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John Bolton and Iran are the wild cards at Trump's Senate trial

John Bolton and Iran are the wild cards at Trump's Senate trial
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President TrumpDonald John TrumpUSAID administrator tests positive for COVID-19 Kamala Harris, Stacey Abrams among nominees for Time magazine's 2020 Person of the Year DOJ appeals ruling preventing it from replacing Trump in E. Jean Carroll defamation lawsuit MORE’s glide path to a Senate acquittal on articles of impeachment just got bumpy. He now faces a still dangerous confrontation with Iran on top of potentially explosive testimony by former National Security Advisor John BoltonJohn BoltonPressure grows from GOP for Trump to recognize Biden election win Sunday shows - Virus surge dominates ahead of fraught Thanksgiving holiday Bolton calls on GOP leadership to label Trump's behavior 'inexcusable' MORE, who announced his willingness to testify if subpoenaed. 

House Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiGovernors take heat for violating their own coronavirus restrictions Spending deal clears obstacle in shutdown fight Ocasio-Cortez, Cruz trade jabs over COVID-19 relief: People 'going hungry as you tweet from' vacation MORE (D-Calif.) set the stage for Bolton’s deus ex machina by withholding the articles of impeachment so as to focus the spotlight on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellHarris says she has 'not yet' spoken to Pence Kamala Harris, Stacey Abrams among nominees for Time magazine's 2020 Person of the Year Feinstein departure from top post sets stage for Judiciary fight MORE’s (R-Ky.) refusal to call witnesses. Who knew that she was such a good Republican wrangler?

As a result, McConnell will have trouble holding a “no witnesses” line during the trial. The Republican fear evidently is that Bolton will testify that Trump admitted in a meeting that he ordered the hold on military aid to Ukraine to pressure Ukraine President Zelensky into investigating the Bidens and the 2016 election. But without Bolton’s testimony, Democrats can plausibly claim that the Senate trial is only an exercise in covering up Trump’s Ukraine conduct.  

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As to Iran, the national blood pressure shot up Tuesday night after Iran launched short-range ballistic missiles at two military bases in Iraq in response to the killing of Iran’s Maj. Gen. Qassem Suleimani. It may have been intentional on Iran’s part, good American intelligence or sheer luck that no Americans on the bases were killed or hurt, which gave Trump an excuse not to retaliate.  

The strikes may have been Iran’s way of pointing out that its overall military capability is as formidable as any the United States has gone to war against in generations. Its forces include nearly a million personnel, short and medium-range ballistic missiles, modern anti-aircraft defenses, torpedo-firing submersibles and swarming small boats, as well as proxy forces around the Middle East.   

Both countries are now locked and loaded with hair triggers. As Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Institute for International Peace, said on the PBS NewsHour, “I think we are just beginning this. It has not concluded.”  

Trump spoke Wednesday about a peaceful future for Iran but also vowed to impose new sanctions, which makes it less likely that Iran will negotiate. As Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulLoeffler isolating after possible COVID-19 infection Rick Scott tests positive for coronavirus Overnight Defense: Formal negotiations inch forward on defense bill with Confederate base name language | Senators look to block B UAE arms sales | Trump administration imposes Iran sanctions over human rights abuses MORE (R-Ky.) has aptly explained, “You would have to be brain-dead to believe that we tear up the [nuclear] agreement, we put an embargo on you and we kill your major general, they’re going to crawl back to the table and say, ‘what do you want, America?’”

Trump once famously said, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters, OK?” It’s his way of saying that, as far as his base is concerned, he can get away with anything. That may not hold up if American soldiers and personnel become casualties in a war in the Middle East that Trump promised would not happen on his watch. Indeed, according to a just-released USA TODAY/Ipsos Poll, by a  striking two-to-one margin, Americans say that Suleimani’s killing made the country less safe. A substantial majority (52 percent to 34 percent) called Trump’s Iran policy “reckless.”

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Trump’s Iran policy and its consequences obviously are not within the scope of the articles of impeachment. But an unpopular president who gets into an unpopular war is inherently more vulnerable to impeachment than a popular one in peacetime.    

So here is the nightmare wild card scenario for Trump and Senate Republicans in a Senate trial. John Bolton testifies, in effect, that Trump tried to undermine the security of an American ally in order to boost his chances of reelection. Then the U.S.-Iran conflict flares up again but this time with American casualties, and Trump’s already historically low popularity rating plummets.   

We are still a long way from that scenario. But if it materializes, a Senate trial of President Trump may be a much different proceeding than anyone could have imagined just a short time ago.

 Gregory J. Wallance was a federal prosecutor during the Carter and Reagan administrations. He is the author most recently of “The Woman Who Fought An Empire: Sarah Aaronsohn and Her Nili Spy Ring.” Follow him on Twitter at @gregorywallance.