At 8:36 p.m. on Monday night, President Trump’s lawyers finally said John Bolton’s name.
The pronouncement came the day after the New York Times reported that the former national security adviser accused Trump of tying congressionally-authorized aid to Ukraine to investigations into Joe Biden in a draft of his memoir — a point that is more or less publicly accepted, if politically denied by a majority of senators. The manuscript, submitted to the White House in December, has proven to be the most explosive development to-date in the Senate impeachment trial.
Democrats have spent weeks pushing for Bolton and other administration officials to be subpoenaed as witnesses by the Senate, only to be denied by a party line vote at the beginning of the trial, when Republican senators prevented any witnesses from being called. Democrats still have tied their hopes up to four Republicans changing their minds on a procedural vote scheduled for later this week, but even after the Bolton revelation, it seems unlikely that enough Republicans will break ranks so that witnesses will be called.
Alan Dershowitz delivered the core argument in the first full day of opening statements, habitually referencing constitutional law and name-dropping historical figures in his primetime slot. Speaking from typed notes, but not looking at the two aged leather books he brought to the podium with him, he invoked Bolton’s name and dismissed him simultaneously: “Nothing in Bolton’s revelations — even if true — would rise to the level of abuse of power or an impeachable offense.”
Earlier in the day, Democrats had expressed the hope that the bombshell revelations would move the requisite number of Republicans to call for witnesses: “I think there’ll be more than four,” Angus King, the Maine independent who caucuses with the Democrats, told NPR. “My bold prediction will be five or 10.” However, King conceded to reporters later “that was a supposition that it would be very hard to vote no.”
Republicans eventually got into lockstep, denying the need to hear Bolton’s testimony. When asked by New York if he thought Bolton would add anything relevant to the case, North Dakota Senator Kevin Cramer said, “I don’t … I want to acquit the president and move on.”
Ron Johnson of Wisconsin cited Dershowitz in his argument dismissing the former national security adviser: “No matter what John Bolton says, it shouldn’t affect the outcome here. We shouldn’t be here. It should have never risen to impeachable offense or an impeachment trial.” Johnson added of Bolton: “I don’t see that there is going to be anything to change my mind that this shouldn’t rise to the level of impeachment.”
Democrats had a different response, bristling at the celebrity lawyer’s comments. Virginia Senator Tim Kaine told reporters that “when [Dershowitz] stands up and tells us there is nothing that John Bolton can say … I disagree with you. You can’t tell me that. You don’t know what John Bolton is going to say.” In fact, Kaine insisted doing so would violate his duty as a juror in the trial: “I’ve taken an oath to do impartial justice. I’m not going to concede you telling me that the testimony isn’t going to be probative or significant. I want to hear the testimony.”
Partisan battle lines grew even sharper during the day on the issue; at least one Republican attacked a colleague for expressing openness towards calling Bolton. Kelly Loeffler, the newly appointed senator from Georgia went after Mitt Romney, whom she once described as a friend after submitting major donations to both of his presidential campaigns:
The drama over Bolton overshadowed a day where Trump’s lawyers threw out a variety of disconnected arguments before closing with Dershowitz. Ken Starr, the independent counsel who oversaw the Whitewater probe of Bill Clinton, opened the day bemoaning “the age of impeachment.” At times, he seemed like he was narrating a Ken Burns documentary, speaking in his warm, avuncular voice about the impeachment of Andrew Johnson; to complete the effect, all he needed was a vague hint of Ashokan Farewell playing in the background.
Much of the day was devoted to less high-brow arguments: Trump lawyers attacked Joe Biden and offered a defense of Rudy Giuliani, who they antithetically described as both a “minor player” and “an American hero … an internationally recognized expert on fighting corruption.” These were long-expected arguments from the Trump defense that served an additional timely purpose, forcing reporters to find at least a few headlines that had nothing to do with John Bolton.
Though the national security adviser’s account still dominated the news cycle, North Carolina Representative Mark Meadows, a close Trump ally, banked on the frenetic pace of contemporary politics to blow the story over by Monday. “It’s the reality of Washington, D.C.,” he said. “We’re on a 24- and 48-hour news cycle and candidly there’s a lot of news each and every day. To suggest that we put a lot of emphasis on one report from the New York Times would be to ignore history where we have not only news that breaks every day, but allegations that break every day that seem blockbuster at the time they are made, but yet, when they are vetted, don’t pass muster.” It remains to be seen if the reporting on Bolton’s book will “pass muster,” but the bet seems to be that it will fade into the ether regardless.