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Power Up: What does John Bolton know?

with Brent D. Griffiths

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The Investigations

WHAT DOES JOHN BOLTON KNOW?: If the president calculated that escalating tensions with Iran would distract from his upcoming Senate impeachment trial, his former national security adviser did not receive the memo. 

John Bolton, who has steadfastly resisted complying with the impeachment investigation, suddenly announced he would be willing to testify in a Senate trial if subpoenaed. Bolton's statement that he's prepared to go further than his trail of loaded hints, suggesting he may have potentially damning new information about Trump, renewed pressure on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to commit to calling witnesses in such a proceeding. Senate rules only require 51 senators to call a witness or make a request for new documents or evidence (that means four Senate Republicans would need to side with Democrats on such a move). 

Democrats, who have stalled the trial over the witness issue, insist the Senate must hear from Bolton while most Senate Republicans, taking their cues from McConnell, continue to argue the witness issue can be decided once the trial begins.

  • Bolton's "announcement was a major boost for congressional Democrats, who have delayed transmission of the articles of impeachment for over two weeks while seeking guarantees about the scope of the trial, including witnesses," our colleagues Rachael Bade, Mike DeBonis, Tom Hamburger and Robert Costa report. 
  • “I’d like to hear what he has to say. He’s got firsthand information; I think that would be helpful,” Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) told reporters on Monday.

All of which begs the question of what it is that Bolton might know: Bolton's lawyer told House Democrats in November that Trump's former national security adviser knows about "many relevant meetings and conversations" regarding Trump's campaign to pressure Ukraine to open up investigations into his political rivals. 

But some that know Bolton and others involved in the impeachment proceedings doubt that Bolton, who does have firsthand knowledge of internal White House deliberations on the issue, will offer any earth-shattering information that might sway Congress and the American public. 

  • A lawyer involved in the impeachment proceedings opined to Power Up that if you view the transcripts of witnesses who testified during the House investigation as a road map to Bolton's hypothetical testimony, "people are going to be disappointed." 
  • "You can tell from the public testimony that he doesn't even want to engage in any of the activities... he'll just re-route the questioning back to the lawyers," the source said. "All you have to do is look at the transcripts to see that Bolton said don't touch the issue -- just go talk to the lawyers."

That being said, testimony from Bolton would almost certainly be embarrassing and politically damaging for Trump, per sources. 

  • A person close to the former Trump aide who was not authorized to discuss private conversations told our colleague Bob Costa: "In recent months, Bolton has confided to friends that he was deeply troubled by his time at the White House and by the president's behavior, but has declined to offer many details, the person said, adding that Bolton's support for Trump's hard line on Iran would not influence any possible testimony.
  • A former staffer for Bolton told Power Up any testimony would portray Trump as "undisciplined" and "ill-served by several close to him."

But overall, Bolton doesn't seem to want to emerge from his time serving the Trump administration as a pariah of the Republican Party. 

  • Mark Groombridge, a former Bolton aide, told Power Up that at the end of the day, "Bolton is still a dyed in the wool Republican. He is not going to do anything willingly to help Dems. He's still partisan enough that he views this whole impeachment saga as a distraction."
  • "I fully predict that Bolton will to great lengths to provide cover for Trump," Groombridge added.
  • More from Costa: "...Bolton associates have privately said that he wants a future in Republican politics and does not want to be seen as a turncoat on Trump or someone who is trying to ingratiate himself with the president's critics. They noted, for instance, that his statement Monday came from his political action committee's office as an example of how he's trying to build out his operation even as he deals with legal issues."
  • "Additionally, people close to him note that Bolton also has an expansive view of presidential power. As a result, it is unclear whether he would testify that he believes Trump overstepped his constitutional authority in his dealings with Ukraine," Rachael, Mike, Tom and Bob report.
  • “It doesn’t work out for many to be a traitor,” a Republican strategist mused to Power Up. 

Here is what we do know, however, about Bolton's involvement in and knowledge of Trump's actions on Ukraine: 

  • Bolton tried to distance himself and his aides from the shadow operation to pressure Ukraine before that country got a White House meeting and military aid. For example, he directed aide Fiona Hill to notify the chief lawyer for the National Security Council of efforts by Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland and acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney to push Ukraine to open investigations in exchange for a White House meeting with Trump.
  • "The specific instruction was that I had to go to the lawyers, to John Eisenberg, our senior counsel for the National Security Council, to basically say, you tell Eisenberg, Ambassador Bolton told me, that I am not part of this whatever drug deal that Mulvaney and Sondland are cooking up," Hill testified. 
  • During his visit to Kyiv at the end of August, top Ukraine diplomat Bill Taylor testified he met with Bolton privately to express "my serious concern about the withholding of military assistance to Ukraine while the Ukrainians were defending their country from Russian aggression. Ambassador Bolton recommended that I send a first-person cable to Secretary Pompeo directly relaying my concerns.”
  • Bolton, who called him a "hand grenade," was frustrated with Rudy Giuliani's influence on Trump, according to the counselor for political affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine David Holmes's testimony: "Between the meetings on August 27th, I heard Ambassador Bolton express to 12 Ambassador Taylor and National Security Council Senior Director Tim Morrison his frustration about Mr. Giuliani's influence with the President, making clear there was nothing he could do about it."
  • Receipts: Bolton kept detailed notes and encouraged other aides to voice and document their concerns, too. 
  • Bolton tried to convince Trump to release the aid: "Backed by a memo saying the National Security Council, the Pentagon and the State Department all wanted the aid released, Mr. Bolton made a personal appeal to Mr. Trump on Aug. 16, but was rebuffed," the New York Times's Eric Lipton, Maggie Haberman and Mark Mazzetti reported. Morrison testified that Bolton "simply said [Trump] wasn't ready to" release the aid.
  • Then he tried again: "In late August, Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper joined Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and [Bolton] ... for a previously undisclosed Oval Office meeting with the president where they tried but failed to convince him that releasing the aid was in interests of the United States." 
  • “'This is in America’s interest,' [Bolton] argued, according to one official briefed on the gathering." 

Global Power

FUTURE OF U.S. TROOPS IN IRAQ UNCLEAR: "The Pentagon rushed to play down reports that U.S. troops in Iraq were being repositioned in preparation for a possible withdrawal, one day after Iraqi lawmakers passed a nonbinding resolution calling for all foreign troops to leave the country," our colleagues Karen DeYoung,Missy Ryan and Paul Sonne report.

The Pentagon itself caused the snafu: A letter indicating a withdrawal was released to Iraqi officials by the U.S. military command in Baghdad. The chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Gen. Mark A. Milley, later told reporters "this is a mistake." 

  • “There has been no decision made to leave Iraq, period,” Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper told reporters.
  • But as our colleague Liz Sly pointed out, "It was however delivered to the Iraqi military. It seems the U.S. military is as confused as everyone else about what their intentions are."

Meanwhile: "Senior administration officials have begun drafting sanctions against Iraq after [Trump] publicly threatened the country with economic penalties if it proceeded to expel U.S. troops, according to three people briefed on the planning," our colleagues Jeff Stein and Josh Dawsey scooped. 

  • "The officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were discussing internal deliberations, emphasized that talks were preliminary and that no final decision has been made on whether to impose the sanctions," per Jeff and Josh.
  • It would be an extraordinary move: “I’m astounded by what’s even being discussed,” Peter Kucik, who served in the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control under George W. Bush and Barack Obama, told Jeff and Josh. "You don’t typically use force against your allies. We are threatening to use extreme coercive policy tools against countries with whom we are allied.”

ON THE GROUND IN IRAN: "The burial of slain Iranian Quds Force commander, Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, was postponed Tuesday due to severe overcrowding and a deadly stampede that killed more than 30 people," our colleague on the ground, Erin Cunningham, reports

  • "A spokesman for the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, a powerful security organ that includes the elite Quds Force, said that the funeral services in his hometown, Kerman, were suspended and would be held at a later date. His remarks were carried by the state-run Islamic Student News Agency."

The calls to attack the U.S. have escalated: "Iranian leaders have stepped up calls for revenge against the United States, with one intelligence official saying concrete retaliation plans are already being discussed," per Cunningham. "Security council head Ali Shamkhani says 13 scenarios are being considered, and specifically mentioned U.S. bases in the region." 

  • Khamenei reportedly calls for direct response: "Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, made a rare appearance at a meeting of the government’s National Security Council to lay down the parameters for any retaliation," the New York Times's Farnaz Fassihi and David D. Kirkpatrick report. 
  • "It must be a direct and proportional attack on American interests, he said, openly carried out by Iranian forces themselves, three Iranians familiar with the meeting said Monday."

The decision to target Soleimani and the contradicting statements by members of the administration in the wake of the strike continues to confound analysts as Iran prepares to retaliate: 

  • “There’s not a single person that I’ve spoken to who can tell you what Trump is up to with Iran,” Ellie Geranmayeh, an analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told the New York Times's Max Fisher. 
  • “What I’m concerned about is that mixed signals, plus the perception of existential threat,” Dalia Dassa Kaye, who directs a Middle East policy center at RAND Corporation, told Fisher, “might lead to dramatic steps that we might not have thought possible.”

The People

WEINSTEIN NOW FACES CHARGES ON TWO COASTS: “Harvey Weinstein, the Hollywood producer who has come to symbolize the #MeToo movement, was charged with sexual assault in Los Angeles on Monday, hours after he slid his walker into a Manhattan courtroom for the start of his criminal trial here,” our colleague Shayna Jacobs reports from New York.

The new charges: “Involve alleged encounters with two women, a day or two apart, in February 2016, authorities said,” our colleague writes. “Prosecutors in Los Angeles are recommending a $5 million bail in a case for which he faces up to 28 years in prison.”

  • More details: “One set of charges relates to an encounter with a woman inside her hotel room during a Hollywood film festival, authorities said. Weinstein forced her to perform a sex act on him before raping her, according to a criminal complaint. The woman told investigators she did not report the crime at the time because Weinstein threatened her life.
  • Other investigations are ongoing: Officials in Dublin and London are probing additional allegations.

Outside the Beltway

GREENHOUSE GAS EMISSIONS FELL SLIGHTLY: "U.S. greenhouse gas emissions fell 2.1 percent last year almost entirely because of a sharp drop in coal consumption, according to the Rhodium Group, a private data research firm," our colleague Steven Mufson reports.

  • More details: "Coal-fired electric power generation, which had rebounded slightly in 2018, fell by a record 18 percent to the lowest level since 1975, the Rhodium study said," our colleague writes. "Coal burning produces carbon dioxide, which fuels climate change."
  • But it's not all good news: "Much of that reduction was offset by rising emissions from the use of inexpensive natural gas. And transportation emissions remained relatively flat while emissions from buildings, industry and other parts of the economy grew. The modest overall drop in emissions left the United States in danger of failing to meet its commitments under international agreements."

In the Media