Over the weekend, bombshell news dropped. In his forthcoming book, Donald Trump’s former National Security advisor John Bolton is reported to have alleged that Trump told him directly that he was withholding congressionally appropriated funds to help Ukraine fight off Russian incursions until Ukraine agreed to announce an investigation into JOe and Hunter Biden.
Republicans have insisted that there is no direct evidence that Trump himself ordered the hold, and that, therefore, there is no evidence that the president had abused his power, as the first article of impeachment charges. The leaks from Bolton’s book, cheekily named The Room Where It Happened (this is a reference to a song from the wildly popular musical, Hamilton), demolish that argument. Furthermore, Bolton, a key player, is willing to testify to direct conversations about the issue that place it firmly in Trump’s lap.
Shortly after midnight Sunday, in the wee hours of Monday morning, Trump tweeted: “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.” The tweet was unfortunate, since if Bolton is lying, Trump should want him to testify under oath. Also, tweeting about the issue likely destroys Trump’s chances to protect the conversation under executive privilege. (Instead, the White House has floated the idea of going to court to get a restraining order against Bolton to stop him from speaking. This would tie the issue up in legal fights until the Senate finishes the trial.)
The media chewed over the issue all day today, with New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman, who broke the story, saying that Republican Senators felt blindsided by the news and wanted to know who had had access to the manuscript. Fox News Channel personality Lou Dobbs called staunch Republican John Bolton “A Tool For The Left” (which is hilarious, despite the deadly seriousness of all this). Trump supporters, including Representative Mark Meadows (R-NC), one of Trump’s closest allies, warned that Republicans breaking with Trump over impeachment could face “political repercussions.” But while senators do not want to buck Trump, they also don’t want to acquit the president only to have more damning information appear. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Senator James Langford (R-OK) tried to avoid asking for witnesses but still get some security, saying that the Senate should be allowed to see the manuscript.
But, until Alan Dershowitz alluded to it last night, the lawyers charged with defending Trump in the Senate today didn’t mention the new information at all, except to say that even if Bolton’s accusations were true, they are not an impeachable offense. Dershowitz is virtually the only constitutional scholar trying to make this argument. Indeed, Jay Sekulow went so far as to say that “not a single witness” testified that they heard from Trump himself that the aid was linked to investigations… even as a direct witness has offered to testify, but is being blocked from doing so.
Clearly Trump’s defenders are not trying to defend him against the charges brought by the House. So what are they doing?
Yesterday was a constant stream of attacks on Joe and Hunter Biden, in which Trump’s lawyers insisted that Trump’s focus on the announcement of an investigation into Burisma, the company on whose board Hunter Biden sat, was because he cared so deeply about corruption in Ukraine.
A quick recap of the actual facts, established in the impeachment hearings, among other places, might be in order: In 2006, George W. Bush named Hunter Biden to the board of directors of Amtrak; he resigned in 2009 to start an international consulting firm. In 2014, Biden joined the board of Burisma to lend credibility to the idea it was leaving behind its corrupt past—US Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch testified that putting Americans on boards to suggest they are clean is a common practice in Ukraine. Burisma is owned by an oligarch, Mykola Zlochevsky; Hunter Biden had just been discharged from the Navy Reserve after testing positive for cocaine. In 2015, Viktor Shokin became Ukraine’s prosecutor general. He vowed to investigate Burisma but did not follow through. Shokin was widely perceived as corrupt, and in fall 2015, Vice President Joe Biden, who was overseeing American policy toward Ukraine, led a number of western officials—including Republican politicians– in calling for Shokin’s removal. He was fired in March 2016, and a new prosecutor cleared Zlochevsky.
Focusing so tightly on the Bidens actually weakens their argument that Trump cared more generally about corruption, so what are Republicans up to? They are doing precisely what Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky refused to do: they are smearing the Bidens to help Trump in 2020.
Last night, Iowa Senator Joni Ernst laid it out: “Okay, Iowa caucuses, folks, Iowa caucuses are this next Monday evening. And I’m really interested to see how this discussion today informs and influences the Iowa caucus voters. Those Democratic caucus-goers. Will they be supporting Vice President Biden at this point? Not so certain about that.”
The Trump team is also deliberately gas lighting Americans. To Pam Bondi they gave the argument about corruption and the improper use of political connections. As Florida’s attorney general, Bondi declined to pursue fraud charges against Trump University after Trump wrote her a campaign committee a $25,000 check (for which he was later fined). Until recently Bondi was a lobbyist for Ballard Partners, a firm boasting of its ties to the Trump administration to represent Qatar and Kuwait. Indicted co-conspirator Lev Parnas’s notes suggested hiring Ballard to lobby for indicted Ukraine oligarch Dmitry Firtash.
To Ken Starr they gave the argument about lowering the standards of impeachment and using it as a political tool. Ken Starr, of course, was the man who pursued President Bill Clinton for years through a number of investigations that turned up nothing, only to corner him finally on charges that he had lied under oath about an extramarital affair. The House, controlled by Republicans, impeached Clinton, although many of the people insisting that it was a “character issue” that required his removal from office were themselves having extramarital affairs, including Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R-GA).
Even Josh Marshall, the editor of Talking Points Memo, said it was so exhausting to watch the perpetrators bemoan the crimes that he had to stop listening. That is, of course, the plan.
Still, news continues to drop.
Yesterday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo continued his attacks on NPR. After accusing NPR reporter Mary Louise Kelly of lying only to be exposed by emails as the liar himself, Pompeo had another NPR correspondent, who on this trip was the representative for all radio reporters, banned from his plane on his upcoming trip to London and Kyiv. This means that the State Department— the government—is retaliating against the media for coverage the Secretary of State didn’t like.
Subsequently, Rachel Maddow reported that Bolton’s lawyer delivered a single copy of the manuscript to the White House, but that the White House made copies. Standard procedure—to which Bolton’s lawyer specifically called the attention of the White House lawyers—meant that the only people who should’ve seen the manuscript were those whose job was to make sure it did not reveal classified information. It seems that the White House ignored that rule and distributed the manuscript more widely.
Last night, the New York Times ran more information from Bolton’s manuscript, saying that Bolton privately told Attorney General William Barr last year that he was concerned that Trump was granting personal favors to the autocratic leaders of Turkey and China. (Back in October, Rolling Stone’s Ryan Bort did a good story on Trump’s attempts to help Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan which likely covers some of the same territory Bolton’s book will.)
At the Washington Post, Michael Gerson notes that Trump might finally have met his match in John Bolton. While the other people on whom Trump has turned beg for forgiveness and return to the fold, Bolton is taking the fight back to Trump.
Heather Cox Richardson is Professor of History, Boston College. This was originally published in her Substack newsletter on January 17 2020. Subscribe for free here.