House Democrats are torn about whether they should call in former National Security Adviser John Bolton to testify following the acquittal of President Donald Trump in the Senate’s impeachment trial.
The prospect of hauling Bolton before the House has come front and center after he dangled the tantalizing possibility of respecting a Senate subpoena compelling his testimony. Senate Democrats had made the push for Bolton’s testimony and other new evidence the centerpiece of the trial. But not enough Republicans voted to hear from him, meaning that a key figure—one who was in the middle of Trump’s efforts to dig up dirt on the Bidens in Ukraine—never ended up telling his story.
With Trump now acquitted and his office secure, House investigators could still issue their own subpoena. And many Democrats believe it remains vital that he testify about what he witnessed during the administration’s push to withhold U.S. security aid until Ukraine investigated Trump’s political rivals.
But there’s a fear among some Democrats that Bolton is primarily seeking to capitalize on the spotlight in order to promote his forthcoming tell-all book. What’s more, some key lawmakers believe Bolton’s account is no longer essential.
“John Bolton’s gonna come in front of us and say, the President said, don’t give out the aid until there’s an investigation,” Rep. Jim Himes (D-CT), a member of the Intelligence Committee, told The Daily Beast.“I don’t really believe we’re going to learn a lot more from John Bolton. I want to know what the hell Rudy Giuliani was doing, I want to know why Mike Pompeo didn’t stand up much more… I’m not saying I don’t want to hear from Bolton, I’m just saying, Bolton will tell us what we already know. And he will do it in a way mainly designed to sell his book.”
Himes’ skepticism isn’t shared throughout the party. But Democratic leadership has notably not made any overt moves that suggest imminent plans to issue a subpoena for Bolton in the 24 hours since Trump’s acquittal. Instead, they’ve signaled a desire to regroup, take a post-impeachment breather, and focus on other topics. All of which has contributed to a curious outcome: that the House might hold off on using its power to get answers to significant lingering questions about the conduct at the heart of the articles of impeachment against the president.
While key figures in the party aren’t ruling out the possibility of a Bolton subpoena— Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-NY) ventured on Wednesday it would be “likely”—most don’t seem to be salivating at the prospect. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) told reporters on Thursday that while oversight of the president would continue, there are currently no plans to subpoena Bolton.
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), the leader of the impeachment inquiry, told MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow on Wednesday night that his Intelligence Committee reached out to Bolton’s attorney when the Senate witness vote failed and asked if he would be willing to submit a sworn affidavit describing what he saw. Schiff said that Bolton refused.
And Schiff added that “there’s been absolutely no decision made,” about a subpoena. Representatives for Bolton did not respond to a request for comment.
Among House Democrats, there’s broad consensus that the party needs to be careful in the steps it takes following Trump’s acquittal. Many in the caucus, especially those lawmakers in competitive districts that took risky votes to impeach Trump, want to move on to issues like infrastructure and health care and leave impeachment behind. But some lawmakers can’t see how Democrats would proceed without making an honest effort to hear from Bolton after having made the case that Trump’s conduct was fundamentally unconstitutional and disqualifying for holding the presidency.
“I think there’s a very strong sentiment that the Congress and the American people are owed Bolton’s testimony,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD), a Judiciary Committee member. “If he has something to say, then we should hear it.”
A co-chair of the Progressive Caucus, Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI), told reporters on Thursday, “I hope we subpoena him.”
Others, like Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) said that lawmakers should wait to see what’s in Bolton’s forthcoming book—slated for release in March—and then proceed. “My gut tells me, just as a lawyer, wait for that, so that if you do bring him in, you have the content of the book to examine him on,” said Cicilline.
During the House impeachment inquiry, Democrats requested testimony from Bolton, who refused those requests. His lawyer, who also represented Bolton’s deputy Charles Kupperman, said his clients wanted the courts to resolve whether they would be in a position to testify to Congress without violating confidentiality privileges owed to the president. Democrats chose to withdraw a subpoena for Kupperman, and ice one for Bolton, rather than pause their impeachment inquiry until a possibly lengthy court battle was resolved.
During the Senate trial, the White House defense team and congressional Republicans pointed to that as a key reason for senators to vote against subpoenaing Bolton—arguing that Democrats had their chance to get them under oath and declined.
When the trial concluded and questions immediately arose about the House’s plans for Bolton, those same Republicans had a bemused response to the chatter.
“Knock yourself out,” quipped Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) on Wednesday. “They're going to have to litigate that in the court—something they didn't do in the impeachment inquiry. But that’s their prerogative.”
Indeed, the White House would almost certainly file a lawsuit to block Bolton from testifying if the House ultimately did issue a subpoena. That would set up what could be a months-long court battle over whether he could testify.
Without the political time bomb of impeachment, however, Democrats feel no rush. If the Republican Party refrain during impeachment was to let voters decide whether Trump’s conduct warranted his removal from office, Democrats view part of their oversight mandate as unearthing more information about that conduct before voters so they can make a decision more fully.
“If there’s wrongdoing there’s wrongdoing, it doesn’t matter when you find it out,” said Rep. Mike Quigley (D-IL), a member of the Intelligence Committee. “At the very least, you have the responsibility to share that with the American people, and then they can use that to factor in their decision, who to vote for. That seems to me a fair compromise.”