Until Sunday night, everything was going to plan: The Senate would rush through opening arguments, then through a brief question period, then reject a motion for further evidence, and then acquit President Trump on charges of abusing his office and obstructing Congress in time for his pre-Super Bowl interview with fanboy Sean Hannity and his State of the Union address next week.
Sure, voters told pollsters they wanted the Senate to at least pretend to care about getting to the truth. But Mitch McConnell was betting on short memories: The quicker he dispatched with impeachment, the sooner it would disappear into the fog of an election year. Democrats would raise a hue and cry, and editorial boards would wag their fingers. But the cover-up was safer than allowing new information into the public domain. McConnell is nothing if not ruthlessly cynical, and he knew that whatever emerged would be damning.
That Trump could extort a foreign government for his political benefit and suffer no consequence is indicative of how fragile our polarized political system really is. More important, it’s shown how untethered the Republican Party has become from the rule of law—and how dangerous a second Trump term, with his party brought to heel and unwilling to check his increasingly authoritarian instincts, could be.
The New York Times’s story on Sunday offered the GOP one last chance to demonstrate moral courage.
The Times reported the incendiary contents of former national security adviser John Bolton’s unpublished manuscript, in which Bolton (pictured) says Trump directly told him that he would not give the Ukrainians $391 million in military aid unless they investigated the Bidens. That undercuts every single aspect of Trump’s defense, including what his attorneys told the Senate last week. Bolton wants to testify. Trump is blocking him.
Senate Republicans have a choice: to muster moral courage and issue a subpoena, or to look the other way.
Don’t get your hopes up that they’ll do the right thing. They’ve had several other chances to show moral courage this week, and they’ve failed every test.
Last Tuesday, at the beginning of the trial, White House Counsel Pat Cipollone stood up and told a bald-faced lie: “The [House impeachment] proceedings took place in the basement of the House of Representatives … Not even [Adam] Schiff’s Republican colleagues were allowed into the SCIF.” That’s plainly wrong: Each of the committees involved in the inquiry included Republicans who questioned witnesses. Cipollone’s opening arguments on Saturday were no less mendacious: He said Ukraine didn’t know military aid was being withheld (false), that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election (debunked by Trump’s FBI chief), and that Trump was “locked out” of the House’s process (he declined an invitation to Judiciary Committee hearings). No Republican demanded that he correct the record.
They did, however, clutch pearls aplenty when Adam Schiff referenced a CBS story that quoted a Trump ally saying that Republican senators were warned, “Vote against the president and your head will be on a pike.” “That’s where he lost me,” said Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), one of those said to be on the fence about calling witnesses. More likely, this performative outrage was cover for the cowardly vote they planned to take all along.
Republicans didn’t express the same outrage when Trump tweeted a threat at Schiff on Sunday morning, alleging that he is a “CORRUPT POLITICIAN” who “has not paid the price, yet, for what he has done to our Country!” Nor did they get riled up when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo cursed out an NPR reporter for asking a perfectly legitimate question about Ukraine and then lied about their conversation in an official State Department statement. In most administrations, Pompeo’s boorish behavior would have drawn a stern rebuke, if not a demand for his resignation. Instead, Trump threatened to pull NPR funding.
Crickets from the GOP. But sure, Schiff gave them the vapors.
Back to Bolton. Let’s not mistake the mustachioed menace for any sort of resistance hero. He’s a neocon warmonger, a man whose pornography is probably satellite images of drones dropping bombs on desert villages. There are reasons to question his credibility: Namely, he’s out to sell a book.
But he’s not some liberal Deep State squish, and the brief outline in the Times aligns with what other witnesses told House investigators. His story shreds a key element of Trump’s narrative—that the president had valid reasons for withholding the money. It also puts the lie to what Trump’s lawyers have told the Senate—that there are no firsthand witnesses who can testify that Trump linked the hold to the Bidens. And it calls into question what else Trump’s attorneys are lying about.
After all, Bolton submitted the manuscript to the White House for a security review on December 30 and signaled his willingness to testify a week later. Trump made clear that, should McConnell’s efforts to shut down all testimony fail, he’d try to exert executive privilege to keep that from happening. It’s obvious that Trump and his lawyers know (and are terrified of) what Bolton will say; according to the Times’s sources, the manuscript “intensified concerns among some of [Trump’s] advisers that they needed to block Mr. Bolton from testifying.”
Even after the Times’s story broke, the White House urged Republicans to hold the line, arguing that Bolton testifying will “open the floodgates,” leading to a longer trial and more information in the public domain—which is exactly what McConnell doesn’t want.
Rarely are there choices this clear, or moments with this much moral clarity. Do Senate Republicans put Bolton under oath and see what he has to say, or do they admit that the entire party is complicit in Trump’s corruption?
In other words, are we to be a country ruled by law, or a country ruled by the lawless?