(Bloomberg Opinion) -- You can’t say that President Donald Trump’s impeachment-defense team is too focused on the news cycle. Despite the John Bolton bombshell Sunday night, Trump’s lawyers on Monday plowed ahead as if nothing of interest had happened since the Senate heard the beginning of their presentations on Saturday.
This created something of a bizarro-world trial, in which the president’s lawyers argued that none of the witnesses who testified at House impeachment hearings last month had first-hand evidence that could directly tie Trump to the effort to squeeze help for his 2020 re-election campaign from the government of Ukraine. Yes, the lawyers contended, some of the witnesses believed that Trump was holding up a White House meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and congressionally approved security aid to Ukraine until that nation announced investigations into the 2016 election and a leading Democratic rival, former Vice President Joe Biden, but none of them had heard it from the president.
And yet even before the New York Times reported over the weekend that former National Security Adviser John Bolton has written in an upcoming book that he heard Trump make the link directly, acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney had attested in an October press conference to exactly that kind of quid pro quo (a few days later he said he’d been misconstrued, but please). Indeed, since the president’s team is fighting hard to prevent either Bolton or Mulvaney from testifying to the Senate after successfully preventing either of them from appearing before the House committees that looked into impeachment, they’re actually doing more than ignoring the evidence: They’re actively suppressing it. And the Trump case also requires ignoring — or, perhaps, creatively interpreting — all the rest of the available evidence, including things that Trump has said publicly and things Trump said to Zelenskiy.
After that, the Trump lawyers turned to where they always were headed: To attacking Biden, the current polling leader for the Democratic presidential nomination. Generating bad publicity for Biden was one of the two major goals of the Trump-Ukraine plot (along with somehow recasting the story of Russian interference with the 2016 U.S. election). If it couldn’t happen by pushing Ukraine’s president to announce a criminal investigation of Biden, they would have to settle for doing it during the impeachment trial.
Speaking of bizarro world, two of Trump’s lawyers — Pam Bondi and Eric Herschmann — hauled out the video clip in which Biden bragged in 2018 that while he was vice president, he helped engineer the firing of a Ukrainian prosecutor, Victor Shokin. Republicans have waded disingenuously into that tangled tale to accuse Biden of trying to thwart a Ukrainian investigation into the activities of his son, Hunter, as a board member of a Ukrainian energy company. The truth is the opposite: Shokin was pushed out under unified pressure from U.S. and European officials because he wasn’t pursuing corruption investigations.Still, at the impeachment trial Herschmann ridiculed the idea that it could ever have been U.S. policy to push Shokin out. In fact, of course, it was U.S. and international policy, with support from plenty of Republicans at the time. Making that argument, at this point, was simply an insult to everyone’s intelligence.
Now let’s journey back from the bizarro world to the real one. It’s still too early to tell, but it seems likely that the Bolton revelation has shifted the ground enough to throw a wrench into the Senate Republican leadership’s plan to quickly end the trial without allowing further evidence to be introduced. Two GOP senators, Maine’s Susan Collins and Utah’s Mitt Romney, cited Bolton on Monday morning as they came closer than they had in the past to actively pushing for witnesses. And Pennsylvania Republican Pat Toomey is apparently seeking a deal in which both sides would get to call a witness.
If that happens, it will demonstrate — again — that the cynics are wrong, and that Republicans are not automatically in lockstep at all times. That doesn’t mean that the verdict is in doubt; it doesn’t even mean that Trump will necessarily lose any votes at the end of the trial.
On the other hand? It still seems to me that to the extent that the House impeachment managers serving as trial prosecutors put the question of witnesses front and center, they are providing an opportunity for Collins and other politically vulnerable Republican senators to find a middle ground. That’s not where too many politicians want to be these days, but for those who do want it, all they have to do is courageously stand up to Trump on the vote for further evidence before they eventually vote to acquit. No resolution of the witness question is likely until Friday at the earliest, but it’s starting to look to me as though some Republicans will be looking for that middle ground after all.
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Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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