John Bolton
Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

My instinct is not to trust John Bolton. Yet, I also figure he’s probably not eager to perjure himself, even if telling the truth to Congress might help the Democrats and ruin his future influence and prospects on the right. Of course, we’ve been here before with untrustworthy characters like James Comey, Rick Gates and Michael Cohen. I think we can put Lev Parnas in this category too. I knew that if Bolton were to testify, there was a good chance that he’d spill the beans on Trump.

It has never been clear precisely why Bolton left the administration. We still don’t know if he was fired or he resigned, and we’re not sure if the decision was based on something very specific or was of a more cumulative nature. There were reports that it was related to Iran, but the timing makes it seem like it could have been centered around Ukraine. Either way, by Trump’s own account, we know that he did not leave on good terms.

It has also been reported that Bolton is publishing a book about his time serving as Trump’s national security adviser, and that the book would not be flattering to the president. On the other hand, his refusal to testify before the House impeachment inquiry suggested that he wasn’t eager to lend a hand in ousting Trump from office. Some said this was because no one would buy his book if they already knew the worst of what it contained.

Despite all these unanswered questions, the Democrats have been eager to secure Bolton’s testimony at the Senate trial. This became more realistic when Bolton declared his willingness to participate. But, with the prospect of him being called narrowing as the Republican senators coalesce around a sham trial strategy, suddenly we can read about what is in Bolton’s book in the pages of the New York Times:

President Trump told his national security adviser in August that he wanted to continue freezing $391 million in security assistance to Ukraine until officials there helped with investigations into Democrats including the Bidens, according to an unpublished manuscript by the former adviser, John R. Bolton.

The president’s statement as described by Mr. Bolton could undercut a key element of his impeachment defense: that the holdup in aid was separate from Mr. Trump’s requests that Ukraine announce investigations into his perceived enemies, including former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and his son Hunter Biden, who had worked for a Ukrainian energy firm while his father was in office.

Mr. Bolton’s explosive account of the matter at the center of Mr. Trump’s impeachment trial, the third in American history, was included in drafts of a manuscript he has circulated in recent weeks to close associates.

This puts the Republicans in a bind. The American people can consider this evidence even if it isn’t admitted at the trial. They know the senators have seen it, so they will expect the senators to weigh it when they decide whether to acquit or convict. If it is to be rebutted in some way, it won’t be convincing if Bolton’s testimony is blocked.

Yet, if they allow Bolton to testify, it will blow up their schedule and open a potential Pandora’s box. It will also infuriate the president.

Republicans could argue that even if everything Bolton is reported to have said in his book is true, it doesn’t matter because the alleged behavior doesn’t rise to an impeachable offense. That might become less tenable as a strategy if Bolton actually sits in a witness chair and gives his version of events.

They could argue that Bolton’s testimony isn’t allowed because it’s covered under some kind of presidential privilege, but they can’t be sure that Chief Justice John Roberts would go along with that interpretation of the law, and voting to overrule him would look bad even if it could be accomplished.

These senators are in the unenviable position of trying to protect a guilty person whose crimes are not well-hidden. As long as they think they have the votes to acquit, this gives them a powerful incentive to just get things over with as fast as possible before even more damaging information comes to light.

Allowing Bolton to testify would probably make an eventual acquittal harder to justify, so denying him as a witness must still look like the best option.

But that seems like a truly stupid strategy to me. Trump makes a habit of getting away with his crimes while his associates go to jail. The Republican senators may not wind up in prison, but they could discover that the cost of saving Trump’s presidency is the end of their own political careers. He survives and they die.

This pattern is well enough established at this point that you’d think more Republicans would understand it.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at