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President Donald Trump's impeachment defense team is confronting a John Bolton-sized crisis.
Trump's lawyers, led by White House counsel Pat Cipollone, will regroup Monday and continue presenting a defense of Trump's conduct toward Ukraine — batting aside the House's charges that Trump pressured Ukrainian officials to launch baseless investigations of his Democratic adversaries.
But details of the former national security adviser's forthcoming book, obtained by The New York Times, suggest Bolton will claim that Trump told him in August he wanted to withhold $391 million in military assistance to Ukraine until the country's president, Volodymyr Zelensky, agreed to share information pertaining to the investigations.
That revelation presents an existential threat to the Trump defense, which has maintained for months that Democrats couldn't produce a single witness who could claim with firsthand knowledge that Trump linked the aid freeze to the investigations he sought. Bolton’s reported account also undercuts the White House’s justification for the hold on aid — that Trump wanted to pressure other countries to contribute to Ukraine’s defense, too.
But what happens off the Senate floor in response to the Bolton news may be more significant than what happens on it. The revelation underscores the peril facing Senate Republicans as they weigh a vote in the coming days on whether to allow additional witnesses and documents into trial evidence. So far, they have remained mostly silent while Democrats have renewed their calls for more evidence, though on Monday morning, Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) said he thinks it’s “increasingly likely that other Republicans will join those of us who think we should hear from John Bolton."
Bolton’s reported account also highlights the rapidly unfolding nature of the case against Trump, even since the House’s Dec. 18 vote to impeach him on two charges. An indicted associate of Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, Lev Parnas, provided text messages and sat for media interviews; internal White House documents describing turmoil over Trump’s decision to withhold Ukraine aid continued to emerge; and a nonpartisan congressional watchdog declared the hold unlawful.
Trump took the reins of his own defense after midnight on Monday, denying Bolton's reported account.
“I NEVER told John Bolton that the aid to Ukraine was tied to investigations into Democrats, including the Bidens,” he tweeted. “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.”
Hours later, Trump falsely claimed that Democrats never sought Bolton's testimony in their impeachment inquiry last fall. Democrats asked for Bolton to appear on Nov. 7, but he declined, initially deferring to Trump's direction.
Bolton has since said he would appear for testimony before the Senate if he is subpoenaed; but at least four Senate Republicans would need to join with all Democrats in order to issue that subpoena.
Trump's denial underscores another demand of Democrats: that the Senate seek contemporaneous documents that the president has blocked, too. Bolton, a notoriously prolific note-taker, told other witnesses to document and report their concerns about Ukraine to their superiors, and Democrats are confident he would have kept an account of his interactions with Trump.
“It is almost certain that his notes were the basis for writing his manuscript and would be contemporaneous or near contemporaneous,” said a Democratic aide working on the impeachment trial. Notes taken immediately after a conversation are generally viewed as more trustworthy in legal circles than after-the-fact testimony after a significant amount of time has passed.
The House's impeachment prosecutors, led by Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), have argued that the Senate must demand these documents in order to ensure the outcome of the impeachment trial is valid. Senate Republicans have scoffed at Democrats' calls to subpoena witnesses and documents, contending that it is a sign of weakness in the House's case.
The leak of Bolton's manuscript threatens to become the most pivotal flashpoint in a week-old trial that has revolved around questions about whether Senate Republicans will allow the House to call witnesses like Bolton, and obtain supporting documents.
Trump's team previewed their lines of defense on Saturday, when they contended that Democrats' case omitted important context about Trump's demands on Ukraine. They accused Democrats of running a politically motivated impeachment process to weaken Trump ahead of the 2020 election.
It is unclear if the new revelations will affect the trajectory of the Trump defense or cause them to change course.
Their arguments on Monday are expected to feature a presentation from Alan Dershowitz, a prominent criminal defense lawyer and former Harvard law professor, who has argued that the House's impeachment articles are invalid because they don't charge Trump with a statutory crime — a contention considered outside the mainstream of constitutional scholarship.
In challenging the facts of Democrats' case, Trump's team says the investigations that Trump sought were rooted in a genuine interest in combating corruption in Ukraine and that his decision to withhold military aid was both a recognition of that corruption and based on a belief that European nations should contribute more to Ukraine's defense.