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Bolton willing to defy White House and testify if court clears the way, according to people familiar with his views

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 11/7/2019 Carol Leonnig, Tom Hamburger
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Former national security adviser John Bolton is willing to defy the White House and testify in the House impeachment inquiry about his alarm at the Ukraine pressure campaign if a federal court clears the way, according to people familiar with his views. 

Bolton could be a powerful witness for Democrats: Top State Department and national security officials already have testified that he was deeply concerned about efforts by Trump and his allies to push Ukraine to open investigations into a political rival of the president’s while the Trump administration held up military aid to that country.

The former national security adviser, who abruptly left his post in September, is expected to confirm those witnesses’ statements and describe his conversations with Trump, according to the people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the ongoing inquiry.

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However, Bolton, a longtime GOP foreign policy adviser, does not want to comply with the Democratic inquiry without a court ruling on the ongoing constitutional dispute between the Trump administration and Congress, the people said. 

It remains unclear how quickly that could happen — and whether it would be in time for Bolton to be called as a witness in the public impeachment hearings, which are scheduled to begin next week in the House. On Wednesday, House Democrats said they are awaiting a key test case involving former White House counsel Donald McGahn, in which a decision by a district court could come by the end of this month.

An attorney for Bolton declined to comment.

Bolton is considered a high-value witness in part because, as national security adviser, he would have spoken directly with the president about U.S. foreign policy objectives in Ukraine.

His testimony is expected to be “damaging” to Trump, according to a person familiar with the matter.

But a major obstacle faces Democrats hoping to secure Bolton as a star witness: The court battle over congressional subpoenas will probably go to the Supreme Court and spill into next year.

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While other officials have complied with requests to participate in the impeachment inquiry without such a judicial order, Bolton is not willing to do so, the people said. NBC first reported that Bolton is willing to testify if the courts order his former deputy to comply with a congressional subpoena.

House Democrats requested Bolton’s appearance at a closed-door deposition Thursday, but he did not attend. He has not been issued a subpoena.

A House Intelligence Committee official said that Bolton’s attorney informed the committee that Bolton would go to court if he were subpoenaed.

“We regret Mr. Bolton’s decision not to appear voluntarily, but we have no interest in allowing the administration to play rope-a-dope with us in the courts for months,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the ongoing investigation. “Rather, the White House instruction that he not appear will add to the evidence of the president’s obstruction of Congress.”

The former national security adviser, who repeatedly tussled with Trump on foreign policy, is closely aligned with National Security Council aides who already have testified about his concerns. Among them are the former Russian affairs director Fiona Hill and the Ukraine expert Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman.

Hill told lawmakers that Bolton erupted in anger after a key White House meeting July 10 in which Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, pressed Ukrainian officials to open investigations into former vice president Joe Biden and the 2016 campaign. Bolton is said to have equated the discussions to a “drug deal.”

Bolton directed Hill to report what she had witnessed to John Eisenberg, the top lawyer for the National Security Council. Vindman also reported the episode to Eisenberg.

Bolton is expected to corroborate their testimony that he was aghast that U.S. military aid was being held back as the president and his allies were pressuring Ukraine to open investigations that could be damaging to Democrats, according to the people familiar with his views.

However, the people note that Bolton also has an expansive view of presidential power. As a result, it is unclear whether he would testify that Trump overstepped his constitutional authority in his dealings with Ukraine.

Donald Trump, John R. Bolton are posing for a picture: Then-national security adviser John R. Bolton listens as President Trump meets with Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte in the Oval Office. © Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post Then-national security adviser John R. Bolton listens as President Trump meets with Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte in the Oval Office.

Separately, William B. Taylor Jr., the acting ambassador to Ukraine, testified that Bolton was “very sympathetic” when he expressed concerns to the then-national security adviser that the aid was being withheld, according to a transcript released Wednesday.

Bolton recommended that Taylor send a “first person” cable to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo about his concerns, noting that such cables are rare and would be bound to get attention, Taylor told lawmakers.

Taylor also testified that other State Department officials had told him that Bolton was working to get the aid money for Ukraine released by returning authority over the funds to the secretaries of state and defense and the CIA director.

Now the battle will hinge on getting Bolton to narrate his version of events.

The White House has asserted a broad claim that current or past senior advisers such as Bolton have “absolute immunity” from providing testimony to lawmakers, part of broad resistance by the Trump administration to congressional oversight.

That assertion is being tested in the courts.

Last month, Charles Kupperman, who served as a deputy to Bolton at the National Security Council, filed a lawsuit seeking a judicial ruling on whether he should comply with a congressional subpoena or follow instructions from the White House not to appear. Kupperman’s attorney, Charles Cooper, also represents Bolton.

“It would not be appropriate for a private citizen, like Dr. Kupperman, to unilaterally resolve this momentous constitutional dispute between the two political branches of our government,” Cooper wrote in a letter to the heads of the House committees involved in the impeachment inquiry.

In a court hearing last week, Cooper made clear that if Bolton is subpoenaed, he probably will join Kupperman’s lawsuit.

At Kupperman’s request, U.S. District Judge Richard J. Leon in Washington fast-tracked the case, ordering that final arguments be held Dec. 10.

But on Wednesday afternoon, the House withdrew its subpoena of Kupperman and asked for Kupperman’s lawsuit to be dropped.

House lawyers said that in the interest of speed, they would rely on another case that is further along in judicial proceedings — one involving a subpoena to McGahn, whose testimony was first sought in April after the release of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report.

That case raises similar issues of whether the White House can prevent high-ranking administration officials from testifying before congressional committees.

U.S. District Judge Kentanji Brown Jackson in Washington heard oral arguments in the McGahn case last week and said she probably would issue an opinion before the end of November.

At the hearing, Jackson expressed skepticism about the Trump administration’s claim that Congress cannot compel the former White House counsel and top presidential aides to testify. She called it a “peculiar” argument that threatens to upset the Constitution’s system of checks and balances.

carol.leonnig@washpost.com

tom.hamburger@washpost.com

Anne Gearan, Ann E. Marimow and Spencer S. Hsu contributed to this report.

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