Having John Bolton testify in the Senate is likely be a disaster — which is why it must be done

Having John Bolton testify in the Senate is likely be a disaster — which is why it must be done
Official White House photo by Shealah Craighead

John Bolton spoke up on Monday in support of the “decisive” action taken by Donald Trump in assassinating an Iranian general, placing the U.S. on a path toward another Middle East war, and prompting a vote in the Iraqi parliament that declared all American forces in Iraq foreign terrorists. So Bolton’s character and judgment remain exactly what they have always been: He’s an unrepentant war hawk whose resemblance to Yosemite Sam goes beyond the mustache and straight to his temperament. By a total non-coincidence, Bolton also issued a statement on Monday declaring that he would be willing to testify in a Senate impeachment hearing in the trial of Donald Trump, if he receives a subpoena.


At the moment, the odds of enough Republicans breaking away to authorize a subpoena of Bolton, or of anyone else, seems about as high as Donald Trump’s popularity on the streets of Baghdad. But leaving that aside, what could Bolton provide in a hearing in the unlikely chance that he ever raises his hand in the Senate?

As a former national security adviser, Bolton was the boss of Alexander Vindman and Fiona Hill, both of whom provided damaging testimony during the House impeachment hearings. Bolton could certainly speak to the meeting held in his office in which Ambassador Gordon Sondland attempted to tell Ukrainian officials that Trump was demanding political investigations in exchange for assistance. However, Bolton was not present at the later meeting in which which Sondland made Trump’s demands more explicit. Unlike Vindman, it would be Bolton who was a secondhand witness on that occasion. He could only report on what Vindman and Hill reported to him later concerning Sondland’s follow-up meeting.

Bolton could speak to his own state of mind when he instructed Vindman to visit a White House attorney. And he could confirm or deny the accounts by Vindman and Hill that he ended the meeting in his office after growing upset over Sondland’s attempts to turn what should have been a frank discussion of mutual concerns into an attempt to extort political favors. But even that would only be addressing events that have already been covered by multiple firsthand witnesses.

So is there anything Bolton has to say that makes it worth dragging him into the Senate, especially in light of how happy he’s sure to be after getting the Iran fight that he’s wanted since waxing up his first grade-school ‘stache? Maybe. Putting Bolton on the stand is a risk, and the outcome can’t really be predicted. Which is why it should be done.

In The New York Times “Impeachment Briefing” newsletter, a number of possible outcomes of Bolton testimony are raised. Those include the potential that Bolton could ignore Donald Trump and direct attention toward Mick Mulvaney and Gordon Sondland, the two men he accused of cooking up a “drug deal” over Ukraine. Both Mulvaney and Sondland are prime candidates to acquire tire tracks on their backs, especially following the release of emails in December showing that the Office of Management and Budget was deeply concerned about the legality of holding up assistance to Ukraine, and worked with the Department of Defense in an attempt to keep Congress from learning about the action. Mulvaney is the director of the OMB, and he was included on many of those emails.

What Bolton has to say about Trump’s involvement in the Ukraine scheme is unknown. In November, an attorney for Bolton indicated that he had considerable information on Ukraine that “had not been shared with impeachment investigators.” That could mean Bolton has information that would be relevant to Trump’s impeachment—only … what information is there left to get?

With the release of the emails, and the continuing stream of information on Rudy Giuliani’s actions in Ukraine, there don’t seem to be any gaps remaining. Trump’s guilt in using his position to extort a promise of political investigations in exchange for assistance already approved by Congress is absolute and undeniable. It isn’t a lack of guilt that is causing Republicans to refuse to remove Trump. It seems unlikely that more evidence of his guilt would tip the balance.

Also, in light of how Bolton’s sudden willingness to testify followed directly on the heels of his greatest wish coming true, it should be considered that his intention might be to somehow blow up the trial, either by pointing at Sondland and Mulvaney, or by insisting that he never found anything wrong with the scheme. Placing John Bolton on the stand is lighting the fuse on a bomb, with better-than-even odds that it will blow up in all the bad ways.

Which is why, if those votes can be gained, it should be done. Having Bolton testify creates a high possibility that he will say nothing that leads to the removal of Trump. But having no witnesses is dead certain to lead to Trump’s acquittal. And if the Senate agrees to bring in Bolton, it just might have to listen to another few witnesses.

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