Washington: The White House and Senate Republican leaders struggled on Monday to salvage their plans for a quick acquittal of President Donald Trump after a new account by his former national security adviser John Bolton corroborated a central piece of the impeachment case against him.
The newly disclosed revelations by Bolton, whose forthcoming book details how Trump conditioned military aid for Ukraine on the country’s willingness to furnish information on his political rivals, angered key Republicans and reinvigorated a bid to call witnesses. Such a move would prolong the trial and pose new dangers for the president.
A handful of Republicans appeared to be moving closer to joining Democrats in a vote to subpoena Bolton, even as their leaders insisted that doing so would only delay his inevitable acquittal.
“I think it’s increasingly likely that other Republicans will join those of us who think we should hear from John Bolton,” Senator Mitt Romney told reporters. He later told Republican colleagues at a closed-door lunch that calling witnesses would be a wise choice politically and substantively, according to people familiar with the discussions.
As they opened the second day of their defence, Trump’s lawyers largely ignored the revelations from Bolton, reported Sunday by The New York Times, that bolstered the abuse of power case made by the House Democratic prosecutors.
Instead, the White House team is doubling down on a defence that is directly contradicted by the account in Bolton’s book, due out in March. Trump’s lawyers told senators that no evidence existed tying the president’s decision to withhold security aid from Ukraine to his insistence on the investigations. They say the investigations were requested out of a concern for corruption in Ukraine.
“Anyone who spoke with the president said that the president made clear that there was no linkage between security assistance and investigations,” said Michael Purpura, the deputy White House counsel.
Trump’s legal team also sought to turn the Democrats’ accusations on their head.
They defended and played down the role of Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer who was at the centre of Trump’s Ukraine pressure campaign, calling him a “shiny object” Democrats were brandishing to distract from a weak case. They sought to raise doubts about former Vice President Joe Biden, and his son Hunter Biden, suggesting they were corrupt.
And they continued to argue that Trump’s actions were far from impeachable.
Alan Dershowitz, a celebrity law professor, argued that the Constitution holds that impeachment is for “criminal-like behaviour,” telling senators that the country’s founders “would have explicitly rejected such vague terms as ‘abuse of power’ and ‘obstruction of Congress’ as among the enumerated and defined criteria for impeaching the president.”
The theory has been rejected by most constitutional scholars.
As evening set in, Dershowitz made the legal team’s only reference to Bolton, telling senators that the description of Trump’s actions in his manuscript “would not constitute an impeachable offence.”
He added, “Let me repeat: Nothing in the Bolton revelations, even if true, would rise to the level of an abuse of power, or an impeachable offence.”
But behind closed doors, Republicans were singularly focused on the former national security adviser’s account, which stoked turmoil in their ranks and opened cracks in their near monolithic support for the White House strategy of denying witnesses and rushing toward a final verdict, almost certain to be an acquittal.
Republican Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, sought to calm his colleagues at the private lunch, telling them to “take a deep breath” and not to leap to conclusions about how to proceed.
But according to people familiar with McConnell’s thinking, he was angry at having been blindsided by the White House about Bolton’s manuscript, which aides there have had since late December. The leader put out a statement saying that he “did not have any advance notice” of Bolton’s account.
Just before the trial got underway Monday, Republican Senator Patrick J. Toomey told colleagues that he might be willing to support calling witnesses as long as the roster would include someone friendlier to Trump’s case, like Hunter Biden, according to people familiar with the gathering who were not authorised to discuss it. The idea appeared to be gaining broader currency among Republicans.
At the White House, Trump raged throughout the morning at Bolton, accusing him of lying. Hosting Israeli leaders, the president told reporters that he had not seen the manuscript of the former adviser’s book but disputed its claims as “false.”
In a series of early-morning tweets hours before the trial resumed, the president accused Bolton of telling stories “only to sell a book” and defended his actions toward Ukraine as perfectly appropriate.
“I NEVER told John Bolton that the aid to Ukraine was tied to investigations into Democrats, including the Bidens,” Trump wrote just after midnight.
But Trump later complained to associates that the presentations from his defence team were boring.
As the session progressed, Trump’s lawyers began their promised assault on Biden and his son, asserting that Trump demanded investigations of them because there was significant evidence that they were corrupt.
They methodically sought to undermine the case that House managers delivered over more than 22 hours of arguments last week. They argued that Trump said nothing wrong on a July 25 call with the president of Ukraine, never sought to leverage an Oval Office meeting, and did more to support Ukraine against Russian aggression than previous presidents.
“The managers have not met their burden, and these articles of impeachment must be rejected,” Eric Herschmann, one of the president’s lawyers, told senators.
On Monday, Democrats said they were newly optimistic that the momentum of the trial was pushing toward a vote for witnesses and documents, and they worked to increase the pressure on hesitant Republicans to embrace the moves.
“It boils down to one thing: we have a witness with first-hand evidence of the president’s actions for which he is on trial,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader. “He is ready and willing to testify. How can Senate Republicans not vote to call that witness and request his documents?”
Republican Senator Susan Collins, who had previously indicated she would most likely support additional witnesses, said the details in Bolton’s book “strengthen the case for witnesses and have prompted a number of conversations among my colleagues.”
Senator Lisa Murkowski, also a Republican, said she was “curious” about what Bolton would say, but gave no hint of how she would vote on the matter.
But Republican leaders played down the significance of Bolton’s account.
“The best I can tell from what’s reported in The New York Times, it is nothing different from what we have already heard,” Senator John Cornyn, another Republican, said on Fox News.
Herschmann and Pam Bondi, another of Trump’s lawyers, delved deeply into Hunter Biden’s work on the board of Burisma, a Ukrainian energy company, at the time his father was vice president, suggesting it was improper for him to hold the post while his father served. Bondi also noted that the elder Biden had called for the removal of a prosecutor who had looked into Burisma.
“What we are saying is that there was a basis to talk about this, to raise this issue,” Bondi said.
But it was US policy at the time that the prosecutor, who was widely regarded as corrupt, should be removed, and there was no evidence at the time of his firing that the prosecutor was actively pursuing an investigation.
In a statement Monday, Andrew Bates, the Biden campaign’s rapid-response director, said: “Here on Planet Earth, the conspiracy theory that Bondi repeated has been conclusively refuted.”