Perhaps nothing epitomizes the other-worldliness of the political moment more than folks on the left cheering John Bolton on. Bolton is the man who never saw a war he didn’t like. He is the living embodiment of the neoconservative moment; that time twenty or so years ago when the Project for the New American Century held sway over the Republican Party, bringing Dick Cheney into the White House, and American troops into Iraq and Afghanistan.
Some would argue that the neoconservative moment brought us the Arab Spring, as millions of residents of harsh, dictatorial regimes across the Arab world rose up and — for a moment at least — democracy marched into corners of the globe where it had barely breathed before. Others would argue that the neoconservative moment upset the status quo — however brutal that status quo might have been — and unleashed waves of immigrants across Europe that have now left the European Union itself teetering on the brink. It may take decades before the full impact of neoconservatism can be fairly assessed, but in the meantime — with Dick Cheney settled into retirement in Wyoming, and Bill Kristol and Paul Wolfowitz settled into the Never Trump resistance — John Bolton remains one of its few unvarnished proponents regularly speaking out in the public square.
Donald Trump was right when he suggested the other day that if Bolton had his way, our brief military exchange with Iran would have escalated into a full blown war. Trump has proven to be demonstrably skittish about war, even as he loves posturing and threatening. Indeed, John Bolton surely saw in Trump’s bluster a man who might have been convinced to take on the mullahs and other bad actors across the globe; but in that Bolton miscalculated. Trump, who brought Bolton into the inner sanctum, miscalculated as well. Now, faced with Bolton’s desire to testify and set the record straight, Trump had no choice but to do what Trump does when faced with the exigencies of the moment: he had to take to Twitter to destroy Bolton’s name and reputation. Mano a mano, Trump knows no other way.
The odd thing is, all John Bolton looked to do, if he were to find his way onto the witness stand at Trump’s impeachment trial in the Senate, was to say what everyone already knows: that Donald Trump wanted military aid funds to Ukraine withheld until Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky announced an investigation into Joe and Hunter Biden. There appears to be little more to it than that; except, of course, for the book sales.
It is curious that the Quinnipiac University poll released this week suggested that 75 percent of registered voters believe that witnesses should be allowed to testify in the impeachment trial. And what exactly do they imagine these witnesses would say that we do not already know? Anyone who has been paying attention knows exactly what happened; how they spin it depends on where they sit. The argument over witnesses has become little more than a battle for downstream political advantage; there are no more facts to be unearthed.
It really is that simple; as Donald Trump’s personal attorneys Jay Sekulow and Alan Dershowitz conceded this week during opening arguments. Doug Collins (R-GA), the ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, summed up this state of affairs more than a month ago during the House impeachment hearings, when he commented in exasperation, “What’s amazing… is we don’t even disagree on the facts.” Trump may continue to cling to his perfect phone call riff, but his legal team and much of the GOP moved on some time ago. Did the President hold back military aid for political purposes? Perhaps, Sekulow and Dershowitz conceded, but even if he did, they went on to argue, those types of threats and manipulations are simply not the kind of thing for which a president should be removed from office.
And that may well be the case. Lord knows it is hard to imagine that other Presidents didn’t make similar threats from time to time. Robert Caro’s biography of LBJ, for example, describes a political life built on threats and bullying. It is the nature of politicians — powerful ones, at least — to use leverage where they can find it to their political advantage. While LBJ’s defenders would be quick to point out that he used those tactics largely on behalf of the poorest Americans, whose interests were often given short shrift by the nation’s political elites, Donald Trump’s deeply loyal supporters would no doubt argue the same about him.
As the impeachment trial sputtered toward its inevitable conclusion this week, it was the Ukrainian President himself who gave the full lie to Donald Trump’s earlier defense — the woefully unbelievable notion that Trump was simply seeking to root out corruption in Ukraine — to which many Republican Senators continue to cling. Trump’s Ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, repeatedly poked holes in this argument in his testimony before the House Impeachment Committee last month. Sondland repeatedly emphasized that the President showed little interest in whether President Zelensky’s government actually investigated the Bidens; rather, Trump’s interest was specifically in the announcement of an investigation. It is a nuance to which few paid much heed at the time.
Faced with his own desire for an investigation of cross-border political corruption, President Zelensky did what President Trump would have done from the outset if Trump’s interest really was in investigating corruption. Upon hearing credible information two weeks ago that suggested that Rudy Giuliani and Trump mega-donor Robert Hyde may have orchestrated illegal surveillance of U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, Zelensky immediately announced a criminal probe of Giuliani and Hyde. In doing so, he enlisted the support of the U.S. Department of Justice under the twenty-year-old mutual criminal investigation treaty that commits the two countries to automatically support any such probe that either country chooses to open. Sure enough, within days of Zelensky’s government opening his probe, FBI agents were swarming over Robert Hyde’s Connecticut home.
While Zelensky’s investigation into Guiliani and Hyde barely pierced the all-impeachment-all-the-time news cycle, it warranted greater attention. It has been a long time — perhaps ever — since the United States has been shamed by a model of good-government emanating from the Russian landmass. But there it was: if Donald Trump was actually interested in a corruption probe of the Bidens — as he and his defense team continue to maintain — he did not need to cajole or threaten or bully his Ukrainian counterpart. All he had to do was have the Department of Justice open a probe, and Zelensky and his administration would have been bound by treaty to jump on board. But to this day, no such investigation has ever been opened. Instead, as Gordon Sondland explained, the President had no interest in fighting corruption. His interest was solely in a photo-op and news story that would dominate the news cycle and smear his political rival: Ukraine Opens Corruption Investigation into Joe Biden.
There are no more witnesses needed to point out that simple truth. Republican Senators watching the smarmy smearing of John Bolton fully understand what is going on, just as they understand what was going on in Ukraine. Witnesses or no, they have made their bed; it is only a matter of when the final vote is tallied. But the ironies of the moment should not be overlooked; both that Volodymyr Zelensky — the young president of a struggling democracy — has shamed the United States by showing an American President how things are supposed to be handled in a nation of laws, and that Donald Trump has managed the unlikely feat of turning John Bolton — for a brief moment, anyway — into a Democratic Party hero.
Follow David Paul on Twitter @dpaul. He is working on a book, with a working title of “FedExit! To Save Our Democracy, It’s Time to Let Alabama Be Alabama and Set California Free.”
Artwork by Joe Dworetzky. Check out Joe’s political cartooning at www.jayduret.com. Follow him on Twitter @jayduret or Instagram at @joefaces.