WASHINGTON – Explosive revelations by former White House National Security Adviser John Bolton cast a cloud over President Donald Trump’s defense Monday in his Senate impeachment trial and appeared to be dividing Republican senators over whether calling new witnesses and evidence is now more likely and essential.
Multiple unnamed people who have seen the unpublished manuscript of Bolton’s forthcoming book told The New York Times that the former presidential aide reveals that Trump told him in August that he wanted to continue withholding military aid to Ukraine until that nation announced investigations into the 2016 election and Joe and Hunter Biden.
Bolton writes in his book, “The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir,” that he, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Mark Esper several times tried to convince the president to end the hold on the funds, according to the Times, which published its story Sunday.
The bombshell undermines the Trump defense team’s contention during the trial that the president did nothing wrong and that there were no witnesses who heard Trump tie withholding the U.S. aid to Ukrainian investigations.
At the start of the Senate impeachment trial last week, the Republican majority rejected Democratic amendments seeking additional witnesses and evidence. Another series of votes on witnesses and evidence may come by the end of this week. The GOP has a 53-47 seat advantage over the Democrats, but it would only take 51 votes to call witnesses or request more evidence.
Trump tweeted Monday that “I NEVER told John Bolton that the aid to Ukraine was tied to investigations into Democrats, including the Bidens. 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.”
Trump’s lawyers did not directly address the Bolton claims as they presented a full day of arguments Monday that their client was innocent of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress alleged in two articles of impeachment. Trump is only the third president to be impeached and tried in the Senate.
Trump attorney Jay Sekulow, however, did not acknowledge the Bolton revelations in his opening remarks to the Senate.
“Not a single witness testified that the president himself said that there was any connection between any investigation and security assistance, a presidential meeting or anything else,” Sekulow asserted.
He and other lawyers on the defense team reiterated their arguments on Saturday that Ukraine did not know that aid was being withheld, that the aid was released, and that Trump did meet with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky without any investigation being announced by Ukraine.
“The facts and evidence of the case the House managers have brought exonerate the president,” said Deputy White House Counsel Michael Purpura.
The defense team also sought to minimize the role of Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani in the Ukraine matter. Attorney Jane Raskin said the former New York mayor was “a minor player, that shiny object designed to distract you.”
Giuliani was mentioned repeatedly in Trump’s infamous July 25 call with Zelensky in which the American president said “I would like you to do us a favor, though.”
Meanwhile, former Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi devoted her time before the Senate going after the Bidens.
House Democrats argued during their three days of arguments last week that Trump’s linking of military aid to investigations by Ukraine that would benefit him politically violated the Constitution and that the president was an on-going national security threat.
The Bolton book was the talk of the capital, behind closed doors and in front of microphones. Republican senators apparently were caught off-guard by the sudden development.
A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, told CNN that “the leader did not have any advance notice” of the existence of the manuscript and what it said.
But McConnell counseled his GOP colleagues to “stay the course” during a private party lunch Monday, according to a couple of Republican senators who talked to reporters.
Sen. Mike Braun, R-Indiana, told reporters that Bolton’s account did not change his belief that the House Democrats overall have a weak case against Trump.
But he acknowledged: “I’m not gonna deny it’s gonna change the decibel level and the intensity about which we go about talking about witnesses.”
But other Republicans signaled they were leaning more heavily to calling witnesses.
“John Bolton has a relevant testimony to provide to those of us who are sitting in impartial justice,” Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, told reporters. “I think it’s increasingly likely that other Republicans will join those of us who think we should hear from John Bolton. Whether there are other witnesses and documents is another matter.”
Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican facing a tough re-election contest in Maine, issued a statement saying “the reports about John Bolton’s book strengthen the case for witnesses and have prompted a number of conversations among my colleagues.”
The House managers issued a joint statement in reaction to the Bolton story.
“There is no defensible reason to wait until his book is published, when the information he has to offer is critical to the most important decision senators must now make – whether to convict the president of impeachable offenses,” they said.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, also depicted the Bolton developments as a game-changer.
“We have a witness with first-hand evidence of the president’s actions for which he is on trial,” Schumer told reporters. “He is ready to and willing to testify. How can Senate Republicans not vote to call that witness?”
Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, told MSNBC the Bolton claims would make it “very difficult” for his Republican colleagues to vote against witnesses now. He said it would be the equivalent of “hear no evidence, see no evidence, seek no evidence.”