J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Updated at 8:35 p.m. ET
President Trump’s lawyers tore into Democrats’ impeachment allegations on Monday with a legal and political pageant that touched a broad swath of topics but eschewed the one agitating much of Washington outside the gilded Senate chamber: John Bolton.
Lawyer Jay Sekulow alluded indirectly to the revelations about Bolton’s forthcoming book in opening the Trump defense on Monday afternoon but told senators that he and his colleagues would confine themselves to the existing record.
On they pressed, but a mustachio’d specter loomed over the proceedings — and the question senators are expected to face later this week over whether to admit new witnesses or evidence into the proceedings.
Bolton’s forthcoming book reportedly includes an account of Trump telling him that he intended to keep military assistance for Ukraine frozen until President Volodymyr Zelenskiy agreed to announce investigations that Trump wanted. NPR has not reviewed the manuscript.
Democrats argue that Bolton’s account could bring vital new evidence of what they call Trump’s abuse of power, the basis for the ongoing impeachment proceedings.
Bolton has said he’d be willing to appear in the Senate trial if he receives a subpoena.
Four Republican senators would need to join with all the chamber’s Democrats in a vote, perhaps Friday, in order to authorize witnesses and identify which ones.
It isn’t clear whether sufficient support exists and if so, what witnesses Republicans might request if Democrats were to seek Bolton or others such as White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney.
All that drama and uncertainty, however, did not figure into the official events in the Senate chamber on Monday, where Trump’s attorneys opened with another defense of the president and then shifted into an impeachment of former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, Hunter.
Former independent counsel Robert Ray later inveighed against what he called Democrats’ threadbare legal case against Trump — irrespective of witnesses, he said, again alluding to Bolton without naming him.
Law professor Alan Derschowitz then outlined what he called the constitutional problems with impeaching Trump.
Sekulow underscored one of the Trump team’s themes: The real motive driving Democrats’ impeachment is simple partisan animus.
He played TV footage of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi handing out the pens she’d used to sign the articles of impeachment to lawmakers including some of the managers presenting them to the Senate.
Former Justice Department independent counsel Ken Starr, who investigated President Bill Clinton in the 1990s, also took the dais.
In a lengthy address that combined history, legal theory and, ultimately, recent events, Starr told senators that what he called the precedents forming the “common law” of impeachment show how short the current proceedings fall relative to past practices.
“Here we have … a runaway House,” Starr said. “House Democrats chose to conduct a wholly unprecedented process in this case and they did so knowingly and deliberately, even though they were warned at every turn, ‘Don’t do it. Don’t do it that way,'” Starr said.
Deputy White House counsel Mike Purpura reprised a few of his arguments from Saturday about what he called the evidentiary weakness of Democrats’ case.
Purpura also rejected the idea, as outlined by Democrats, that Trump hadn’t paid attention to other cases of foreign assistance or that he didn’t care about Ukraine beyond his ability to exploit it for his own political purposes.
“They are attributing views to President Trump that are contrary to his actions,” Purpura said.
The Biden impeachment
As the hours wore on, Trump’s defense team moved further afield of a closely constructed defense of the president.
They put on a separate defense of another lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, and as they’d hinted, broadened their presentations into the family Biden.
Former Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi recapitulated a story line that has embarrassed Biden: His son, Hunter, was paid by a Ukrainian gas company at the time when the then-vice president was handling Ukrainian affairs for the U.S. government.
Although the Bidens haven’t been charged with any criminal wrongdoing, their situation was the subject of one of the investigations Trump wanted from Ukraine’s government.
Bondi and another lawyer, Eric Herschmann, outlined the reasons why they argued such an investigation might be appropriate.
Bondi played TV interviews in which Hunter Biden acknowledged that it might have been possible that he received the Burisma board seat because of his last name. Bondi also showed clips from the House impeachment hearings in which witnesses discussed the sensitivities about the Biden connection within the State Department.
“There’s no question that any rational person would like to understand what happened,” Herschmann said.
At least one Republican welcomed the airing of the Biden-Ukraine story on the stage provided by the impeachment trial: Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa reminded reporters about the first primary votes that are expected to be cast soon.
“The Iowa caucuses are this next Monday evening,” she said. “And I’m really interested to see how this discussion today informs and influences the Iowa caucus voters, the Democratic caucus goers. Will they be supporting Vice President Biden at this point?”
Bolton from the blue
The impeachment proceedings were jangled by a report in The New York Times on Sunday that Bolton’s forthcoming book would strengthen Democrats’ case.
That revived discussion about whether Bolton or other witnesses might appear in the proceedings — something Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Republicans batted down early but which is set to come up again later this week.
Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and the House impeachment managers called for Bolton to appear. But Trump’s defenders outside the Senate, including Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., said that even if that were to happen, it wouldn’t hurt Trump.
“The facts don’t change,” Meadows said.
Trump released the military assistance frozen for Ukraine in 2019 and got no announcement of an investigation, and nothing Bolton could say would alter that, Meadows said.
When the whip comes down
Republicans’ majority likely means Trump faces no danger of being removed from office.
But the small number of Republicans who’d need to join Democrats to authorize witnesses — four — may make that, at least, potentially more likely. That would give Democrats a fact witness and Republicans the ability to say they’d had a meaningful trial for Trump.
So a whirlpool of speculation now churns over who might join that notional gang of four.
Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, has said he wants Bolton to testify. Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, are seen as other possible joiners.
Are there others? The Washington Post reported on Monday that Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., has proposed a “one-for-one” trade in which Republicans might agree to Bolton in exchange for someone else. That suggests Toomey’s vote might also be in play.
Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., told reporters a notional swap “was discussed” during Monday’s Republican lunch “but there didn’t seem to be much support for it. Not at this point.”
Maine’s other senator, Independent Angus King, views the situation from outside because he caucuses with Democrats. But King told NPR on Monday that he thought there could be from 5 to 10 Republicans who’d ultimately go along with a vote for witnesses.
“There’s some indication that [Bolton] has information that bears directly on the heart of the case,” King said. “To willfully say, ‘We don’t want to hear that,’ to me, basically just undermines the idea that this is a real trial.”
NPR reporters Brakkton Booker and Lexie Schapitl contributed to this report.