“They’re coming here and they’re telling you, ‘Please do the work that we didn’t do,’ ” Cipollone said, “ ‘where we had two days in the House Judiciary Committee, we had to rush delivery for Christmas, and then we waited and waited and waited. But now, we want you to call witnesses that we never called, that we didn’t subpoena.’ ”
“They want to turn you into an investigative body,” he said.
There’s an obvious reason that Cipollone, who is also the White House counsel, would oppose witnesses. His client, the president, wants the impeachment trial, centered on his interactions with Ukraine, to come to a rapid conclusion. Calling more witnesses would introduce a delay and almost certainly wouldn’t actually change the final result.
On Friday, though, a new possible reason for Cipollone’s opposition emerged: Cipollone himself might be worth calling as a witness. The New York Times reported that former national security adviser John Bolton’s upcoming book details a White House meeting in which Trump asked Bolton to call Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to encourage Zelensky to meet with his personal attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani. Sitting in the room when Trump gave that instruction, Bolton claims? Cipollone, Giuliani and acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney.
Trump and Giuliani deny the allegation. But, as lead House impeachment manager Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) pointed out as the proceedings got underway Friday, there’s an established way to vet Bolton’s claims. The Senate could call him as a witness and ask him questions aimed at uncovering the truth.
The new report is a reminder both of how much additional information about Trump’s interactions with Ukraine probably exists and that there are known witnesses who could speak to those interactions. Cipollone’s point about the House’s failure to gather all of that information isn’t inaccurate, but it’s also true that the White House established a baseline of noncooperation that the House was pushing against — a baseline established by the White House Counsel’s Office. The strategy of forcing every request for information to the courts was established well before the Ukraine issue came to light; an expert who spoke with The Washington Post in April noted that Trump’s strategy appeared to be aimed at running out the clock.
From a political standpoint, this is a more complicated consideration than it might appear to be, for two reasons.
The first is simply that there’s a large amount of information we know we don’t know — the known unknowns, in former defense secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld’s vernacular. We know that Bolton has information about his interactions with Trump, which he has said he would be willing to share with the Senate. We know further that Mulvaney similarly has a great deal of information, some of which he has accidentally let slip. We know that there are documents being held by the State Department on various meetings and communications involving individuals who offered testimony in the impeachment process.
All of that — particularly Bolton’s allegations — will come out. It may come out in decades, after federal restrictions on sharing information expire. It may come out in mid-March, with the release of Bolton’s book. It may come out before Sunday, thanks to reporting from The Post or the Times. There will almost certainly be new information that fleshes out Trump’s actions, actions that even Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) described as inappropriate based on the evidence publicly available.
The impeachment trial will not be viewed through the lens we use today. It will be viewed through the lens of that additional information. The decision not to call further witnesses will not be evaluated in the context of what we know at this moment. It will be evaluated in the context of what we know in the future, particularly if that information comes from someone who might obviously be considered a fact witness in this moment.
The politics are further complicated by the broad support for calling witnesses. Polling shows that two-thirds to three-quarters of Americans support the Senate bringing witnesses into the trial, something that has been done in every prior Senate trial.
There’s an important caveat to that: Republicans and Democrats almost certainly aren’t looking to hear from the same witnesses. Democrats want witnesses who might offer further damning testimony about Trump, while Republicans would prefer to interrogate former vice president Joe Biden. (Polling reinforces this.) Republicans will probably happily trade witnesses for Trump’s rapid acquittal.
But it’s still problematic for any politician to take a direct stand in opposition to something that has such broad support. Especially since, again, more evidence will almost certainly come out. Why can we be so confident? Because we learned on Friday, as the vote on witnesses loomed, that even one of the attorneys defending Trump in his trial might have firsthand information about the president’s activities.
The truth will out. By passing on a vote to allow witnesses, Senate Republicans are simply amplifying the political damage that will result when it does. In other words, they’re lighting a political fuse. The question is simply how big the eventual explosion will be.