Impeachment Briefing: What John Bolton Could Tell Us

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  • After “careful consideration and study,” John R. Bolton, President Trump’s former national security adviser, said in a statement Monday that he would be willing to testify in a Senate impeachment trial, potentially delivering Democrats a crucial witness who spoke directly to Mr. Trump about his Ukraine dealings.

  • Mr. Bolton’s lawyer said in November that Mr. Bolton knew about “many relevant meetings and conversations” connected to the Ukraine matter that had not been shared with impeachment investigators. Witnesses testified that Mr. Bolton, who left the White House unceremoniously in September, was deeply troubled by the campaign to get Ukraine to investigate Democrats.

  • Mr. Bolton’s decision puts enormous pressure on Senate Republicans, many of whom are in favor of a fast and narrow trial, and on the party’s moderate members in particular — at least four Republicans would have to vote in favor of Mr. Bolton’s testimony for him to appear.

  • House Democrats return to Capitol Hill Tuesday. Read more about the stalemate over the two impeachment articles they passed in December, which have yet to be sent to the Senate. We’ll have more on the possible Senate trial in tomorrow’s newsletter.

I asked my colleague Peter Baker, who has written widely about Mr. Bolton’s possible participation in impeachment proceedings, how the news raised the stakes of a possible Senate trial.

Peter, this statement came just before noon, seemingly out of the blue. What did you make of it?

The impression you get from his statement is that he wants to testify. He wants to tell his story. He’s been waiting for someone to tell him he has no choice. But for someone who wants a future in Republican politics, testifying against this president would be seen as an act of betrayal. Doing so under a subpoena or court order says to the world that he’s just doing what he has to do, instead of becoming John Dean. He can say he’s doing his duty as a citizen.

It seemed like wishful thinking that any of the four witnesses Senator Chuck Schumer asked for recently would testify. Of those four, if only Mr. Bolton testifies, can he still be a case-closing witness?

If you only talked to one more person, he’s the one person you’d pick. We know he objected to the pressure campaign on Ukraine and we know he objected to the suspension of security aid. Most of the witnesses who testified publicly to the House were nowhere near as close to the president as a national security adviser is. None of them have the conservative credibility that John Bolton has, which means that if he has something to say that might be damaging to the president, it cannot be easily dismissed as some kind of ideological “deep state” plot.

I’m sensing a “but” coming here …

Mr. Bolton is a very candid and outspoken dude. He doesn’t hold back when he talks. But we don’t know what exactly he has to say beyond what we already know from other witnesses. It’s a bit of a crapshoot for both sides. Mr. Bolton left disgruntled with the president. He doesn’t agree with him on some of the policies he has enacted. That doesn’t mean he has suddenly become a Never Trumper. We don’t know what his motivation is. We don’t know what his knowledge is.

By last summer, when a lot of this Ukraine stuff was playing out, the president and Mr. Bolton were clearly at odds. There were a lot of stories about Mr. Bolton being left out of key meetings and decisions. Was his access to the president diminished?

So you’re saying we should temper our expectations?

We should be careful not to assume we know what he’ll say when and if he gets up there. Moreover, agreeing to testify isn’t the same as agreeing to testify about everything. He could be asked about particular conversations or moments and cite executive privilege or classified information.

What if the main target of Mr. Bolton isn’t Mr. Trump?

That’s the danger for Democrats: Mr. Bolton could agree that the pressure campaign was wrong, but still not throw the president under the bus. He could throw Mick Mulvaney or Gordon Sondland under the bus. No one has directly quoted the president telling them that the issues of military aid and political investigations were linked, although many thought that was clear. We presume if there is such evidence, Mr. Bolton would have it. Who would have it more than the national security adviser?

Where does this leave Mr. Bolton, who we know is writing a book?

If you want to tell your story in a book, you have to be willing to tell your story to Congress. Legal confidentiality doesn’t go away because you’re writing a book. So if he does testify now, it may free him to write a more candid and revelatory book later.

Though Congress was away for the past two weeks, there were still developments in the impeachment saga. Here are five stories you may have missed.

1. The Times uncovered new details around the Ukraine aid freeze. In a comprehensive account of how military aid was held up at the direction of Mr. Trump, my colleagues detailed a previously unreported August meeting between the president and top Cabinet officials who attempted to convince him to release the money, to no avail.

2. We learned about high-level White House communications related to the military aid. The Trump administration disclosed that there were 20 emails between a top aide to Mick Mulvaney, the president’s acting chief of staff, and a colleague at the White House’s Office of Management and Budget discussing the hold on military assistance. But the budget office said it would not turn over any of those emails — not even with redactions.

3. We did see some emails, thanks to a Freedom of Information Act request. About 90 minutes after Mr. Trump’s fateful July telephone call with Ukraine’s president, the White House budget office ordered the Pentagon to suspend the Ukraine aid, according to emails released by the Pentagon in December. A budget official also told the Pentagon to keep quiet about the aid freeze because of the “sensitive nature of the request.”

4. Joe Biden could testify before the Senate. The former vice president, whose family was central to Mr. Trump’s efforts in Ukraine, said he would abide by “any subpoena that was sent to me,” even while insisting there was no justification for calling him as a witness. He had initially said that he would not comply with one.

5. Two moderate Republicans voiced concerns over the way their party was approaching the impeachment trial. Senator Susan Collins criticized some of her colleagues for appearing to “prejudge the evidence,” and Senator Lisa Murkowski said she was “disturbed” by the promise made by Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, to work with the White House to set the terms of the trial.

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