of lying. Hosting Israeli leaders at the White House, the president told reporters that he had not seen the manuscript of the former adviser’s book but disputed its claims as “false.”
In a series of early-morning tweets hours before the trial resumed, the president accused Bolton of telling stories “only to sell a book” and defended his actions toward Ukraine as perfectly appropriate.
“I NEVER told John Bolton that the aid to Ukraine was tied to investigations into Democrats, including the Bidens,” Trump wrote just after midnight.
But Trump later complained to associates that the presentations from his defense team were boring.
On the Senate floor, Trump’s team followed the president’s lead, never mentioning Bolton’s claims and at one point appearing to suggest that they were immaterial.
“We deal with transcript evidence, we deal with publicly available information,” Jay Sekulow, one of the president’s lawyers, said. “We do not deal with speculation, allegations that are not based on evidentiary standards at all.”
In a somewhat improbable echo of the last presidential impeachment trial, Ken Starr, who had relentlessly pursued former President Bill Clinton for lying about an extramarital affair with a young aide, also appeared before the Senate to defend Trump. He argued that the president committed no impeachable offense and urged senators to “restore our constitutional and historical traditions,” in which impeachment was rare.
“Like war, impeachment is hell,” Starr told senators, casting himself as a skeptic of the constitutional remedy he enthusiastically pursued 21 years ago. “Or at least, presidential impeachment is hell.”
While it is not clear that Republicans will vote to call additional witnesses when they vote on the issue later this week, the revelations from Bolton appeared to shift the dynamic that had taken hold at the end of last week’s arguments, when it appeared unlikely that Democrats would win the support of the four Republicans they need to force the issue.
On Monday, Democrats said they were newly optimistic that the momentum of the trial was pushing toward a vote for witnesses and documents, and they worked to increase the pressure on hesitant Republicans to embrace the moves.
“It boils down to one thing: We have a witness with firsthand evidence of the president’s actions for which he is on trial,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the Senate Democratic leader. “He is ready and willing to testify. How can Senate Republicans not vote to call that witness and request his documents?”
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who had previously indicated she would likely support additional witnesses, said the revelations about Bolton’s book “strengthen the case for witnesses and have prompted a number of conversations among my colleagues.” Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said she was “curious” about what Bolton would say, but gave no hint of how she would vote on the matter.
At lunch with his colleagues, McConnell urged them not to jump to conclusions before a vote on witnesses that will likely not occur until Friday, after the president’s legal team has finished its defense and senators have had time to ask questions of the House managers and the White House defense team.
And before the trial resumed, McConnell’s leadership team fanned out across the Capitol to try to play down the significance of Bolton’s account.
“The best I can tell from what’s reported in The New York Times, it is nothing different from what we have already heard,” Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said on Fox News. “As I said, no crimes were ever alleged, and these events never actually occurred: the withholding of aid and the investigations.”
Privately, though, Republicans including McConnell were not pleased. The leader put out a rare statement saying that he “did not have any advance notice” of Bolton’s account.
The slow start to the trial had some senators inside the chamber visibly struggling to remain engaged with Trump’s lawyers.
Sounding more like a college professor than a fierce legal advocate, Starr slowly walked senators through the history of impeachment, citing the Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton and a discussion about how the nation’s “constitutional DNA” had changed since the independent counsel law lapsed
“Justice delayed is justice denied,” Starr intoned.
Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., rubbed his eyes with his right hand and yawned. Across the aisle, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., grabbed a notebook, stood up from her desk and leaned against a railing in the back of the chamber. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., leaned back in his chair and clasped his hands over his chest, looking mildly exasperated.
Starr’s academic review of impeachment history and legal standards left even Trump’s most enthusiastic supporters cold. Ann Coulter, the conservative commentator, wrote on Twitter: “Ken Starr litigation strategy: Torture the senate with such an excruciatingly boring presentation that they cannot take another minute of this trial.”
Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., and another vocal ally of Trump who was nevertheless left off his defense team, agreed in a reply to Coulter. More flash, he urged, less “To Kill a Mockingbird.” “This defense needs a little less Atticus Finch and a little more Miss Universe,” he wrote.
Later, Jane Raskin, one of the president’s lawyers, used her time to mount a vigorous defense of Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer who House Democrats have charged was a central player in Trump’s bid to pressure the Ukrainians to conduct the investigations he sought.
Raskin called Giuliani a “colorful distraction” in the case, pointing out that House impeachment investigators did not subpoena him to testify.
Legal experts suggest that Giuliani would have refused to disclose any of his conversations with Trump on the basis of attorney-client privilege. And he would surely have been a difficult witness, given his often erratic performance in televised interviews.
But Raskin argued that the investigators did not want to hear from Giuliani because he would not have backed up their claims that he was executing a shadow foreign policy toward Ukraine at Trump’s request.
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines