WASHINGTON — In another time, in another Washington, this might be the moment that changed the trajectory of the presidency. A former national security adviser confirms that the president, despite his denials, conditioned security aid to a war-torn ally on its cooperation against his domestic rivals, the issue at the heart of his ongoing impeachment trial.
At first glance, at least, John R. Bolton’s account of President Trump’s private remarks sounds like an echo of the so-called smoking gun tape that proved that President Richard M. Nixon really had orchestrated the Watergate cover-up and ultimately forced him from office. But this is Mr. Trump’s era and Mr. Trump’s Washington, and the old rules do not always apply.
The reality show star who was elected president even after he was captured on an “Access Hollywood” tape boasting about sexual assault has gone on to survive one revelation after another in the three years since, proving more durable than any national politician in modern American history. So will this be the turning point or just one more disclosure that validates his critics without changing other minds? Will it be another smoking gun or another “Access Hollywood”?
The news of Mr. Bolton’s account in an unpublished book, first reported by The New York Times, could hardly come at a worse time for Mr. Trump, just as his lawyers have opened his defense on the Senate floor and days before the senators will vote on whether to call witnesses like Mr. Bolton. Until now, Mr. Trump seemed assured not only of acquittal but appeared likely to fend off the testimony of any more witnesses.
But the pressure on the handful of Republican senators who had been wavering on calling witnesses will now increase exponentially and the president’s defense has suddenly been thrown into disarray. When Mr. Trump’s lawyers address the Senate Monday afternoon, they will face the challenge of explaining how his own former top aide says the president did exactly what they say he did not do — or trying to ignore it altogether.
What’s perhaps even more shocking is that the White House knew what Mr. Bolton had to say at least as far back as Dec. 30, when he sent his manuscript to the National Security Council for standard pre-publication review to ensure that no classified information would be released, yet continued to promote a completely opposite narrative.
In his book, Mr. Bolton writes that Mr. Trump told him in August that he wanted to continue freezing $391 million in congressionally approved security assistance to Ukraine until its government helped with investigations into Democrats including former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and his son Hunter Biden — exactly what Mr. Trump is on trial for.
Mr. Trump and his defenders quickly sought to undercut Mr. Bolton by dismissing him as a disgruntled former employee seeking to take revenge and sell books. Mr. Bolton abruptly left the White House in September after months of tension with the president over his policies toward North Korea, Iran, Afghanistan and Ukraine; the president insisted he fired him while Mr. Bolton insisted he resigned.
Starting early Monday morning, hours after the Times’s report on Mr. Bolton’s book, Mr. Trump firing off more than a half-dozen messages on Twitter rebutting his former adviser’s account and attacking him as untrustworthy.
“I NEVER told John Bolton that the aid to Ukraine was tied to investigations into Democrats, including the Bidens,” the president wrote. “In fact, he never complained about this at the time of his very public termination. If John Bolton said this, it was only to sell a book.”
He also reposted messages from supporters assailing Mr. Bolton and comparing him to others the president viewed as disloyal like James B. Comey, the F.B.I. director he fired in 2017. “Just like James Comey, John Bolton is trying to get rich off a lie- and leak-fueled campaign to overturn the 2016 election results,” read one of the messages the president retweeted.
But Mr. Bolton is a hard witness for Mr. Trump to simply brush off. He is no liberal Democrat or deep-state bureaucrat, nor is he even a Never Trump Republican, but a conservative hawk with years of credibility among Republicans and a strong following from his days as ambassador to the United Nations and Fox News commentator. He spent 17 months as Mr. Trump’s national security adviser and knows a lot about what happened on the inside during that time.
Mr. Bolton’s account on its face seems to eviscerate a central part of the defense that the White House began presenting on the Senate floor on Saturday. The president’s lawyers hammered House Democrats for relying on secondhand testimony and argued that no witness had come forward to say that Mr. Trump had explicitly linked the aid to the investigations.
“Most of the Democrats’ witnesses have never spoken to the president at all, let alone about Ukraine security assistance,” Michael R. Purpura, a deputy White House counsel, told the Senate on Saturday. “The two people in the House record who asked President Trump about whether there was any linkage between security assistance and investigations were told in no uncertain terms that there is no connection between the two.”
In their trial brief submitted earlier last week, the president’s lawyers made that one of their key points. “Not a single witness with actual knowledge ever testified that the president suggested any connection between announcing investigations and security assistance,” the lawyers wrote. “Assumptions, presumptions and speculation based on hearsay are all that House Democrats can rely on to spin their tale of a quid pro quo.”
The House managers prosecuting Mr. Trump said that distorted the strength of their evidence, but either way, Mr. Bolton’s recollection is clearly a firsthand account — which at least some in the White House had reason to know at the time the brief was filed and the presentation was made on the Senate floor.
Mr. Bolton has been one of the most intriguing figures in the Ukraine matter for weeks, ever since other former officials testified that he opposed the pressure campaign, calling it a “drug deal” he wanted no part of and warning that Rudolph W. Giuliani, the president’s personal attorney organizing the pressure, was a “hand grenade who’s going to blow everybody up.” He told aides to report what they learned about the pressure campaign to a White House lawyer.
Until now, Mr. Bolton has remained publicly silent and, in fact, despite the Times report about his book, has remained so. His lawyer blamed the report on a leak by the White House.
House Democrats requested his testimony during their hearings last month, but they ultimately did not subpoena him, reasoning that a court fight would only prolong the investigative process for months.
Once the House impeached Mr. Trump and the case reached the Senate, Mr. Bolton announced that he would testify if subpoenaed. But Senate Republicans voted against subpoenaing him at the start of the trial, putting off a final decision until after arguments are complete, which could come later this week.
Another witness sought by the House managers, Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, has already publicly confirmed to reporters that Mr. Trump suspended the security aid in part to get Ukraine to investigate a conspiracy theory involving Democrats during the 2016 election campaign, although he later issued a statement trying to take that back.
As damaging as Mr. Bolton’s account would seem to be, it was too early to judge its effect. Unlike the Nixon smoking gun tape, there is no recording — and events of the last three years have suggested even that may not matter.
Mr. Trump has endured so many scandals that would have brought down an ordinary politician not even counting “Access Hollywood.”
Just weeks before moving into the White House, he agreed to pay $25 million to settle fraud claims against Trump University. Since becoming president, he repaid hush money given to Stormy Daniels, the pornographic film actress, to keep quiet about an alleged affair. Another woman has sued him for rape and more than a dozen others have accused him of sexual misconduct.
His son, son-in-law and campaign chairman met with Russians offering “dirt” on his opponent that they said came from the Russian government. A special counsel investigation identified 10 instances when the president may have obstructed justice. His family foundation was forced to shut down after authorities found “a shocking pattern of illegality.” His businesses have benefited from foreign patrons with cause to curry favor with the president despite the Constitution’s emoluments clause.
Investigative reporting found that he engaged in dubious tax schemes during the 1990s, including instances of outright fraud. A wide swath of people around him have been convicted of various crimes, including his campaign chairman, his deputy, first national security adviser, longtime political adviser, longtime personal lawyer and others. And now Mr. Giuliani and a couple of his longtime associates are under federal investigation.
To Mr. Trump’s most fervent supporters, all of that is proof not that he is corrupt but that he has struck a nerve in Washington’s “swamp” and the establishment is coming after him, manufacturing “hoaxes” to tear him down. That unwavering support within the Republican Party, which he telegraphs on Twitter regularly, has hardly gone unnoticed by Republican senators as they sit in judgment of him.
But polls also show that two-thirds of the public wanted to hear from new witnesses in the trial now underway on Capitol Hill. Given the latest revelations, Mr. Bolton stands ready to testify with the fate of the president on the line.
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