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Center of the storm: Mitt Romney’s call for John Bolton testimony upends GOP unity

The Utah Republican wants the former national security adviser to testify after reports that Bolton’s forthcoming memoir contradicts the president’s impeachment defense that there was ‘no quid pro quo’ with Ukraine.

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, speaks to reporters as he arrives at the Capitol in Washington, Monday, Jan. 27, 2020, during the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.
Manuel Balce Ceneta, Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Sen. Mitt Romney urged the Senate to call former national security adviser John Bolton as a witness in the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump Monday, overshadowing the second day of the president’s defense and portending a vote that could dash his hopes for a swift acquittal.

The simmering debate over calling witnesses reignited after Sunday’s New York Times report that a leaked manuscript of Bolton’s forthcoming memoir revealed that Trump told him military aid to Ukraine was being withheld until the country helped the president with investigations into political rival Joe Biden — contradicting the president’s defense that there was “no quid pro quo” in the interaction.

Romney, a Utah Republican, quickly became a focal point of the debate over whether to call witnesses, arguing during a private GOP lunch for Bolton to testify soon after telling reporters that “it’s pretty clear” the former adviser would have relevant testimony for senators to consider before they render their verdict on Trump.

He said he’s spoken with other senators who agree.

“I think it’s increasingly likely that other Republicans will join those of us who think we should hear from John Bolton,” Romney said. “Whether there are other witnesses and documents, that’s another matter, but I think John Bolton’s relevance to our decision has become increasingly clear.”

While the GOP-controlled Senate is expected to acquit Trump, there is less unity in the GOP Senate conference over the question of calling witnesses, which would prolong the trial, possibly into the president’s State of Union address on Feb. 4 or longer.

A vote on whether to call witnesses is expected Friday after Trump’s defense team finishes and senators can question both House managers and the defense.

Four Republican senators would need to break ranks and vote with Democrats to reach the simple majority of 51 votes required to subpoena Bolton and other witnesses to testify. Romney has long said he was open to hearing from witnesses, Bolton in particular, after both sides present their arguments.

He reiterated that position Monday. “I, of course, will make a final decision on witnesses after we’ve heard from not only the prosecution, but also the defense,” he said. “But I think at this stage it is pretty fair to say John Bolton has a relevant testimony to provide.”

In this May 1, 2019 file photo, national security adviser John Bolton talks to reporters outside the White House in Washington.
Evan Vucci, Associated Press

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said she, too, was likely to call for witnesses as she did in the 1999 impeachment trial for President Bill Clinton.

“The reports about John Bolton’s book strengthen the case for witnesses and have prompted a number of conversations among my colleagues,” she said in a statement.

Other senators rumored to be on the fence about witnesses were less forceful in their reactions to reports on the Bolton manuscript.

“I stated before that I was curious as to what John Bolton might have to say,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska. “I’ve also said there is an appropriate time for us to evaluate whether we need additional information — that time is almost here. I look forward to the White House wrapping up presentation of its case.”

Politico reported that Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said he will make a decision on witnesses after the Senate’s 16-hour question-and-answer period.

Other senior Republicans reportedly dismissed details from Bolton’s future book as nothing new and said it wouldn’t change their views that Trump did nothing wrong and certainly nothing impeachable. A close Trump ally, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham, R-S.C., said he wanted to see the unpublished manuscript of Bolton’s book or at least be briefed on it.

“Let’s see if it’s relevant, and if it is, then I’ll make a decision about Bolton,” he told reporters, according to The Washington Post.

Sen. Mike Lee didn’t go that far. Asked about the impact of the Bolton manuscript, the Utah Republican said, “It has certainly prompted more discussions, but I still think it is unnecessary to call witnesses.”

Utah Republican Congressman John Curtis said he agreed senators should be able to hear witnesses with first-hand accounts of the president’s dealings with Ukraine, but he found it “ironic” House Democratic investigators didn’t grant the same request from Republicans.

“I am frustrated that our same wishes were not honored in the House,” he said. “I am hopeful that the Senate trial will bring additional evidence that the hurried House investigation didn’t allow for ... and put this to bed.”

Rep. John Curtis listens to a question during a post-debate media scrum after Utah’s Republican Primary debate for the 3rd Congressional District seat held Tuesday, May 29, 2018, at KBYU Studios on the campus of Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.
Isaac Hale, The Daily Herald via Associated Press

Rep. Ben McAdams, the delegation’s lone Democrat and the only member who voted to impeach Trump, had no comment. Other members of the delegation didn’t respond to requests for comment at press time.

Not all Republican senators agree with Romney. Newly appointed Sen. Kelly Loeffler tweeted that Romney wants “to appease the left by calling witnesses who will slander (Trump) during their 15 minutes of fame. The circus is over. It’s time to move on!”

But Democrats are holding out hope the division within the GOP conference will result in a call for more witnesses.

“It’s going to be hard to hold back. I don’t know how they do it,” Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., told Politico. “They’d be hard pressed not to have at least four or five of our Republican colleagues and friends that would” vote for witnesses.

At a closed-door GOP lunch before the trial convened Monday, Romney spoke forcefully about the need to have Bolton testify before the Senate, the Wall Street Journal reported, noting Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., suggested a trade of Bolton’s testimony for a witness Republicans want to call.

Some GOP senators have previously pushed for summoning Biden and his son Hunter as a way to call off Democrats’ demands for Bolton and other top White House aides.

Trump is charged with abusing his power by asking Ukraine’s leader to help investigate Biden while the president withheld $391 million in aid to the country at war with Russia. A second article of impeachment charges Trump with obstructing Congress in its probe into Trump’s dealings with Ukraine.

The president’s attorneys argued that Trump wasn’t asking Ukraine to perform political favors, but rather to root out corruption to ensure American aid wasn’t misspent. They argue that when the president’s concerns were addressed the aid was released and Trump met with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

Democrats contend Trump released aid after only after a whistleblower complaint about the alleged quid pro quo became public.

Monday’s session also featured high-powered attorneys Ken Starr, whose investigation led to the Clinton impeachment trial, and Alan Dershowitz, an emeritus Harvard Law professor who helped defend O.J. Simpson.

Both men argued that the House hasn’t brought a case that meets the constitutional standard the framers intended for impeaching a president.

Starr lamented “an age of impeachment.”

“It’s filled with acrimony and it divides the country like nothing else,” Starr said of impeachment. “Those of us who lived through the Clinton impeachment understand that in a deep and personal way.”

White House attorney Patrick Philbin also cautioned senators against unintended consequences for the Senate if it votes to subpoena new witnesses and documents.

“Whatever this body accepts now as a permissible way to bring an impeachment proceeding to this chamber becomes the new normal,” Philbin said. “And there will be a lot more impeachments coming because it’s a lot easier to do an impeachment if you don’t have to follow due process and can come here and expect the Senate to do the work the House didn’t do.”