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John Bolton was once viewed as the most dangerous member of President Trump’s team. Now most of the danger he poses is to the president himself. I spoke with political columnists Jonathan Chait and Ed Kilgore about how much harm the mustachioed neoconservative could do to his former boss.
Ben: On Sunday night, the New York Times reported that in his upcoming book, ex-national security adviser John Bolton confirms what we already pretty much knew: President Trump told him directly that he didn’t want to release Ukraine aid until the country launched an investigation into Joe Biden. With pressure mounting on Republicans to let Bolton speak, it now seems far more likely that he’ll appear before the Senate. How damaging do you think his testimony could be?
Ed: In terms of Trump being removed from office? Still ain’t happening.
Jon: Right. I think, first, merely extending the trial harms Republicans — their highest priority is to shorten it. Second, Bolton seems almost certain to destroy the central defense Trump’s lawyers have made (that nobody has testified of a direct quid pro quo order from Trump’s mouth to their ears). And third, there is a reasonable chance he could open up new avenues of attack — which could result either in more testimony or simply more media coverage for the scandal.
Ed: I challenge the premise that they’re definitely going to have the votes to call him. Yes, it’s more likely, but not a cinch just yet.
Ben: Nobody said definite!
Ed: Even if the Senate votes to hear him, there are multiple reasons it might not happen.
Ben: How do you see that (not) going down?
Ed: If he’s called, the White House will almost certainly (through its trial lawyers initially) assert executive privilege prohibits it. First, Bolton could then refuse to testify, or limit his testimony based on that assertion. Second, Trump’s lawyers could appeal to Roberts to exclude the testimony on grounds of executive privilege. And third, the White House could find a friendly D.C. District Court judge to ban the testimony until there’s a hearing on executive privilege. Yes, this last avenue will extend the trial, but the White House might still pursue it depending on its estimate of the damage of Bolton testifying.
Jon: I don’t see how they’re going to win that fight, I suppose it’s possible they delay long enough to make Republican senators give up? I think the decision would be expedited but I don’t have a very detailed understanding of the law controlling this.
Ben: Would silencing Bolton be worth the political cost? Is there a political cost, at least for some of the senators up for reelection this year, the Cory Gardners of the world?
Ed: My personal view is that senators in close races will most likely be hurt by damage to Trump’s own standing. In an election as apocalyptic as this one, not sure how many swing voters are going to focus on evidentiary motions in an impeachment trial few of them are watching.
Ben: So what’s the best-case scenario for Democrats here? Bolton testifies in damning detail, the vote not to convict might be a little tougher for swing Republicans, and … is there anything else?
Jon: Sure, more Trump officials implicated. I flagged this line from the NYT story in my piece: Bolton “warned White House lawyers that Mr. Giuliani might have been leveraging his work with the president to help his private clients.” Seems potentially criminal. To the extent impeachment converges on the Rudy-Parnas crime story, it’s bad for Trump. That is a rock he does not want to turn over.
Ed: Let me mention one more aspect of this. If (a) the trial runs a lot longer, or (b) it’s placed in limbo by litigation over executive privilege, as I read it, the standing rules governing impeachment trials have no provision for any sort of break. The trial remains in session six days a week until a verdict is rendered or the articles are dismissed. That could get weird.
Ben: As Jon said, a longer trial seems bad for Republicans.
Ed: I dunno. You’d have Republicans blaming Democrats for dragging the country through this thing just months before an election. I could see hourly motions by Trumpy senators demanding an immediate end of the trial. This whole Trump defense team talking point that the House “should not have impeached the president without completing its case” would become central.
Ben: Is it possible, or plausible, that Bolton would testify without Republican getting any of the witnesses they want called up there too?
Jon: Sure. Among other things, Bolton wants to testify, and the witnesses Republicans want do not want to testify.
Ed: There’s that, and the fact that this probably won’t come to the floor as a “deal,” but rather a simple motion to call Bolton. Even pro-Trump Republicans might want to hold the line on witnesses beyond Bolton, since who knows where it would end?
If, on the other hand, Trump goes to the mats and tries to turn the trial into a genuine circus with clowns, anything could happen.
Ben: A more overarching question: Why do you think John Bolton is doing this?
Jon: That’s a great question, and I truly have no idea. My best guess is that he was just outraged by Trump’s conduct. I cannot think of an explanation that fits his actions more tightly. Make money? Eh, sure, one time with this book, but then he’s a dead man to the right and he has no career left. If I was his agent, I would tell him to stay in the party’s good graces.
Ed: Don’t forget that Bolton is 71 years old. Don’t let the presidential candidates’ ages blind you to the fact that most people in their 70s perceive that their act is about over. Write the book, get one last dazzling moment in the spotlight, and head to St. Petersburg, or Sun City, or wherever it is people like Bolton go.
Jon: There are lots of old guys riding that right-wing gravy train — soft fellowship gigs, cruises, maybe some talking-head work.
Ed: Yeah, but for all we know Bolton’s ready to pack it in. It’s a possibility.
Jon: It’s possible he doesn’t even want to show up twice a year and collect a paycheck for a Heritage sinecure, but that’s not how I’d bet.