A few hours after the start of the president’s defense, details from Bolton’s forthcoming book leaked, including his account of Trump asserting that $391 million in military aid would be withheld until Ukraine announced investigations into the 2016 election and the Bidens. If that seems a tad contrived for either an episode or an impeachment, that is because it is. In responding to a defense built around Trump’s insistence that his call was “perfect,” this leak was perfect to a fault. Perfect timing. Perfect content. It was so perfect that there is little doubt that the Senate is being played.
The leak happened at the exact time that it would inflict the most damage on the defense and throw the trial into disarray. It occurred hours after the White House team gave opening statements that seriously undermined critical points made by the House managers, including the assertions that Trump never previously raised corruption in other countries or that this type of hold on aid was uncommon. It felt like the sudden discovery of a gun near the victim at the scene of a police shooting.
That does not mean the leak will not succeed. The disclosure about Bolton’s book could well make the difference in securing the four Republican votes needed to obtain witnesses. But it could also succeed too well if it leads senators to plunge into the unknown of calling witnesses such as former vice president Joe Biden or his son Hunter. There are already indications that the leak may have secured the four votes for witnesses, while even Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) has said the Senate may need to subpoena the book draft itself.
The fact is that the story remains damaging on its face. It reaffirms not just that Bolton has relevant evidence but also that his testimony could significantly strengthen the nexus between the demand for investigations and the hold on aid. It could contradict statements made by Trump and cited by his legal team angrily denying any such connection. It would also change the account of Bolton denouncing the “drug deal” being “cooked up” by Rudolph W. Giuliani and, for the first time, make Trump the chef in chief.
As damaging as that leak may prove, though, it is not on its face devastating for the defense. The leak falls short of answering key questions that would likely have to be pursued in testimony. For example, Trump allegedly told Bolton that he wanted to “continue freezing $391 million in security assistance to Ukraine until officials there helped with investigations into Democrats including the Bidens,” the New York Times reported.
That still leaves the question of intent. Trump has never denied asking for the investigations, but insisted that they were meant to deal with his concerns over ongoing corruption in Ukraine. Moreover, the first of the two investigations could not be a basis for impeachment. Trump asked for assistance in investigating allegations into the 2016 election — matters that were currently being investigated by U.S. Attorney John Durham. It is the Biden investigation that raises legitimate questions, but it comes down again to a question of intent. Finally, the leak refers to the freeze on the funds but does not indicate that Trump was prepared to hold the aid past the deadline at the end of September. (It was released on September 11th.).
The suspicions over the timing of the leak are magnified by the fact that Bolton could have been subpoenaed by the House and compelled to testify. Bolton has hardly been subtle about his knowledge or desire to testify. Indeed, he has been virtually wearing a sandwich board reading “Subpoena me” outside the Capitol for months. When the House refused to issue such a subpoena, Bolton continued to tease his knowledge, including a tweet reading, “For the backstory, stay tuned........ .”
Despite the earlier failure to call Bolton or subpoena his book, the House built up expectations with veiled references to a leak or “gotcha” story to pressure senators to allow witnesses. We didn’t have to wait for the book and indeed we did not have to wait long all — just for the start of the defense case.
Bolton’s attorney has denied the reporting of the Times that Bolton circulated the draft for weeks among “close associates.” He instead blamed the “corrupted” process of preclearance review at the White House. Whoever it was, the leak was delivered with lethal effect.
Still, it may prove too clever by half. The manipulation of the trial with a carefully placed leak will not sit well with some senators. Senators play others; they do not like to be played. The leak makes it more difficult for key senators (who were moving away from voting for witnesses) to bring the trial to an early close.
However, it also makes it less likely that senators will be inclined to support the Democrats in their effort to block witnesses sought by the White House team, including not just Hunter Biden but possibly the whistleblower. In other words, the fallback position for some senators would be a mutually assured destruction option: allow both sides to lay waste to each other and leave it to the public to pick through the ruins.