Bolton upends Trump impeachment trial
Former national security adviser John Bolton is adding fresh uncertainty to President Trump’s impeachment trial.
Bolton’s accusation, made in a forthcoming memoir, that Trump tied $391 million in aid to Ukraine to the country helping with investigations into Democrats — including former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden — ricocheted across the Capitol.
Democrats quickly characterized the allegation as a “thunderbolt,” a “bombshell” and “gut check time” for Republicans, arguing that it underscored the need for additional witnesses and documents.
Republicans, caught flat-footed, struggled to get on the same page, as some GOP lawmakers indicated Bolton’s allegation strengthened the need for witnesses, while others argued the memoir offered nothing that would change the outcome of the impeachment trial.
Asked if GOP senators had been in touch with the White House, Senate Republican Whip John Thune (S.D.) told reporters that “my impression is that this sort of caught everybody by surprise.”
“Maybe you guys did because you’re writing the stories, but, no, we did not know it was coming,” he added.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), facing a flurry of Bolton questions, acknowledged that he had no idea how portions of the manuscript were leaked.
“I have no idea how this happened. I don’t know who leaked this. They say they didn’t do it,” he added.
Bolton’s allegation is a significant curveball in Trump’s impeachment trial. GOP leadership and top aides had appeared increasingly confident they would be able to squash a vote, expected to take place on Friday, to open the door to calling new witnesses and compelling the administration to hand over documents.
Democrats would need four Republicans to side with them in order to call a witness. They’ve requested four, including Bolton and acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney.
Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) set off alarm bells for Republicans when he told reporters that he thought it was “increasingly likely” that other members of his caucus would support hearing from Bolton. He threw in the caveat that he hadn’t spoken to his GOP colleagues.
“My thoughts about how we may all react are personal,” he said.
His statement earned him a public roasting by new Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-Ga.), who previously donated to a 2012 pro-Romney super PAC. She accused the Utah senator of trying to “appease the left.”
But Romney was quickly backed up by Collins, who said in a statement that she thought Bolton’s allegations “strengthen the case” for witnesses. Collins reiterated that she will wait until after opening arguments and questions from both sides before she makes a decision but said she is “likely” to support calling witnesses.
Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), two other potential swing votes, were tight-lipped as they made their way through crowds of reporters.
“Well, I read it. I’ve said before I was curious what Ambassador Bolton might have to say, and I’m still curious,” Murkowski said Monday when asked by The Hill about her reaction to a New York Times story about Bolton’s forthcoming memoir.
She then paused to tell a reporter in front of her, “OK, you guys are going to have to move.”
A rotating cast of Republican senators was spotted going into McConnell’s office ahead of the start of the trial on Monday as the caucus grappled with how to handle Bolton. In addition to normal members of leadership such as Thune and Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Mike Braun (R-Ind.), part of a group that’s taken over messaging for the caucus during the trial, were spotted heading into the leaders office.
Monday, the start of the second week of the trial, had been expected to be focused on Trump’s legal team, which is making its defense of Trump after a short two-hour preview on Saturday.
Instead, senators, House managers and Trump allies found themselves besieged with Bolton questions, underscoring how completely he had taken over the debate in the Capitol.
“What it’s done is taken an already hot topic and added some fuel to the fire,” said Braun. “I’m not going to deny it’s going to change the decibel level and probably the intensity at which we go about talking about witnesses.”
Asked if the Times story had changed her thinking, Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) noted that the former administration official could release a statement if he had something to say because “it doesn’t take a subpoena to put out a statement.”
When asked a similar question less than half an hour later, Fischer quipped, “Do you guys have memos on the same question to ask all the time? Just curious.”
A group of House Republicans advising Trump’s defense team got a similar reception. As they repeatedly sought to talk about the House managers and their impeachment case, the House GOP members were hit with question after question about Bolton.
“I would just say someone telling The New York Times what John Bolton’s draft manuscript supposedly says doesn’t change the key facts,” said Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio).
As multiple reporters yelled their questions at the group, Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La.) responded, “Everyone just needs to take a deep breath.”
Democrats lapped up the renewed attention on the witness fight, using the Bolton frenzy to turn the spotlight back on Republicans.
When a reporter tried to ask a nonwitness question during a Senate Democratic press conference, Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) joked, “Only for a moment.”
The frenzy is only likely to grow as the Senate heads toward a witness vote at the end of the week.
Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) walked away from reporters as they tried to quiz him on Bolton but not before dispensing some of his well-known folksy advice: Calm down.
“Given the fact … that my Democratic friends have accused the president of just about everything except abandoning his children to wolves or hating little warm puppies, I’m not surprised that we’re having these last-minute leaks,” Kennedy said.
He added that “we’re about halfway through the trial. I think everybody ought to pop a Zoloft, take their meds.”