Reporting sheds surprising new light on Trump's directives to Bolton

According to John Bolton, Trump first directed him to help with the illegal Ukraine scheme in May. That matters for a whole bunch of reasons.
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By Steve Benen

As recently as last week, the heart of Donald Trump's defense in the Ukraine scandal was simple: the president did not make military aid to Ukraine conditional on investigations into his domestic rivals. That assertion was shredded earlier this week, when the New York Times reported on former White House National Security Adviser John Bolton's as-yet-unpublished book in which he says Trump told him in August about the scheme.

The Times advanced the story further this afternoon, with a new report on Bolton's book in which he says the president first directed him to help with the illegal scheme in May.

Mr. Trump gave the instruction, Mr. Bolton wrote, during an Oval Office conversation in early May that included the acting White House chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, the president's personal lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani and the White House counsel, Pat A. Cipollone, who is now leading the president's impeachment defense.

Mr. Trump told Mr. Bolton to call Volodymyr Zelensky, who had recently won election as president of Ukraine, to ensure Mr. Zelensky would meet with Mr. Giuliani, who was planning a trip to Ukraine to discuss the investigations that the president sought, in Mr. Bolton's account. Mr. Bolton never made the call, he wrote.

This is important for any number of reasons, not the least of which is that Bolton's version of events, if accurate, further reinforces the increasingly obvious fact that Trump did exactly what he's accused of doing -- engaging in actions Republicans used to consider scandalous -- and the president lied about it.

What's more, today's reporting seems to scramble the timeline in surprising ways. It's never been altogether clear exactly when Trump hatched his Ukraine scheme, and during the Senate impeachment trial's Q&A, his legal defense team wouldn't shed additional light on the specific calendar. But if Bolton's right and he received his first presidential directive on this in May, it suggests the plot was hatched much earlier than previously believed.

But then there's that other detail: those in the room with Trump and Bolton during the alleged May meeting.

According to this new reporting, Mulvaney was there -- further reinforcing his importance as a witness who should testify -- and so was Cipollone, who's spent the last couple of weeks on the Senate floor as a member of the president's legal defense team.

Or put another way, if Bolton's right, one of Trump's impeachment lawyers may, at a minimum, also be a fact witness implicated in the larger controversy.

In theory, this report should jolt the debate on Capitol Hill, and senators should be even more eager to hear directly from Bolton under oath. In practice, nearly all Republicans appear to have decided Trump's guilt is no longer of interest, and the votes to call Bolton to testify appear unlikely to materialize.

MORE: Today's Maddowblog