The uproar commenced last evening when the New York Times revealed -- prior to the White House press office being given a heads-up, reportedly -- that former National Security Adviser John Bolton has written in an upcoming book that President Trump personally told him that he was linking the delivery of Congressionally-allocated Ukrainian military aid to Kiev-based investigations that would impact Trump's domestic political opponents. We touched on this whole brouhaha earlier, but I thought I'd put a finer point on a few of my thoughts. Before we get to those, here is the president weighing in on Twitter, strongly denying Bolton's alleged claim (we still haven't seen what Bolton has actually written):
I NEVER told John Bolton that the aid to Ukraine was tied to investigations into Democrats, including the Bidens. In fact, he never complained about this at the time of his very public termination. If John Bolton said this, it was only to sell a book. With that being said, the...— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 27, 2020
...(Democrats said I never met) and released the military aid to Ukraine without any conditions or investigations - and far ahead of schedule. I also allowed Ukraine to purchase Javelin anti-tank missiles. My Administration has done far more than the previous Administration.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 27, 2020
Trump's tweets will fuel the fire of this Beltway bombshell, and may be both premature and counter-productive to the president's interests. As I alluded to above, we don't know what, exactly, Bolton has written, so it might have been wiser to wait for the relevant passages to arrive (as they inevitably will) before issuing angry denials. Also, turning this into a 'he said/he said' dispute strengthens the case for Bolton testifying. Trump says X, but Bolton wrote Y -- so let's put Bolton under oath and see what he testifies. That's a difficult argument to refute, and some Republicans may be resigning themselves to that reality. Bolton was a very senior member of the president's national security team, and was reportedly contemptuous of the Rudy-centric alternate foreign policy channel pulling Ukraine-related strings. His recollections and memorializations are highly relevant to the matter at hand.
He is also credible figure who, regardless of one's opinions of his hawkish views, is known to be blunt and honest to a fault. Not only that, he's famous for his copious note-taking. If Bolton testifies that something happened, and produces contemporaneous written records to fortify his memory, frenetic all-caps presidential denials on social media will not be persuasive. As this chapter of the Ukraine/impeachment drama unfolds, I've seen a number of defenses and objections raised by Trump supporters. They have some merit. First, Bolton is being criticized for exploiting this moment to promote and sell his book. It appears as though his submission of his manuscript for security-related redactions was handled appropriately on Bolton's end, and that the leak likely originated from within the NSC orbit. Who leaked, and how, is the subject of much speculation. It's also true that the link for online preorders did magically coincide with this political football landing in the middle of Washington. It smells of a publicity stunt.
Second, Trump backers are pointing out that House Democrats never even bothered to subpoena Bolton, a decision driven by their contrived rush to pass articles of impeachment prior to Christmas -- which, in turn, was based on a supposed "urgency" that they promptly undermined with Speaker Pelosi's failed 'impeach and withhold' gambit. Why should the Senate be forced to clean up after the House's shabby and incomplete work? This criticism is entirely valid, as it highlights the Democrats' nakedly political calculations and fundamental unseriousness.
But these are ultimately tangential questions. The situation is redolent of many Republicans' obsessive focus on the inside baseball of how the whistleblower emerged and was handled...after the substance of his accusation was largely confirmed by the release of the Trump/Zelensky transcript. What matters most is what the truth is, not how any of this information made its way into public view. The best way to assess that bottom-line question is for Bolton to testify, under oath in some capacity, for the purposes of the trial. Fully justified objections to House Democrats' embarrassingly flawed, cynical process do not ultimately outweigh the value of learning what Bolton knows. He should be deposed. I'm open to ideas that would limit the partisan circus surrounding his testimony -- but the existence of that circus, and the dubious motives of many Resistance figures, do not eclipse the substance of what he'll testify. In short:
Seems to me that if you don’t think Bolton should be a witness it’s simply because you want to protect Trump more than anything else. https://t.co/oXnGfrSaHS— Jonah Goldberg (@JonahDispatch) January 27, 2020
Question: What happens if and when Bolton testifies and confirms an attempted quid pro quo involving the payment of military aid and the launch or announcement of politically-sensitive investigations? Before I attempt to answer that question, allow me to make two related points: (1) The quid pro quo apparently was not executed because the arrangement started to attract harsh scrutiny. (2) The Biden-related investigation has been defended as legitimate, but asking a foreign government to announce the probe (with an emphasis on the announcement, over the conduct of the probe itself) as a condition for receiving desperately-needed aid looks much more like self-interested corruption than a good-faith effort to get to the bottom of anything. There are fair questions to be asked about Ukrainian officials' 2016 meddling, as well as Hunter Biden's fragrant boondoggle. Demanding that Kiev make a public show about both issues in order to receive funds Congress had already approved is not, however, a legitimate use of foreign policy-making power.
Back to my question. Let's say, not-so-hypothetically, that Bolton provides the missing link establishing an aid-for-investigations quid pro quo. Then what? In my mind, that scheme would arguably represent an impeachable offense. But for many of the reasons I laid out in my pro-censure column, I do not believe that impeachment and removal is the prudent or appropriate consequence for this abuse of power. The American people will have an opportunity to render a judgment on the Trump presidency in its entirety in a matter of months. Let that process take its course. The fact that Democrats have manifestly not developed a bipartisan consensus on this matter is also an important consideration here. Part of this is their own fault, along with the media's, having hyped the Russia story relentlessly for years until it withered on the vine, under the glare of the Mueller report.
There is a deeply-entrenched belief among many Americans that this impeachment effort is, substance aside, the latest attempt to uproot a presidency that the Left has never been willing to accept as legitimate. This belief is totally understandable, given the opposition's hysterical actions and rhetoric over the last three-plus years. To pry a duly-elected president from office under these circumstances, with an election looming, would be more harmful to our polity than inaction in the face of misconduct, in my view. That is why I proposed a middle ground resolution, in which approximately nobody seems interested. I'll leave you with this observation from frequent Trump defender and former federal prosecutor Andrew McCarthy:
For millionth time, POTUS’s strategy should have been: Steer clear of underlying facts, argue that even if it’s true he squeezed UKR, nothing happened and not impeachable. Fighting on quid pro quo always made him vulnerable to Bolton & other shoes dropping. Asking for trouble.— Andy McCarthy (@AndrewCMcCarthy) January 27, 2020
By insisting on a defense of total denials, Trump has backed himself into a corner. When you shout "no quid pro quo!" at the top of your lungs for months (even as the opposite conclusion has been a baked-in assumption among the impeachment crowd all along), it looks quite incriminating if the talking point is forced to morph into "this quid pro quo was not illegal!" based on new evidence. This is why I've always blanched at the "perfect call/nothing wrong" claims. Most people, including many impeachment opponents, simply don't buy it -- and the lies and spin end up becoming aggravating factors as people assess the administration's credibility on all matters, not just this one. That damage is self-inflicted.