Fittingly, given their client, the approach that President Donald Trump’s legal team has taken to defending him in the Senate’s impeachment trial centres on bravado, dismissiveness and denial.
White House Counsel Pat Cipollone argued that the rough transcript of Trump’s July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky “shows that the president did not condition either security assistance or a meeting on anything.”
Not in the call, explicitly — but Trump’s team had contacted a Zelensky aide immediately before the call, saying that a meeting at the White House depended on one of the politically useful investigations Trump desired.
The fourth of the six key facts was similarly precise in its wording.
“Not a single witness testified that the president himself said that there was any connection between any investigations and security assistance, a presidential meeting, or anything else,” Michael Purpura, attorney, said.
More recently, Bolton has indicated a willingness to offer testimony as part of the Senate trial — an offer that is suddenly much more difficult for Republicans to wave away
The most important words in that sentence aren’t the ones about the connection. They are “witness” and “testified.” By including those words, Trump’s team is constraining the scope of what it’s considering to only those dozen and a half people who sat down as part of the impeachment inquiry. In doing so, the defence pulled the same trick it did with the rough transcript, ignoring an obvious counterpoint sitting right outside of the scope it outlined.
On Sunday evening, the day after Trump began outlining its case, the New York Times reported on a much more substantial example of where Purpura’s claim was too narrowly tailored. In August of last year, the paper reported, Trump told then-national security adviser John Bolton that he wanted to hold the aid until Zelensky agreed to the investigations Trump wanted to see, according to a manuscript of Bolton’s upcoming book. (Citing an unpublished manuscript of Bolton’s upcoming book, Bolton claimed Trump personally told him last year that he would withhold military aid from Ukraine until it launched a politically motivated investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden).
Will Bolton testify
Bolton was asked by the House to testify in early November but declined, preferring to see whether courts would rule in the House’s favour in other cases where subpoenas were being argued. (Trump’s assertion that Bolton wasn’t asked is false.) More recently, Bolton has indicated a willingness to offer testimony as part of the Senate trial — an offer that is suddenly much more difficult for Republicans to wave away.
After all, Purpura spent a great deal of time making clear this point about the lack of witness testimony. He noted that Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland had asked Trump what he wanted from Ukraine, with Trump volunteering that there was “no quid pro quo” involved. Of course, that conversation came after Trump was aware of a whistle-blower complaint raising questions about a quid pro quo and after The Post’s editorial board had drawn a direct link between the aid and the investigations.
More broadly, Purpura noted witness after witness who did not draw such a link. He cited name after name, walking through the collection, as though clearing police line-up after police line-up meant that no crime had taken place.
Second potential witness
The emergence of a second potential witness who could be precisely what Trump’s legal team said didn’t exist is hugely problematic for Senate Republicans. Purpura’s phrasing was carefully and cleverly tailored but it now introduces the counterpoint: If the important thing is solely that the testimony implicating Trump be from sworn witnesses, how does one argue against having Bolton be sworn witnesses? Bolton in particular — given that he has already expressed an interest in offering testimony to the Senate.
Trump’s lawyers and the Senate Republicans inclined to support him are in a bind. They have to either ignore the Times report (which Bolton’s team doesn’t dispute) and leave obviously damning evidence on the table — a big problem for purple-state senators who need to argue that no stone was left unturned — or they have to open the floodgates to new testimony and evidence. Trump’s legal team, meanwhile, has to make a choice: continue using careful language to wave away what happened or subtly pivot to making the case that what happened doesn’t merit removing Trump from office.
Or, of course, they could do it the Trump way, pivoting from bad news to a full-throated attack on the political opposition — a tactic that has already broken through to the surface a few times. Trump would certainly endorse that move, even if it were anathema to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and the senators he is desperate to see reelected.
The leak of the details from Bolton’s book gave Trump’s legal team all of 20 hours to figure out which path they would choose.
— Washington Post
Philip Bump is a noted American journalist and columnist