After national security adviser John Bolton was chopped down in humiliating fashion by Donald Trump last September, I told my wife, “They better watch their backs in the White House. Bolton is a damn shark. He won’t take this lying down.” Hearing this, my 6-year-old daughter began to sing, “Bolton Shark, doo-doo-doo-doo-doo-doo,” because of course she did.
The Bolton Shark — hungry and deadly, white-mustache dorsal fin cutting the water like a scythe — is loose in the Senate’s impeachment fish tank now, and God have mercy on those who are dangling their fingers in the water.
John Bolton is many things: lawyer, neoconservative hawk, unabashed war criminal, fanatic. Clearly, Bolton also understands patience, as evidenced by the exquisitely timed leak of the passage in his forthcoming book, The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir, that says, bluntly, Trump knew the Ukraine aid was tied to a Biden investigation because that’s exactly what Trump wanted.
Bolton heard Trump explicitly say this, according to the book, which directly ties Trump, Attorney General William Barr, Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani and acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney to the scheme to upend U.S. foreign policy by asking a foreign government to meddle with the 2020 presidential election.
Bolton is a seasoned Washington, D.C., infighter who knows where, when and how to sink the dagger. Trump’s defenders in the Senate had just wrapped up their Sunday presentation by saying no evidence of the Democrats’ claims existed, and that’s when the leak landed like a thousand tons of bad news. It was no accident.
This was a hand grenade lobbed into the middle of what was, at that point, a sham proceeding nearing completion. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell probably had enough votes to keep witnesses from being called. Now? Nobody really knows. As of this writing, a number of (snicker) “moderate” GOP senators are allegedly leaning toward voting with Democrats to allow witnesses, and are getting extreme pushback because of it. Only four Republican votes are needed to call witnesses at the trial (provided no Democrat breaks ranks, a suddenly looming possibility). None of these wavering Republican senators are to be trusted, but the pressure on them has become extreme.
Bolton’s book is scheduled to come out in March. Trump likely will try to stop its publication, along with any testimony Bolton may offer to the Senate, by invoking executive privilege. That ship, however, may very well have sailed out of the harbor and right over the edge of the world.
After Bolton’s bombshell went off this past weekend, Trump took to Twitter to denounce Bolton as a liar who was only out to sell some books. That accusation, according to legal scholars, probably blew any claims of executive privilege to smithereens.
“Trump’s tweets directly denying the substance of Bolton’s reported allegations waive any privilege that might have protected them from public disclosure,” writes Barbara McQuade for The Washington Post. “Privilege is meant to keep a president’s secrets confidential. If the president reveals those secrets or publicly discusses the conversations himself, there is no longer any need to protect them from disclosure.”
Trump’s attacks on Bolton continued into early Wednesday morning. “Why didn’t John Bolton complain about this ‘nonsense’ a long time ago,” he mused on Twitter at seven minutes past midnight, “when he was very publicly terminated. He said, not that it matters, NOTHING!” One wonders if his hands were shaking as he typed.
The sudden appearance of Bolton’s eyewitness information has demonstrably rattled Trump and his allies down to their DNA. The poor folks at Fox News, where Bolton was a serial guest, are tying themselves in knots trying to tear down their erstwhile ally. On Monday and Tuesday, Trump’s impeachment trial lawyers proceeded as if the stench of Bolton’s Sunday revelations wasn’t hanging in the air like an elevator fart. Sen. Lindsey Graham, Trump’s most obsequious defender, attempted an end run around the revelations by proposing a classified viewing of the book as an alternative to calling Bolton as a witness.
It won’t matter. Thanks to Bolton, Senate Republicans now face a brutal Hobson’s Choice: They can vote to allow Bolton’s testimony, thus guaranteeing weeks of damaging testimony in a proceeding they hoped would be over before the State of the Union address next month. If Senate Republicans thwart Bolton’s testimony, the revelations will continue to come out drip by excruciating drip, and every senator who votes to acquit will have to absorb these body blows day after day, until the reckoning in November.
As the week began, the Bolton eruption appeared to have tilted the direction of the trial toward actually hearing from witnesses. After a closed-door meeting between Senate Republicans in the Strom Thurmond Room, “Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told colleagues he doesn’t have the votes to block witnesses,” according to The Washington Post. Those GOP Senators seeking a quick end to the proceedings, however, kept their brave faces on. “The consensus is: That we’ve heard enough,” said John Barrasso, the Senate GOP’s No. 3 leader. “And it’s time to go to a final judgment vote.” Short version: At present, this thing could break either way.
“Silence up to now has bought Bolton the Litigator something very valuable,” writes Graeme Wood for The Atlantic. “He has now listened as others present ‘in the room’ — including his deputies, such as Fiona Hill — have recorded their versions of events. He has heard Republicans, including Trump, lay out an impeachment defense — not only a version of events, but also a theory of innocence. By speaking last, he can present testimony precisely calculated to hurt those he most wants to embarrass…. Bolton is strategic, and it would be unlike him to make a bold claim without a plan to counter Trump’s denial. More likely, he will dole out the details and evidence methodically, thwarting his critics like steers in a cutting horse competition.”
The damage will be extreme no matter what transpires. So what, exactly, is Bolton’s game here? I can hazard a few guesses, beginning with one vital caveat: John Bolton is not your friend. He is not in this to help Democrats, or because he has suddenly seen the light.
Bolton isn’t doing this to see Trump convicted. Only a miracle can make that happen, and miracles are in short supply nowadays. Instead, Bolton wants Trump and all his people weakened, so that foreign policy can be put back in the hands of Bolton’s neoconservative pals. Trump has proven to be an impediment to that, but Trump bared his throat to Bolton when he messed with foreign policy for political gain while Bolton was in the room. This takeover would be a terrible outcome, but Bolton stands many long miles away from seeing that dream realized.
In the meantime, Bolton surely also wants revenge for the way Trump treated him last September, and like Yeats’s rough beast slouching toward Bethlehem, his hour has come round at last.
The Bolton Shark is patrolling these waters. Senate Republicans bared their throats, too, by embracing Trump’s absurd reality-bending defense: Everything Bolton bore witness to never happened, and if it did, there was nothing wrong with it. If these senators have any remaining wits about them, they will swim for the shore just as fast as they’re able by cutting their losses and voting to allow the testimony. Trump can’t save them anymore, not after this. According to reports, even he expects witnesses, including Bolton, will be called.
Bolton’s testimony will in all likelihood be deeply damaging, but senators who approve the testimony will at least be able to say they voted for a “proper proceeding,” and didn’t participate in the all-out bag job this impeachment trial was shaping up to be before Bolton’s fin broke the surface. It will hurt, but not as much as if Bolton is allowed to drag his revelations out for the next eight months, which he almost certainly will if he is denied a hearing. It’s the classic Band-Aid dilemma writ large: A quick rip or a slow peel?
Bad choices all around. Maybe Senate Republicans should make better friends next time.