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Analysis: John Bolton’s testimony looks increasingly likely

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 4 days ago Aaron Blake
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The House is about to send President Trump’s impeachment to the Senate, setting the stage for a high-profile showdown over just what kind of trial we’ll see. And perhaps the biggest looming question is: Will John Bolton testify?

That question is starting to come into focus. We learned Monday that the Senate isn’t going to have the votes to immediately dismiss the impeachment articles, as Trump has suggested. Now Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) has reportedly come out in favor of holding votes on new witnesses or documents, meaning that those votes should happen.

That means we can now turn to other matters, such as Bolton.

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Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) this week became the first to directly indicate that he supports Trump’s former national security adviser testifying and would likely vote in favor of it. Despite declining to insist on Bolton’s testimony as part of the trial’s initial rules, two others appear amenable to voting for witnesses like Bolton during the trial. But that would still leave the vote deadlocked at 50-50, with one more GOP senator needed to put Bolton — and other witnesses who Democrats desire, such as acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney — on the stand.

In other words: It’s on a knife’s edge.

Romney has previously indicated he wants to hear from Bolton, who resisted testifying to the House but says he would in a Senate trial. But now Romney has further clarified (with some wiggle room) that he would likely vote in favor of it.

“I presume I’ll be voting in favor of hearing from John Bolton, perhaps among others,” Romney said. “That could change depending on what happens in the ensuing days and during those arguments.”

The two other most likely crossover votes — Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) — have been even more coy. But they have been working behind the scenes to make sure there will be votes on witnesses.

Murkowski also says in a new interview with a local TV station she is interested in Bolton’s version of events.

“Am I curious about what Ambassador Bolton would have to say? Yes, I am,” Murkowski said. She was even less definitive than Romney, saying she didn’t want to “prejudge” the need for Bolton to testify.

Collins has also hinted at wanting people like Bolton to testify, without committing. She said earlier this month: “There are a number of witnesses that may well be appropriate for the Stage 3, of which he would certainly be one. … But it’s very difficult to decide that until we go through the first two stages and look at all of the witnesses that each side would like to have if we get to that stage.” She added Friday that “we should be completely open to calling witnesses.”

So at the least, it sounds as though these three votes for Bolton testifying are very get-able. There is virtually no risk of any Democrats voting against Bolton testifying, given that Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Doug Jones (D-Ala.) — the two Democrats in the reddest states — are firmly onboard.

So that leaves things at 50-50. But you need 51 votes if all 100 senators are voting. Where does the all-important fourth GOP vote come from?

The likeliest sources would seem to be GOP senators who are up for reelection and vulnerable. But Sens. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) and Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) have begged off the questions. Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) seems to be toeing the party line, suggesting the House should have fought for Bolton’s testimony if it wanted to hear it.

“It’s not that I don’t want to hear from him,” Tillis said earlier this month. “I want to hear from him when the House is willing to do their work and have the same agreement with the ambassador on their side of the Hill.”

That echoes what the likes of Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) and the Senate’s second-ranking Republican, Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), have said. “I believe you should be constrained by the information that those articles are based on,” Rubio said in coming out early against Bolton’s testimony.

From there, there are two GOP retirees, Alexander and Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.), who would seem to have some latitude.

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It’s tempting to label Alexander the most likely fourth vote, given that he just became the fourth vote (along with the Romney, Collins and Murkowski) in favor of holding the votes on new witnesses. But that could also be explained by Alexander’s institutionalism, and he has indicated he’s still up in the air on Bolton’s or anyone else’s testimony.

For what it’s worth, though, the line from GOP leadership seems to have moved away from the idea that there won’t be a real trial or any witnesses and more toward a kind of tit-for-tat. Bolton won’t testify, they have indicated, without Republicans calling their own desired witnesses — possibly up to and including Joe and Hunter Biden. “I can’t imagine that scenario” in which only Bolton testifies, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) told radio host Hugh Hewitt on Tuesday. The signal to Democrats seems to be: Be careful what you wish for.

Trump, for his part, has also signaled he would fight Bolton’s testifying — even as the president claims to want to hear the testimony. On Friday, Trump indicated he would try to invoke executive privilege over Bolton and others testifying, telling Fox News that “there are things that you can’t do from the standpoint of executive privilege.”

“Especially a national security adviser,” Trump added. “You can’t have him explaining all of your statements about national security concerning Russia, China and North Korea — everything. You just can’t do that.”

Exactly how Trump would prevent Bolton’s testimony once a Senate trial begins is not clear. But the president seems to be sending the signal to GOP senators that this isn’t something he desires. From there, it’s up to a handful of potentially brave souls to decide whether they want to push for it, anyway.

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