Did John Bolton actually do Trump a favor?

There's more than one way to think about the Bolton impeachment bombshell

John Bolton and President Trump.
(Image credit: Illustrated | AP Photo/Susan Walsh, javarman3/iStock)

A funny thing happened in the impeachment trial of President Trump. Thanks to revelations regarding Trump and Ukraine from former National Security Adviser John Bolton, the trial went from being a speedy, all-but-certain path to acquittal to a potentially lengthy quagmire. But the timing of the Bolton bombshell might actually benefit Trump and Senate Republicans by preventing another round of impeachment, and allowing the GOP to dispose of this issue for good.

Trump's legal team had just taken over the dais in the Senate impeachment trial, speaking to a Republican caucus ready for a quick acquittal. Democrats demanded testimony from Bolton, a move that Republicans had largely united to oppose. It appeared that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's argument that the Senate should not have to reopen the House investigation for impeachment would carry the day.

And then, Bolton testified anyway — albeit indirectly.

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The New York Times published leaks from "multiple people" who had read the final draft of Bolton's memoir, which is still under review by the National Security Council to protect any classified information that might have been included. Those sources told the Times and later The Washington Post that Bolton declared that Trump had demanded Ukraine conduct an investigation of the Bidens in exchange for congressionally appropriated military aid. The account appeared to rebut Trump's oft-repeated denial of demanding a quid pro quo for aid Congress had already approved and Trump had signed into law. Furthermore, Bolton's account reportedly contradicted earlier denials from both Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney and Attorney General William Barr.

Suddenly, Democratic House impeachment managers who had just concluded their presentation to the Senate saw an opening to increase pressure for subpoenas, especially for Bolton. Some Senate Republicans seemed open to the idea as well, worried about how it would look to have Bolton's account made public without consideration at the trial. McConnell's unity appeared to fray in the first 48 hours after the leak as GOP moderates talked about cutting deals for a witness trade.

Others, especially Trump, pushed back hard against the leak. Trump went on Twitter almost immediately to emphatically deny the description of Bolton's account, accusing Bolton of cooking it up to "sell a book." Trump's personal attorney Rudy Giuliani called Bolton "John the Backstabber" while insisting the account was false. The RNC amplified Trump's charge by questioning the timing in a statement noting "how convenient" it was that the leak came "at the same time preorders" on Amazon could first be placed. White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham picked up on the timing argument, calling it "very, very suspect" that the revelations came just after Trump's defense team had begun its presentation.

The timing is notable, but not necessarily because it handicaps Trump.

Bear in mind that the publication date for Bolton's memoir was in less than two months. The certainty that Bolton would speak out by mid-March one way or the other put Senate Republicans in an extremely uncomfortable position. If they voted to acquit Trump without knowing what Bolton had to say, the outcome would be widely seen as illegitimate. It might have even pushed House Democrats to vote a new article of impeachment on the basis of Bolton's memoir and force the Senate back into a trial, but at the very least it would have made for campaign fodder against vulnerable Senate Republican incumbents this fall.

Now, however, the leak lets Republicans off the hook, even if still leaves Trump on it. Trump may not have told the truth in his outright denials on the quid pro quo allegation, but at least Senate Republicans now know that for certain. The New York Times leak put the worst possible conclusion from Bolton where they can openly consider it and then still move to the alternate argument. After all, as former federal prosecutor Andrew McCarthy writes at National Review, there is no need to deny the quid pro quo because it's a moot point — the aid went without strings attached in the end, and it didn't rise to the "high crimes and misdemeanors" bar anyway.

Trump's legal team subtly shifted its presentation to emphasize this point after the leak. Alan Dershowitz told the Senate on Monday that a "quid pro quo alone is not a basis for abuse of power … based on mixed or sole motives." In fact, Dershowitz said, "nothing in the Bolton revelations — even if true — would rise to the level of an abuse of power." Trump's denials of that might cast him in a poor political light if one believes Bolton, but that, Dershowitz argued, is an issue for elections. "Let the public decide," Dershowitz concluded.

Republicans appear to have made this calculation as well. Politico reported late Tuesday that calm had returned to the caucus after a brief period of panic. A late meeting after the early conclusion of the president's case had produced a solid consensus that "we've heard enough," third-ranking caucus leader Sen. John Barasso told reporters. "The articles don't rise to the level of impeachable offenses," not even with the Bolton account apparently out in the open. The votes to acquit without witnesses aren't confirmed, but at the end of the day, the big question isn't whether a handful of Republicans would vote with Democrats for a Bolton subpoena. It's how many Democrats might cross the aisle to join the acquittal that everyone knows is coming anyway. If Trump gets a bipartisan vote to acquit, he might just have Bolton to thank for it.

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