The Senate Knows John Bolton Should Testify

Will Republicans keep playing dumb to protect Trump?

John Bolton speaks to Donald Trump in the Oval Office.
President Donald Trump listens as John Bolton speaks at the White House on Feb. 7, 2019. Reuters/Leah Millis/File Photo

The Republican strategy for getting President Donald Trump off the hook in the Senate’s impeachment trial has largely been rooted in the denial of the existence of a little something we, in the reality-based community, call time. The Republicans would like to pretend that the past doesn’t exist, and also that the future won’t exist, because doing so allows them to confine the mountains of damning evidence against the president to a minimalist public display that consists of in-the-moment rantings about “no quid pro quo” and Adam Schiff and House Democrats’ impeachment strategy. Senate Republicans are also hyperfocusing on single pieces of evidence, like the “perfect phone call,” while blurring out every other witness or piece of evidence as irrelevant or untrustworthy. And as Donald Trump’s impeachment lawyers highlighted in the preview of opening arguments on Saturday, the name of the game in the coming days will be to cherry-pick a handful of data points in their client’s defense case, and ignore mountains of corroborating testimonial evidence, leaked emails, and ongoing media reports, all of which establish a clear timeline of the Ukraine scandal. As soon as that defense is phoned in, Republicans could vote quickly to decline to call witnesses and hear testimony, and the impeachment trial would end in acquittal. Then time can start up again. Everything is too early and too late because only this moment matters.

The problem with this GOP attempt to constrain the Senate trial is that the past keeps exploding into the present and Republicans’ willful denial of its existence or relevance is beginning to look like obstruction of what’s coming in the future. Republicans are trying to insist that nothing that happened in last week’s trial was interesting or new while ignoring the fact that last week’s trial contained no interesting or new information merely because they voted to preclude it from having any. But there was interesting and new information about the Ukraine timeline last week, including the twin facts of Lev Parnas’ drip-drip of new information, and Sunday night’s bombshell reporting from the New York Times that John Bolton’s new book contains material revelations about the president’s efforts to pressure Ukraine into investigating Joe Biden and Burisma. Put to one side the questions about who leaked the book manuscript to the Times and whether Bolton signed an unenforceable NDA—the only relevant question for Republican senators who are trying to build a cover story for their refusal to hear from witnesses is why they don’t want to hear from one of the main players in the entire scandal. The fact that Bolton is saying one thing and Trump has taken to Twitter to deny it simply means that there is a contested question of fact, and that Republican senators, who have insisted that there is nothing left to probe while the defense team finishes blaming Adam Schiff for the impeachment process, will now have to explain why they didn’t want to hear from the guy who was in fact in the room where it happened.

I’ve already warned that liberal democracy is going to perish by way of the lucrative book deal, and that John Bolton strikes me as another link in a long chain of pseudo-cowards who avoided taking responsibility for their part in the national Trump nightmare by instead filing a cover-your-ass memo and then taking a lucrative lobbying job. That the future of this grotesquely corrupt for-profit presidency will rise and fall on the timing and dollar value of a book advance and a pub date is disturbing. But whatever else John Bolton may have done with this leaked manuscript, he has at least ensured that the idea of further Ukraine revelations is no longer in the future; that future is happening now, midtrial, and GOP senators who were “concerned” about a trial without evidence only a week ago are now going to be wholly complicit in a trial without willing fact witnesses on Monday. Considering that 66 percent of the country still believes that impeachment trials should include relevant witnesses, the continued refusal to hear from them is scooching over from willful blindness to the truth, to overt complicity in obscuring the truth. Some Senate Republicans may have started to realize the untenable nature of that position—Mitt Romney apparently says there will be enough GOP senators to call witnesses and Susan Collins would like you to know she has always felt that witnesses are at least possibly a good idea. But don’t hold your breath on that, as Lindsey Graham’s response to this turn of events is to continue to parrot the ridiculous idea that if witnesses relevant to the subject of the trial are called, the GOP gets to call its own witnesses for its own conspiracy theories, too:

Michelle Goldberg had a beautiful and depressing meditation in the New York Times over the weekend, in which she posited a current political and cultural moment in America in which nobody is capable of imagining the future. Senate Republicans who had been desperately hoping to sweep back the sea of coming revelations in the Ukraine scandal were actually banking on the same impulse: a time in which the immediacy and intensity of the present allow us to ignore what’s just about to come. John Bolton has now confounded that dynamic thoroughly and Democrats who are demanding his immediate testimony are right to point out that anything he may have to say on his pub date of March 17 would be better said this week in the well of the Senate. Until this week, GOP senators could at least plausibly have claimed that they had no idea what would come out in the future if they rushed this trial to its swift kangaroo conclusion. Today, any such argument is belied by the fact that the future happened yesterday.

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