WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump’s legal team argued forcefully against the relevance of testimony from John Bolton Tuesday as they concluded their impeachment trial defense and the Senate braced for debate on whether to summon Trump’s former national security adviser and other witnesses into the trial.
“This should end now, as quickly as possible,” White House counsel Pat Cipollone declared, capping a defense presentation that painted Trump as a victim and took dismissive swipes at Bolton, the potential witness who has scrambled Republican hopes for a swift end to the trial.
A day after the defense team largely brushed past Bolton, attorney Jay Sekulow addressed the controversy head-on by dismissing his manuscript — said to contradict a key defense argument about Trump’s dealings with Ukraine — as “inadmissible.” The argument was meant to dissuade Republicans from pursuing witnesses including Bolton, who writes in a forthcoming book that Trump told him he wanted to withhold military aid from Ukraine until it helped with investigations into Democratic rival Joe Biden.
“It is not a game of leaks and unsourced manuscripts,” Sekulow said.
The argument built on a separate one Monday night from Trump attorney Alan Dershowitz, who said that nothing in the manuscript — even if true — rises to the level of an impeachable offense. Sekulow also sought to undermine the credibility of Bolton’s book by noting that Attorney General William Barr has disputed comments attributed to him by Bolton.
The legal team, in hours of arguments, delved into areas that Democrats see as outside the scope of impeachment, alleging law enforcement bias and seizing on surveillance errors the FBI has acknowledged making in its Russian election interference probe.
Trump’s attorneys also argued that the Founding Fathers took care to make sure that impeachment was narrowly defined, with offenses clearly enumerated.
“The bar for impeachment cannot be set this low,” Sekulow said. “Danger. Danger. Danger. These articles must be rejected. The Constitution requires it. Justice demands it.”
The case now moves toward written questions, with senators on both sides getting 16 hours to pose queries. By late in the week, they are expected to hold a vote on whether or not to hear from any witnesses.
While scoffing at the manuscript, Trump and the Republicans have strongly resisted summoning Bolton to testify in person about what he saw and heard as Trump’s top national security adviser.
Senate Republicans spent two days behind closed doors discussing ideas to satisfy those who want to hear more testimony without prolonging the proceedings -or jeopardizing the president’s expected acquittal.
The ideas appear to be losing steam as quickly as they emerge.
One Republican, Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma, was floating an idea backed by Sen. Lindsey Graham to subpoena Bolton’s book manuscript so senators can see the evidence themselves — in private.
However, Chuck Schumer, the Senate’s top Democrat, called the proposal, which would keep Bolton out of public testimony, “absurd.”
“We’re not bargaining with them. We want four witnesses, and four sets of documents, then the truth will come out,” Schumer said.
Added Rep. Adam Schiff, the chairman of the House intelligence committee and the lead Democratic prosecutor in the trial: “I don’t see how the oath of impartiality can be interpreted in any other way than demanding a fair trial that includes witnesses and documents.”
Other Republicans including Sen. Pat Toomey want reciprocity — bring in Bolton or another Democratic witness in exchange for one from the GOP side. Some Republicans want to hear from the Bidens.
Majority Leader Mitch McConnell gathered GOP senators again late Tuesday to consider next steps. The Republican leader is encouraging senators not to become tangled in such questions that could delay things. He wants a quick finish without new witnesses or testimony.
“One thing about Mitch McConnell — he does not panic,” said Sen. Kevin Cramer of North Dakota.
Republicans are being warned that even if they agree to call Bolton to testify or try to access his manuscript, the White House will block him, beginning a weeks-long court battle over executive privilege and national security. That leaves the few senators, including Romney and Collins, who have expressed a desire to hear new testimony without strong backing.
Some Republicans say they are happy to read his manuscript on their own time.
“I don’t know that the manuscript would make any difference in the outcome of the trial,” said Roy Blunt of Missouri, a member of GOP leadership. And some said they simply don’t trust Bolton’s word. Rand Paul of Kentucky called Bolton “disgruntled”’ and seeking to make money off his time at the White house.
Retiring Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, whose perspective has been closely watched, appeared noncommittal Tuesday, saying he would make a decision after the upcoming question-and-answer part of the trial.
John Kelly, Trump’s former White House chief of staff, told an audience in Sarasota, Florida, that he believes Bolton. It’s a view shared by the GOP chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin said he called Bolton on Jan. 7 and asked him to voluntarily appear.
“Well, I think the path forward is that we’ve got two days of questions and answers that will take Wednesday and Thursday and and far as I’m concerned, after I finish, hearing the answers to the questions and consider the record. I’ve now heard the arguments of both sides. Then I’ll make a decision.”
White House officials privately acknowledge that they are essentially powerless to block the book’s publication, but could sue after the fact if they believe it violated the confidentiality agreement Bolton signed against disclosing classified information.
Trump is charged with abusing his presidential power by asking Ukraine’s leader to help investigate Biden at the same time his administration was withholding hundreds of millions of dollars in security aid. A second charge accuses Trump of obstructing Congress in its probe.
Trump and his lawyers have argued repeatedly that Democrats are using impeachment to try to undo the results of the last presidential election and drive Trump from office.
On Tuesday, as he was resting his case, Cipollone played video clips from House Democrats during the presidential impeachment of Bill Clinton — including several who are now managers of the Trump impeachment trial — in an attempt to depict them as hypocritical for sounding the alarm then about the partisan dangers of impeachment.
“What they are asking you do is to throw out a successful president on the eve of an election, with no basis, and in violation of the Constitution,” Cipollone said. “Why not trust the American people with this decision? Why tear up their ballots?”
Democrats, meanwhile, say Trump’s refusal to allow administration officials to testify only reinforces that the White House is hiding evidence. The White House has had Bolton’s manuscript for about a month, according to a letter from Bolton’s attorney.
No matter the vote on witnesses, acquittal still seems likely given that Republicans hold a 53-47 majority in the Senate and conviction would require a two-thirds majority.