Bolton news creates straightforward test for GOP in impeachment trial

Much of the GOP is prepared to continue to toe the party line, but those in pursuit of the truth don't need much. Two more GOP votes ought to do the trick.
Get the Msnbc newsletter.
SUBSCRIBE
By Steve Benen

At the heart of Donald Trump's legal defense in his impeachment trial is a straightforward claim: the president did not withhold military aid to Ukraine in order to coerce officials in Kyiv into targeting his domestic rivals. Former White House National Security Advisor John Bolton appears to have a first-hand account that exposes the defense as a lie.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), who's leading the House impeachment effort, said this morning that the news has left senators in a difficult position. "They've just learned there's a key witness going to the heart of the allegations," the impeachment manager told CNN. "The question they have to answer is: Do they want to hear the truth? ... I think all the senators are now really hard-pressed to turn him away."

A handful of Senate Republicans appear to be thinking along these lines.

A pair of moderate Republican senators said Monday that the major revelations from a soon-to-be released book from former national security adviser John Bolton have strengthened the case for calling witnesses in President Donald Trump's impeachment trial.

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, said it's "increasingly likely" there will be enough Republican senators to vote in favor of calling witnesses in the president's ongoing trial.... Another moderate Republican senator, Susan Collins of Maine, tweeted out a statement saying the "reports about John Bolton's book strengthen the case for witnesses and have prompted a number of conversations among my colleagues."

In all likelihood, it would only take four GOP senators to break party ranks and bring Bolton to the Senate to testify. There now appears to be two Republicans on board, which means the search is on for two more.

It's worth noting for context that as the first week of the Senate trial came to a close, the conventional wisdom was that the fight over possible witnesses was moving in a direction the White House liked. By most accounts, the votes for new testimony simply weren't there and Democratic demands were likely to be ignored by the chamber's GOP majority.

The news about Bolton appears to have maybe -- maybe -- changed the direction of the prevailing winds. A senior Republican official told the Washington Post overnight that the odds of depositions for new testimony are "certainly rising dramatically."

That said, they're far from 100%.

Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) noted overnight that "under normal circumstances," the Bolton news "would cause senators to unanimously request to hear from those with first-hand knowledge of what the president did."

Unanimity, however, is in short supply. Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) suggested a degree of indifference to the news. Sens. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas) argued that Bolton is simply engaging in a marketing scheme "to sell books." (If that were true, senators could subpoena him, force him to testify under oath, and challenge his motives.)

Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.), the #2 GOP leader in chamber, said the Bolton news doesn't "change the facts," which might be the strangest response to date: it suggests Thune already has reason to believe Trump lied about the White House's extortion scheme.

There have been several reports this morning that Senate Republicans felt "blindsided" by the Bolton story and pressed the White House for some kind of explanation. Those reports are very easy to believe. What's less clear, however, is what, if anything, those same senators intend to do about it.

By most accounts, much of the GOP is prepared to continue to toe the party line, but those in pursuit of the truth don't need much. Two more Senate Republicans ought to do the trick.

MORE: Today's Maddowblog