Does John Bolton Really Matter?

The New York Times published a report Sunday evening about what former National Security Advisor John Bolton knew about Ukraine-gate. Naturally, the report has created a firestorm with Democrats loudly doubling down on their claim that Bolton needs to testify in the Senate trial. But, does he?

The key portion of the Times’ reporting on Bolton’s memoir, which it described as “explosive”, is in the opening two paragraphs:

President Trump told his national security adviser in August that he wanted to continue freezing $391 million in security assistance to Ukraine until officials there helped with investigations into Democrats including the Bidens, according to an unpublished manuscript by the former adviser, John R. Bolton.

The president’s statement as described by Mr. Bolton could undercut a key element of his impeachment defense: that the holdup in aid was separate from Mr. Trump’s requests that Ukraine announce investigations into his perceived enemies, including former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and his son Hunter Biden, who had worked for a Ukrainian energy firm while his father was in office.

No amount of spin from Team Trump can change the fact that, politically speaking, this is bad news for Trump. Nobody can accuse Bolton of being a Never Trumper or some left-wing bureaucrat pretending to be a non-partisan civil servant. But those are electoral concerns, impeachment is another matter entirely.

Of the two charges Trump stands accused of, the one that deals with abuse of power is the more damning and significant. The problem for pro-impeachers is that abuse of power requires not just action, but motive. Without motive, you are left with simply bad policy, which is why one of the biggest mistake for Democrats and pro-impeachment commentators have made is focusing so heavily on the triangular relationship of the United States, Ukraine, and Russia. Their inability to separate the policy from the Constitutional questions is why most Americans are not emotionally invested in this process.

If it is true that somebody who spoke directly to the president on many occasions alleges that aid was directly tied to “investigations into Democrats including the Bidens” that is bad news for Trump on the political front, but it will not move the needle on the impeachment front.

For Republicans to begin deserting Trump, Bolton would have to provide evidence that Trump not only sought to have Ukraine investigate “Democrats including the Bidens” but that the sole motive behind the scheme was to advance his own political fortunes.

This will be almost impossible, because of what we know about Trump and his foreign policy worldview.

Pro-impeachers ignore this and just assume that because, according to them, Trump is a bad guy who does bad things, it is self-evident that he wanted the Ukrainian government to act as an extension of his opposition research arm.

Their evidence for this has been to ask anti-impeachers “When else has Trump ever cared about corruption? Did he suspend aid to Israel with Netanyahu under indictment? If he cares so much about corruption why does he chum it up with Putin?”

Because Trump will not allow a tactical retreat from “no quid pro quo” to “yes, there was a quid pro quo, but there was nothing wrong with it,” most anti-impeachers have a difficult time answering this. To which pro-impeachers reply “Gotcha, because he doesn’t care about corruption. It’s obvious this was all just a shakedown operation to get Biden.”

It’s a compelling argument, but Trump’s insistence of no retreat need not hide that there’s a counter-example. There are two things we know about Trump, Ukraine, and foreign policy and the decision to hold the aid fits in with Trump’s view of the world.

First, we know Trump feels slighted by Ukraine. He believes Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election for the purposes of helping Hillary Clinton. Similarly, we also know that he believes “Ukraine is a corrupt country” and that “We are pissing away our money.”

Second, we also know that Trump believes in what he calls an “America First” foreign policy. His interpretation of what this means is to wonder what a far-flung conflict between X and Y has to do with us. As far as Ukraine being an ally, he has consistently questioned the value of alliances (and unlike NATO, Ukraine is not a treaty ally), alleging that we do not get anything in return as we do most, if not all, of the heavy lifting when it comes to spending (he referenced this in the now-infamous July 25 phone call when he called out the Europeans for not doing their share).

Here is why pro-impeachers obsession with Russia policy undermines their case. Maybe Trump is wrong about Ukraine, after all, CrowdStrike is a conspiracy theory and Ukrainian interference in 2016 is over-exaggerated. Maybe he was wrong about Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch. Maybe he is wrong about the value of alliances (he is). But, that does not prove abuse of power.

If Trump honestly believes that there was an alliance between the previous Ukrainian administration and the Democratic Party, then why wouldn’t he ask the new Ukrainian administration, that rode into office an anti-corruption platform, to look into that? Do Democrats get a free pass just because a Republican is president?

You and I may look at that and say’s that’s absurd, but we know Trump can be petty and vindictive, so it’s perfectly reasonable that may be what he really believes, especially if he’s getting all sorts of bad advice from people like Rudy Giuliani. Getting bad advice is not abuse of power.

Your and my definition of the national interest is not sacred text. This is why Barack Obama was not impeached for the infamous hot mic comments with Dmitry Medvedev where he appeared to be putting his electoral interest over what many of us considered to be the national interest.

The question now is if Bolton testifies, what will he say that’s any different than the those who already testified in front of the House committees? Based on this NYT reporting, not much. Ultimately to prove abuse of power, you have to get insider the defendant's head and so far all the evidence we have of Trump’s inner thoughts indicate that the Bidens got caught up in the dragnet of an anti-Ukraine narrative spun by people like Giuliani, not that they were specifically targeted. They just happened to be the most high-profile and more famous than say, Alexandra Chalupa.

To any Democrats who might be reading it, consider this. The reason why Hillary Clinton has never been charged with corruption for all the controversies surrounding her and the Clinton Foundation is because while conservatives look at the two and see an obvious connection between donations and Senate votes or decisions taken as secretary of state, a prosecutor could never get inside her head to prove it. That is because in a free country, bad policy-making should not be considered criminal or impeachable.

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Writing about politics and other interesting things. Contributing Writer to NewsBusters. Member of YAF’s National Journalism Center’s Spring 2019 class.

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Alex Christy

Alex Christy

Writing about politics and other interesting things. Contributing Writer to NewsBusters. Member of YAF’s National Journalism Center’s Spring 2019 class.

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