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Bolton book adds pressure

WASHINGTON — Senators faced mounting pressure Monday to summon John Bolton to testify at President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial even as Trump’s lawyers brushed past extraordinary new allegations from Trump’s former national security adviser and focused instead on corruption in Ukraine and historical arguments for acquittal.

Outside the Senate chamber, Republicans grappled with claims in a forthcoming book from Bolton that Trump had wanted to withhold military aid from Ukraine until it committed to helping with investigations into Democratic rival Joe Biden. That assertion could undercut a key defense argument — that Trump never tied the suspension of security aid to political investigations.

The revelation clouded White House hopes for a swift end to the impeachment trial, fueling Democratic demands for witnesses and possibly pushing more Republican lawmakers to agree. It also distracted from hours of arguments from Trump’s lawyers, who declared anew that no witness has testified to direct knowledge that Trump’s delivery of aid was contingent on investigations into Democrats. Bolton appeared poised to say exactly that if called on by the Senate to appear.

“We deal with transcript evidence, we deal with publicly available information,” attorney Jay Sekulow said. “We do not deal with speculation.”

Trump is charged with abusing his presidential power by asking Ukraine’s leader to help investigate Biden at the same Trump was ordering that millions of dollars in aid be withheld. A second charge accuses Trump of obstructing Congress in its probe.

Trump’s legal team on Monday launched a wide-ranging attack on the entire impeachment process. They said there was no basis to remove him from office, defended his actions as appropriate and assailed Biden, who is campaigning for the Democratic nomination to oppose Trump in November.

The lawyers focused particular attention on Biden and his son, Hunter, who served on the board of a Ukraine gas company at the same time his father was leading the Obama administration’s diplomatic dealings with Kyiv. They argued that Trump had legitimate reasons to be suspicious of the younger Biden’s business dealings and concerned about corruption in Ukraine and that, in any event, he ultimately released the aid without Ukraine committing to investigations the president wanted.

Democrats say Trump did so only after a whistleblower submitted a complaint about the situation.

Trump has sought, without providing evidence, to implicate the Bidens in the kind of corruption that has long plagued Ukraine.

Ken Starr, whose independent counsel investigation into President Bill Clinton resulted in his impeachment — Clinton was acquitted by the Senate — bemoaned what he said was an “age of impeachment.”

Impeachment, he said, requires both an actual crime and a “genuine national consensus” that the president must go. Neither exists here, Starr said.

“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.”

Even as defense lawyers laid out their case as planned, it was clear that Bolton’s book had scrambled the debate over whether to seek witnesses. Bolton writes that Trump told him he wanted to withhold security aid from Ukraine until it helped him with investigations. Trump’s legal team has insisted otherwise, and Trump tweeted Monday that he never told Bolton such a thing.

Republican senators face a pivotal moment. Pressure is mounting for at least four to buck GOP leaders and form a bipartisan majority to force the issue. Republicans hold a 53-47 majority.

“John Bolton’s relevance to our decision has become increasingly clear,” GOP Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah told reporters. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine said she has always wanted “the opportunity for witnesses” and the report about Bolton’s book “strengthens the case.”

At a private GOP lunch, Romney made the case for calling Bolton, according to a person unauthorized to discuss the meeting and granted anonymity.

Other Republicans, including Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, said if Trump’s former national security adviser is called they will demand reciprocity to hear from at least one of their witnesses. Some Republicans want to call the Bidens.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell appeared unmoved by news of the Bolton book. His message at the lunch, said Indiana GOP Sen. Mike Braun, was, “Take a deep breath, and let’s take one step at a time.”

Once the president’s team wraps its arguments no later than today, senators have 16 hours for questions to both sides. By late in the week, they are expected to hold a vote on whether or not to hear from any witnesses.

While Democrats say Bolton’s revelations are reminiscent of the Watergate drip of new information, Republicans are counting on concerns subsiding by the time senators are asked to vote. They are being told that if there is agreement to summon Bolton, the White House will resist, claiming executive privilege. That would launch a weeks-long court battle that could drag out the impeachment trial, a scenario some GOP senators would rather avoid.

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