Bolton’s Offer to Testify May Not Be a Game-Changer Just Yet

Unclear what this career-long defender of presidential power would actually say during an impeachment trial. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The surprise announcement from former national security adviser to the president John Bolton that he would respond favorably to a Senate subpoena to testify in an impeachment trial seems to have struck some observers already bored with the war with Iran as a huge game-changer. Here was Forbesinitial take:

Former national security advisor John Bolton said Monday he is willing to testify in the Senate’s impeachment trial of President Trump, a dramatic reversal that, if it takes place, could provide vital information and potentially pressure moderate Republicans to vote for Trump’s removal from office.

That is probably an overinterpretation of events. Bolton hasn’t at all made it clear whether his testimony, if it is given, will be limited in some crucial way. For all we know, this career-long defender of presidential power may share the White House’s view opposing disclosure of virtually any communication between the president and his staff. And even if he throws shade at some of his rivals on that staff, or joins many Trump defenders willing to throw Rudy Giuliani totally under the bus, it’s a big leap from there to “Trump’s removal from office.”

You may be wondering why Bolton suddenly decided to testify after deferring to the courts to determine whether a House subpoena would persuade him to testify. It’s likely because any Senate subpoena would actually be signed by the Senate trial’s presiding officer, the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, and no inferior federal judge would be likely to brush that aside.

It’s also unclear whether Bolton’s sudden prospective chattiness undercuts Mitch McConnell’s position on Senate witnesses as much as it might initially appear. All McConnell has actually said is that he opposes some bipartisan deal to impose a witness list (such as Chuck Schumer’s, which includes Mick Mulvaney, Robert Blair, and Michael Duffy, as well as Bolton) before the trial begins. He’s open to voting on individual witnesses later (as was the case in the Clinton trial, although, as Democrats note, depositions had already been taken from all the key witnesses in the Clinton case prior to the trial), after opening statements are made, which punts the whole question to much further into the process and makes it more difficult for Republican senators to break ranks just before the acquittal of POTUS that the MAGA hordes will be anticipating like a Jubilee. So McConnell need not change his position at all.

Alternatively, Senate Republicans and the president himself might switch to the position that any testimony by Bolton, while theoretically acceptable, must be paired with an appearance from someone the president wishes to testify, either justifying his conduct or supporting one of the conspiracy theories Republicans have advanced in lieu of actually defending his conduct. There can be no Bolton testimony without Biden (Hunter and/or Joe) testimony, we might soon hear, or no Bolton testimony without Alexandra Chalupa and a dive down the rabbit hole of a parallel universe where mighty Ukraine sought to force Hillary Clinton into the White House despite the manifest longing of the American people for Trump.

What Bolton’s announcement might do, however, is to complicate even more the dance involving McConnell and Nancy Pelosi over transmittal of articles of impeachment and the start-date for a trial. If she and Schumer choose to make an agreement that the Senate accept Bolton’s offer as an absolute condition for moving along, negotiations could slow down even more (though Pelosi could also wring as much publicity as she can from this sudden weak point in the GOP’s “no witnesses” stone wall, then transmit the articles after a week or two).

One new argument that should not be taken seriously, however, is Lindsey Graham’s suggestion on a Sunday show that the Senate’s standing rules on impeachment be amended to allow for a brisk trial even if articles of impeachment never arrive from the House. That would require a two-thirds vote in the Senate, and that’s no more likely than a two-thirds vote to remove Trump from office. The overall story has turned out to have many twists and turns and, at the moment, is being overshadowed by war clouds. But the end of the story still seems foreordained, unless John Bolton has some real dynamite in his briefcase and is willing to blow up a Republican administration.

Bolton’s Offer to Testify May Not Be a Game-Changer Just Yet