Despite the jubilance it inspired among advocates of Donald Trump’s impeachment, the news that former National Security Adviser John Bolton would testify in the president’s Senate trial if subpoenaed was yet another indictment of how House Democrats have conducted themselves.
Bolton, who was not subpoenaed by House Democrats, had been awaiting a court decision to determine whether his deputy, Charles Kupperman, could be compelled to testify. If the court had ruled in Democrats’ favor, the case would have directly pertained to Bolton. Given that Democrats had already received a favorable ruling in a similar effort to compel testimony from former White House counsel Don McGhan, they had reason to be optimistic about their chances. But when the House passed articles of impeachment, the venue in which Kupperman would have testified effectively closed, and the court dismissed the case.
In his statement, Bolton explained that he had preferred to await a judicial ruling in deference to the president’s executive authority, but since no judicial ruling would be forthcoming, he would suspend that deference if the Senate required his input.
Though it is likely more a wish than a belief, some observers have determined that Bolton’s statement provides Speaker Nancy Pelosi with new leverage over the Senate (a tacit admission that she never had much leverage in the first place). If Bolton’s announcement has provided Democrats with any new advantages, they are manifest in a new willingness among a handful of moderate GOP senators to say what many suspected they believed: that the Senate should not seek to acquit the president without litigating the charges against him as thoroughly as possible.
Those senators are right. Not only would such a course of action represent good governance, it would also be in the Republican Party’s interest to manage the flow of new information about the president’s conduct relating to Ukraine while they control the process.
In the weeks that have elapsed since the House passed articles of impeachment against the president, new details have emerged that clarify the sequence of events leading up to the obstructed disbursement of military aid. That information was not gleaned as a result of the congressional investigation but as a result of media inquiries.
In December of last year, emails obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request filed by the Center for Public Integrity showed that officials within the administration expressed concerns that the hold on Ukraine’s military aid could violate the law. Some of those correspondences were exchanged as soon as 90 minutes after the conclusion of the president’s infamous July 25 phone conversation with Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky and, according to the Center’s R. Jeffrey Smith, both the Office of Budget and Management and Pentagon officials who inquired “were never given a clear or even remotely satisfactory explanation for the aid hold.”
On January 2, the unredacted version of these emails and other documents obtained by the organization Just Security revealed—if more confirmation was necessary—that the order to hold Ukraine’s congressionally authorized support came directly from Trump. One August 30 email describing a “clear direction from POTUS to continue to hold” Ukraine’s aid was not provided to House investigators, which raises the question: What else is out there?
A variety of related FOIA requests are still pending. This should be a source of concern for the congressional GOP. It would surely be politically disadvantageous for them if information relevant to the investigation were to surface, say, in the autumn of a presidential election year rather than during the Republican-controlled Senate trial. Even if the testimony or documents the trial produced reflected poorly on the president, Republicans are better off navigating those issues now rather than allowing Democrats to characterize the GOP’s acquittal of the president as perfunctory and flawed.
Of course, it’s more likely that Senate Republicans will take their chances. Impeachment has not proven a political drag on the president—not more so, at least, than the myriad other factors that have left the president’s job approval rating in the low-to-mid-40s. It’s likely that the voting public is evaluating Trump’s conduct relating to the Ukraine affair independent of the facts presented during the depositional phase of impeachment proceedings. Any new information that confirms what we already know is unlikely to move the needle, but that’s not guaranteed.
The press won’t dismiss new revelations related to the allegation that Trump sought to weaponize foreign policy to secure domestic political advantage as old news if such revelations emerge during a general-election campaign—especially if that campaign is being waged against Trump’s alleged target, Joe Biden. Republicans would do well to insulate themselves against the charge that they were complicit in the undue exculpation of the president by conducting as thorough and impartial a trial as possible.