On the floor of the Senate impeachment trial of Donald Trump, the looks on Republicans’ faces had changed. There was now anger on some, apprehension on many.
A few days ago, after a laboriously repetitive 21 hours of testimony by Democrats, they thought this thing was over, with acquittal of the President just around the corner. But then the John Bolton bombshell exploded, and all was suddenly precarious.
The Sunday leak from the former national security adviser’s book saying the Trump aid to Ukraine was indeed conditioned on an investigation of his political rivals had come just after the President’s defence team had argued the very opposite.
They’ve been caught flat-footed but still may have a lifeline. Trump lawyer and constitutional scholar Alan Dershowitz came forward with an off-ramp for them late Monday. On Tuesday morning, they were talking it up.
“Nothing in the Bolton revelations, even if true, would rise to the level of an abuse of power or an impeachable offence,” Mr. Dershowitz argued.
That premise is rejected by the great majority of constitutional scholars, who believe abuse of power is an impeachable offence, but desperate Republicans appeared to welcome it. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and others moved forward to congratulate Mr. Dershowitz after his submission.
It might be enough to prevent Republican fence-sitters from voting with Democrats to compel witnesses to appear at the trial and potentially turn it into a prolonged hell for Mr. Trump. They could reason that while guilty as charged, his offence does not warrant as grave a step as impeachment.
But if that’s a possibility, so are a lot of other uglier scenarios. As noted by Paul Begala, Bill Clinton’s former adviser, there are still so many shoes to drop that Republicans “are living in Imelda Marcos’s closet.”
Even if Mr. Trump does get an acquittal at week's end, one which will be seen as a sham, it won’t end there.
Mr. Bolton’s 500-page book will be out in March. There will likely be other leaks from it before then. Mr. Bolton is a bomb-thrower, always has been. Mr. Trump immediately labelled his version of events “totally false.” Just trying to sell books, he said. But Mr. Bolton is known to be a note-taker. He could have evidence in writing, evidence that flatly contradicts the President’s denial.
Mr. Trump could be caught in a big lie – his biggest lie of all – in the face of an impeachment trial.
He’s escaped from many a crisis before, but thanks to his nemesis, “the failing New York Times,” which broke the Bolton story, none bigger than this one.
Four Republican votes siding with the Democrats are needed to have witnesses appear at the trial. The Democrats have two, likely three. The fourth could be Tennessee’s Lamar Alexander, even though he is a long-time friend of Mr. McConnell’s.
Mr. Alexander stopped by for a brief word with reporters who were roped off in a corridor. (Media restrictions are such that in our chairs in the trial chamber we are instructed not to “lean forward.”) Mr. Alexander looked at us inscrutably and said he was weighing the information.
Remarkably the Trump defence team ignored the Bolton leak throughout seven hours of testimony Monday. On Tuesday, attorney Jay Sekulow belittled it calling it “inadmissible” and just a report of what someone had heard was in a manuscript.
Apparently they were so blindsided they didn’t know how to respond. One would think they would have been aware of Mr. Bolton’s views and that they might be aired. But they were following Mr. Trump’s orders and fell into the trap.
They even tried to say that Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani was only a bit player on the Ukraine file. In fact, he’s been a lead player, trying as he has admitted to find dirt on Joe Biden and his son Hunter, who had a lucrative job with a Ukraine gas company even though he had no qualifications for it. The defence team scored points by depicting how sleazy this was, but they were way off the mark in their facts on how Joe Biden allegedly was engaged in any nefarious dealings.
At the trial some want a witness swap, Mr. Bolton for Hunter Biden. It’s one possible path among many this drama might take. Besides selling a lot of Bolton books, it could end up selling Mr. Trump down the river. The one big hope for him and his Republicans, as shaky as it may be, is the Dershowitz off-ramp.