WASHINGTON — The message that John Bolton, President Donald Trump’s former national security adviser, sent supporters of his newly reopened political action committee last week raised as many questions as it answered in a capital consumed by impeachment.
Bolton implicitly criticized Trump’s foreign policy, declaring that “despite all the friendly notes and photo ops, North Korea isn’t our friend and never will be.” But he also wrote that the nation’s security “is under attack from within,” citing “radicalized Democrats.”
The conflicting signals were maddening. After either resigning or being fired last month depending on whose version is to be believed, is Bolton so estranged from Trump that he might provide damaging testimony to House investigators? Or does he share the president’s view of out-of-control Democrats pursuing an illegitimate impeachment out of partisan excess?
The question is more than academic. As the House inquiry enters its second month, there may be no one in Washington that investigators want to question more than Bolton. His name has come up repeatedly in testimony that has depicted him resisting Trump’s Ukraine pressure campaign and warning that Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, was a “hand grenade who’s going to blow everybody up.”
But even as he has been at the center of the discussion during the impeachment inquiry, the outspoken former Fox News commentator has remained uncharacteristically silent. To Democrats who vilified him for years as an ultraconservative warmonger, suddenly Bolton has emerged as a much-sought witness who in the narrative they are assembling may have made a principled stand against Trump’s abuse of power to advance domestic political goals.
“What it says is this is not about competing Republican versus Democratic visions of American foreign policy,” said Rep. Tom Malinowski, D-N.J. “This is about whether our foreign policy should be made in the national interest or in the personal political interests of the president.”
It may take longer for investigators to find out. Bolton shares a lawyer with his former deputy and longtime ally, Charles Kupperman, who went to court on Friday to ask a judge to decide whether he should obey a House subpoena or a White House order to not testify. Bolton presumably might follow the same course.
If and when he does testify, Bolton appears positioned to answer fundamental questions surrounding the events that have led the president to the edge of impeachment. As the national security adviser, Bolton was charged with managing the government’s foreign policy apparatus. Yet Trump and Giuliani worked around Bolton to try to pressure Ukraine to investigate Democrats. At the same time, the president froze $391 million in American assistance to the former Soviet republic.
“According to the testimony given to Congress so far, Bolton was a central figure in trying to prevent any delay in releasing foreign aid to Ukraine,” said John Yoo, a University of Berkeley law school professor and senior Justice Department official under President George W. Bush. “I cannot see how any responsible investigation would not seek Bolton’s appearance.”
But he added that the White House would presumably “go to the mat” to fight any effort to interview Bolton. “If the White House were to fight the House impeachment on executive privilege grounds, Bolton would be the hill on which to die,” Yoo said. “The Trump White House could claim not just that the impeachment investigation is illegitimate, which is its current line of defense, but that it is defending the right of future presidents to have an effective White House and to conduct a successful foreign policy.”
A Yale-trained lawyer, Bolton brought years of experience when Trump made him his third national security adviser in March 2018. Bolton served in both the Justice Department, where he headed the civil division under President Ronald Reagan, and the State Department, where he was an assistant secretary of state under President George H.W. Bush and an undersecretary of state and ambassador to the United Nations under the second Bush.
While Trump appreciated his firebrand style of politics on Fox News, Bolton saw his job as keeping Trump from making unwise deals with outlier states like North Korea or Iran, leading to friction. Bolton struggled with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for control of foreign policy and left just a day before Trump agreed to restore the frozen aid to Ukraine under pressure from Congress.
With his trademark bushy mustache and unapologetic conservative views, Bolton, 70, has built a following on the right, even flirting in the past with running for president himself. His political action committee has donated more than $1.5 million to candidates since 2014 and spent another $6 million to promote his policy views related to national security.
Since leaving Trump’s team last month, Bolton has already identified five Republican senators and congressmen for whom he plans to raise $50,000 each and, as reported by Bloomberg, sent out the solicitation email on Thursday that seemed to provide conflicting clues. He has also rejoined the Rhone Group, a private equity firm where he worked before the White House, and was spotted in South Korea in recent days talking with investors. And he is reportedly thinking about writing a book.
The combination of his pedigree and the possibility that he really does have incriminating information about Trump makes him a particularly appealing witness to Democrats. The prospect of one of the nation’s most visible foreign policy conservatives testifying against his former boss would, in their view, underscore the significance of Trump’s transgressions.
But some Democrats warn that they cannot be sure what he will say once he sits for an interview. “You just can’t work from assumptions,” said Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., a member of the House Intelligence Committee. “I don’t know what he had. I don’t know if he has value. I don’t know if he is willing to talk about it.”
The president’s defenders dismiss the idea that Bolton could hurt Trump. “I don’t care what Bolton says,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a close ally of the president’s, said on Fox News on Thursday. If the Ukrainians did not know the president had held up their aid when he was pressing them to investigate Democrats, Graham said, there is no impeachable offense. “You can’t have a crime unless you have a victim. There is no victim here.”
Democrats disagree with that logic, saying it can still be an impeachable offense to pressure a foreign power to provide dirt on a political opponent regardless of when the Ukrainians knew about the suspension of the assistance. Moreover, The New York Times, citing interviews and documents, reported that in fact word of the aid freeze had gotten to high-level Ukrainian officials by the first week in August, earlier than previously known.
Bolton has hired Charles J. Cooper, one of Washington’s best-known lawyers and a colleague and friend since the Reagan administration, when Cooper was an assistant attorney general. Cooper, whose firm’s motto is “victory or death,” also represented former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, another Trump adviser who fell out with the president.
According to testimony presented so far, Bolton bristled at efforts by Giuliani to bypass the national security process as he pressured Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and a conspiracy theory that Ukrainians, not Russians, intervened in the 2016 election, and did so to boost Democrats, not Republicans. Trump’s former homeland security adviser repeatedly told the president that the theory had been “completely debunked.”
Bolton met on July 10 with Ukrainian officials and Gordon Sondland, a political appointee serving as ambassador to the European Union, who was working with Giuliani and Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, on the issue. When the investigations came up, Bolton grew so irritated that he abruptly ended the meeting, according to Fiona Hill, his former top Europe and Russia adviser.
Hill testified that Bolton told her to report what was going on to a White House lawyer. “I am not part of whatever drug deal Sondland and Mulvaney are cooking up,” he told her to tell the lawyer. She also testified that, on an earlier occasion, Bolton said, “Giuliani’s a hand grenade who’s going to blow everybody up.”
Bolton unsuccessfully sought to block Mulvaney’s effort to arrange an Oval Office visit in May by Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary, an authoritarian leader whose criticism of Ukraine reinforced Trump’s already hostile views toward the country. Bolton likewise opposed the July 25 telephone call in which Trump pressed President Volodymyr Zelenskiy of Ukraine to “do us a favor” by investigating the 2016 conspiracy theory and Biden.
Bolton went to Ukraine on Aug. 27 to try to prepare for a meeting between the president and Zelenskiy that ultimately did not happen. While there, William B. Taylor Jr., the acting ambassador to Ukraine, said he raised his concerns about the frozen aid and Bolton recommended he send a cable to Pompeo.
But Mulvaney and Sondland have said that Bolton never brought any concerns about the Ukraine pressure campaign to them.
“I read that and I was surprised, because John Bolton never complained to me about it,” Mulvaney said on “Fox News Sunday” last weekend. “No one at NSC ever complained to me about anything that was going on.”
Sondland testified that Bolton embraced their efforts during a conference call in June. “We went over the entire Ukraine strategy with Ambassador Bolton, who agreed with the strategy and signed off on it,” Sondland said. “Indeed, over the spring and summer of 2019, I received nothing but cordial responses from Ambassador Bolton and Dr. Hill.”
So now Bolton has been left in the middle, a key witness in the unfolding impeachment drama. His friend, Thomas M. Boyd, an assistant attorney general in the Reagan and Bush administrations, said Bolton understands his obligations to guard the confidentiality of communications with the president but will also be prepared to give his unvarnished views if it comes to it.
“I just don’t think that he’s in an awkward position at all,” said Boyd. “He’s very comfortable in his own skin and whatever decisions he’s made or plans to make, I’m sure he’s comfortable with them as well.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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