WASHINGON — The House is about to send President Donald Trump’s impeachment over to the Senate, setting the stage for a high-profile showdown over just what kind of trial we’ll see. And perhaps the biggest looming question is: Will John Bolton testify?
That question is starting to come into focus. The idea that Senate will quickly dismiss the impeachment articles and move on, as Trump has suggested, apparently isn’t going to happen — which that means we can now turn to other matters like Bolton.
Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, this week became the first to directly indicate he supports Trump’s former national security adviser testifying and would likely vote in favor of it. And despite declining to insist on Bolton’s testimony as part of the trial’s initial rules, two others appear amenable to voting for witnesses like Bolton during the trial. But that would still leave the vote deadlocked at 50-50, with one more GOP senator needed to put Bolton — and other witnesses Democrats desire, like acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney — on the stand.
In other words: It’s on a knife’s edge.
Romney has previously indicated he wants to hear from Bolton, who resisted testifying to the House but says he would in a Senate trial. But now Romney has further clarified (with some wiggle room) that he would likely vote in favor of it.
“I presume I’ll be voting in favor of hearing from John Bolton, perhaps among others,” Romney said. “That could change depending on what happens in the ensuing days and during those arguments.”
The two other most likely crossover votes — Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, — have been even more coy. But they have been working behind the scenes to make sure there will be votes on witnesses.
Murkowski also says in a new interview with a local TV station that she is interested in Bolton’s version of events.
“Am I curious about what Ambassador Bolton would have to say? Yes, I am,” Murkowski said. But she was even less definitive than Romney, saying she didn’t want to “prejudge” the need for Bolton to testify.
Collins has also hinted at wanting people like Bolton to testify, without committing. She said earlier this month, “There are a number of witnesses that may well be appropriate for the Stage 3, of which he would certainly be one. But it’s very difficult to decide that until we go through the first two stages and look at all of the witnesses that each side would like to have if we get to that stage.” She added Friday that “we should be completely open to calling witnesses.”
So at the least, it sounds like these three votes for Bolton testifying are very get-able. And there is virtually no risk of any Democrats voting against Bolton testifying, given Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Doug Jones, D-Ala. — the two Democrats in the reddest states — are firmly onboard.
So that leaves things at 50-50. But you need 51 votes if all 100 senators are voting. Where does the all-important fourth GOP vote come from?
The likeliest sources would seem to be GOP senators who are up for reelection and vulnerable. But Sens. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., and Martha McSally, R-Ariz., have begged off the questions. And Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., seems to be toeing the party line, suggesting the House should have fought for Bolton’s testimony if it wanted to hear it.
“It’s not that I don’t want to hear from him,” he said earlier this month. “I want to hear from him when the House is willing to do their work and have the same agreement with the ambassador on their side of the Hill.”
That echoes what the likes of Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and the Senate’s second-ranking Republican, Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., have said. “I believe you should be constrained by the information that those articles are based on,” Rubio said in coming out early against Bolton’s testimony.
From there, there are a couple retirees, Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., who would seem to have some latitude. Alexander told Politico that he might vote for more witnesses “if I needed to. Or I might not. Or I might.”
“My view is we should hear the case, ask our questions and then have a vote on whether we need to hear additional witnesses or call for additional documents,” he said. “It’s important to have a vote on whether we have witnesses or not.”
For what it’s worth, though, the line from GOP leadership seems to have moved away from the idea that there won’t be a real trial or any witnesses and more toward a kind of tit-for-tat. Bolton won’t testify, they have indicated, without Republicans calling their own desired witnesses — possibly up to and including former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, Hunter Biden.
“I can’t imagine that scenario” where only Bolton testifies, Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., told radio host Hugh Hewitt on Tuesday. The signal to Democrats seems to be: Be careful what you wish for.
Trump, for his part, has also signaled he would fight Bolton testifying — even as he claims to want to hear the testimony. On Friday, Trump indicated he would try to invoke executive privilege over Bolton and others testifying, telling Fox News that “there are things that you can’t do from the standpoint of executive privilege.
“Especially a national security adviser,” Trump added. “You can’t have him explaining all of your statements about national security concerning Russia, China and North Korea — everything. You just can’t do that.”
Exactly how Trump would prevent Bolton’s testimony once a Senate trial begins is not clear. But he seems to be sending the signal to GOP senators that this isn’t something he desires. From there, it’s up to a handful of potentially brave souls to decide if they want to push for it anyway.