‘I’m with the Bush–Cheney team, and I’m here to stop the count.”
Those words were bellowed by John Bolton in a Tallahassee library in December 2000, when he was part of a team of Republican lawyers trying to stop the Florida recount of votes cast in the presidential race between George W. Bush and Al Gore. Until now, it was the most famous utterance President Trump’s former national-security adviser had ever made. That’s about to change with the looming publication of his book, due out in March, about serving in the Trump administration. It’s even vaguely possible Bolton could make an appearance in Trump’s impeachment trial this week.
Still, it’s worth considering the irony of Bolton’s earlier words. The Bush–Gore Florida recount wasn’t the beginning of our divided times, but it was a major inflection point. It pushed the internal combustion engine of partisanship into a higher gear, and we’ve never really revved back down. Now, Bolton is in the strange position of not fitting comfortably on either side of the partisan divide.
The gist of Bolton’s story is that the president’s story is not true. According to an account of the book’s contents reported in the New York Times, Bolton heard Trump say he was withholding aid to the Ukrainians pending an investigation into Biden and other Democrats. (One wonders who these other Democrats were.)
The Times story says the book also contradicts statements about who knew what and when inside the administration, no doubt causing heartburn for acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, Attorney General William Barr, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, off-book fixer Rudy Giuliani, and, of course, all of the GOP senators determined to avoid hearing from witnesses in the impeachment trial.
The response from Trump World is predictable. Bolton is a disgruntled liar, bitter over being fired and desperate to sell books. I have no doubt Bolton, a former colleague of mine at the American Enterprise Institute, is disgruntled. I’m also sure he very much wants to sell books. But I don’t buy the lying part.
Bolton may be many of the things his detractors claim, but he’s also an incredibly adept lawyer and bureaucratic infighter. On different occasions when National Security Council staffers Fiona Hill and Tim Morrison were dismayed by what the president was up to with Ukraine, Bolton’s advice was to “tell the lawyers” (in Morrison’s words). When Hill told Bolton that she’d heard Gordon Sondland — Trump’s EU ambassador and administration point person on the Ukrainian scheme — tell the Ukrainians that he and Mulvaney would arrange a White House meeting in exchange for an investigation of Biden, Bolton replied, “You go and tell [NSC counsel John Eisenberg] that I am not part of whatever drug deal Sondland and Mulvaney are cooking up on this, and you go and tell him what you’ve heard and what I’ve said.”
The notion that Bolton, a legendary note-taker, would volunteer to testify (if subpoenaed) only to perjure himself is absurd. That he would make false allegations in a book without contemporaneous corroboration seems far-fetched as well. There’s only one way to know, though: Have Bolton tell his version under oath.
As of this writing, the ink on the official “Destroy Bolton” narrative hasn’t dried yet, but an early contender is the charge that this is all just a replay of the tactics Democrats used to try to derail Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination. Promoting his new podcast, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas tweeted, “Last week we had Lev Parnas on Maddow & ‘secret tapes’; this week, the ‘Bolton revelations.’ It’s the same approach Dems & media followed during the Kavanaugh hearing.”
Except it’s not at all. The only thing similar about the two controversies is that new allegations kept inconveniencing politicians who wanted to move on. By that standard, nearly every unfolding Washington scandal is like the Kavanaugh hearings.
Putting aside the hilarity of John “Stop the Count” Bolton being a willing pawn of the Democrats, there were no recorded telephone calls confirming elements of the allegations against Kavanaugh. None of the Kavanaugh accusations had the sort of corroboration and material evidence already in the public record in the impeachment case. And Trump’s former national-security adviser is relying not on a decades-old unverifiable recollection but on his memory of events from a few months ago.
The biggest difference between how the Senate handled the Kavanaugh smear campaign and how it’s handling the impeachment case is this: With Kavanaugh, Senate Republicans bent over backward to hear from witnesses; with Trump, they’ve gone into a defensive crouch to avoid it. And that may not be enough any longer.
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