When a parade of witnesses defied the White House to testify about the administration’s plot to turn Ukraine policy into a lever to dirty up President Trump’s domestic enemies, Republicans dismissed it all as secondhand information. None of them had spoken directly to Trump, except Gordon Sondland, whose memory of such discussions proved fuzzy. “Their understanding, which is the foundation of the case for the Democrats, was based on secondhand information,” said Representative Kevin McCarthy, mouthing the party’s favorite talking point.
Yesterday, former national security adviser John Bolton put himself forward as a willing witness for the Senate impeachment trial. Bolton’s testimony is very much of the firsthand variety. On at least one occasion, he met with Trump and pleaded with him to release military aid to Ukraine. Yet Republicans seem shockingly unreceptive for the chance to hear the kind of firsthand testimony they have been demanding for weeks.
When confronted by reporters with Bolton’s announcement, Republicans have hidden behind procedural nonsense. “The testimony & evidence considered in a Senate impeachment trial should be the same testimony & evidence the House relied upon when they passed the Articles of Impeachment,” wrote Republican senator and Trump footstool Marco Rubio. “Our job is to vote on what the House passed, not to conduct an open ended inquiry.” Senator John Cornyn framed the no-testimony stance as a matter of “respect” for the House inquiry, telling CNN, “We need to respect the House’s role as the instigator of the impeachment articles and presumably the 17 witnesses that testified in the House will be available here.”
The rule requiring the Senate to limit its evidence to that which the House has already gathered does not exist. The Senate rules for impeachment trials explicitly allow for bringing witnesses and testimony. Some Republicans have cited the precedent of the Clinton impeachment. “The Senate has a unanimous, bipartisan precedent for when to handle midtrial questions such as witnesses: in the middle of the trial,” said Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
But that agreement was only struck because Clinton had furnished the relevant evidence to the House. Clinton himself testified under oath before the special prosecutor. Trump, by contrast, has ordered all his officials to boycott the testimony and refused to willingly turn over any documents. Bolton himself abided by that order, which is why the House was unable to hear his testimony. The Republican game is insisting somehow that now that Bolton is willing to speak, it’s too late, on the basis of a principle they invented yesterday.
An inadvertently revealing window into Republican thinking was opened by right-wing talk-radio host Hugh Hewitt, interviewing Cornyn this morning. Hewitt, who has been close to Bolton for years, insisted that his friend couldn’t possibly want to provide damaging testimony. Cornyn agreed:
Hewitt: Now yesterday, an old friend of mine, Ambassador John Bolton, said he’d be available to testify. I laughed when I saw that. That’s John Bolton doing three things – selling books, raising money for BoltonPAC so he can support great conservatives like you, and daring and hoping that the Democrats will throw him into the briar patch, because if he gets asked questions through the Chief Justice, they’re going to get lectures on appeasement. They’re going to get lectures on Putin taking Crimea on their watch. They’re going to get a lot of stuff from John Bolton. That is grabbing the knife at the wrong end, Senator. But I don’t, I don’t think they’ve thought this through. John Bolton is not a guy to trifle with.
Cornyn: No, no. He’s a very smart guy, as you know, and I’m sure he would not have said what he said without gaming this thing out. And it could well be if he is called as a witness at some point, that his testimony would be enormously helpful to President Trump. And I’m not sure that’s what the Democrats have in mind.
Hewitt: Oh, that’s exactly, I just think they imagine that he’s mad. They’re talking, they think of John Bolton as other than the patriot that he is, and he may have had disagreements with people, but there is no way he is going to go up there and advocate for Democratic results and advocate to avoid the actual policy conducted against Ukraine, which I believe you’ll agree was far tougher under President Trump in support of Ukraine than President Obama, who sent them blankets.
Hewitt and Cornyn agreed that Bolton, as a “patriot” and a “smart guy,” will not want to provide any damaging testimony. That would run against a great deal of public reporting on Bolton’s perspective. Bolton was reported by firsthand witnesses to have described the Ukraine extortion scheme as a “drug deal,” and “former White House officials and people close to Mr. Bolton” told the New York Times yesterday that “his testimony would most likely be damning to Mr. Trump and put additional pressure on moderate Republicans to consider convicting him.”
But, hey, maybe they’re right. Bolton is an extremely conservative partisan Republican, and perhaps he will explain to the upper chamber that he meant Trump was cooking up a good drug deal, the kind that delivers needed prescription medicine to the sick.
Yet Cornyn did not have enough confidence in this belief to actually commit to allowing Bolton to testify. He merely said, “It could well be if he is called as a witness at some point, that his testimony would be enormously helpful to President Trump.” Cornyn is all but saying he will only agree to the testimony if he can be assured Bolton won’t incriminate Trump.
One of the two counts Trump is being impeached over is obstruction of Congress. His blanket defiance of all congressional oversight is an extraordinary departure from previous presidents, who have resisted sharing some documents and testimony on a case-by-case basis, but never openly refused to allow Congress to investigate anything at all. Senate Republicans are revealing one of the peculiarities of trying this charge: They are active co-conspirators.