Dis­cred­it­ing Bolton won’t be easy for pres­i­dent’s team

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - COMMENTARY - By Jonah Goldberg Jonah Goldberg is ed­i­tor-in-chief of The Dis­patch and the host of The Rem­nant pod­cast. His Twit­ter han­dle is @Jon­ahDis­patch.

“I’m with the Bush-Cheney team, and I’m here to stop the count.”

Those words were bel­lowed by John Bolton in a Tal­la­has­see li­brary in De­cem­ber 2000, when he was part of a team of Repub­li­can lawyers try­ing to stop the Florida re­count of votes cast in the pres­i­den­tial race be­tween Ge­orge W. Bush and Al Gore.

Un­til now, it was the most fa­mous ut­ter­ance Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s for­mer na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser had ever made. That’s about to change with the loom­ing pub­li­ca­tion of his book, due out in March, about serv­ing in the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion. It’s even vaguely pos­si­ble Mr. Bolton could make an ap­pear­ance in Mr. Trump’s im­peach­ment trial this week.

Still, it’s worth con­sid­er­ing the irony of Mr. Bolton’s ear­lier words. The Bush-Gore Florida re­count wasn’t the be­gin­ning of our di­vided times, but it was a ma­jor in­flec­tion point. It pushed the in­ter­nal combustion en­gine of par­ti­san­ship into a higher gear, and we’ve never re­ally revved back down. Now, Mr. Bolton is in the strange po­si­tion of not fit­ting com­fort­ably on ei­ther side of the par­ti­san di­vide.

The gist of Mr. Bolton’s story is that the pres­i­dent’s story is not true. Ac­cord­ing to an ac­count of the book’s con­tents re­ported in the New York Times, Mr. Bolton heard Mr. Trump say he was with­hold­ing aid to the Ukraini­ans pend­ing an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into Joe Bi­den and other Democrats. (One won­ders who these other Democrats were.)

The Times story says the book also con­tra­dicts state­ments about who knew what and when in­side the ad­min­is­tra­tion, no doubt caus­ing heart­burn for act­ing White House chief of staff Mick Mul­vaney, At­tor­ney Gen­eral Wil­liam Barr, Sec­re­tary of State Mike Pom­peo, off-book fixer Rudy Gi­u­liani and, of course, all of the GOP sen­a­tors de­ter­mined to avoid hear­ing from wit­nesses in the im­peach­ment trial.

The re­sponse from Trump World is pre­dictable. Mr. Bolton is a dis­grun­tled liar, bit­ter over be­ing fired and des­per­ate to sell books. I have no doubt Mr. Bolton, a for­mer col­league of mine at the Amer­i­can En­ter­prise In­sti­tute, is dis­grun­tled. I’m also sure he very much wants to sell books. But I don’t buy the ly­ing part.

Mr. Bolton may be many of the things his de­trac­tors claim, but he’s also an in­cred­i­bly adept lawyer and bu­reau­cratic in­fighter. On dif­fer­ent oc­ca­sions when Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil staffers Fiona Hill and Tim Mor­ri­son were dis­mayed by what the pres­i­dent was up to with Ukraine, Mr. Bolton’s ad­vice was to “tell the lawyers” (in Mor­ri­son’s words).

The no­tion that Bolton, a le­gendary note-taker, would vol­un­teer to tes­tify (if sub­poe­naed) only to per­jure him­self is ab­surd. That he would make false al­le­ga­tions in a book with­out con­tem­po­ra­ne­ous cor­rob­o­ra­tion seems far-fetched as well. There’s only one way to know, though: Have Mr. Bolton tell his ver­sion un­der oath.

As of this writ­ing, the ink on the of­fi­cial “De­stroy Bolton” nar­ra­tive hasn’t dried yet, but an early con­tender is the charge that this is all just a re­play of the tac­tics Democrats used to try to de­rail Brett Ka­vanaugh’s Supreme Court nom­i­na­tion. Pro­mot­ing his new pod­cast, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas tweeted, “Last week we had Lev Par­nas on Mad­dow & ‘se­cret tapes’; this week, the ‘Bolton rev­e­la­tions.’ It’s the same ap­proach Dems & me­dia fol­lowed dur­ing the Ka­vanaugh hear­ing.”

Ex­cept it’s not at all. The only thing sim­i­lar about the two con­tro­ver­sies is that new al­le­ga­tions kept in­con­ve­nienc­ing politi­cians who wanted to move on. By that stan­dard, nearly ev­ery un­fold­ing Washington scan­dal is like the Ka­vanaugh hear­ings.

Putting aside the hi­lar­ity of John “Stop the Count” Bolton be­ing a will­ing pawn of the Democrats, there were no recorded tele­phone calls con­firm­ing el­e­ments of the al­le­ga­tions against Mr. Ka­vanaugh. None of the Ka­vanaugh ac­cu­sa­tions had the sort of cor­rob­o­ra­tion and ma­te­rial ev­i­dence al­ready in the public record in the im­peach­ment case. And Mr. Trump’s for­mer na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser isn’t re­ly­ing on a decades-old un­ver­i­fi­able rec­ol­lec­tion, but on his mem­ory of events from a few months ago.

The big­gest dif­fer­ence be­tween how the Se­nate han­dled the Ka­vanaugh smear cam­paign and how it’s han­dling the im­peach­ment case is this: With Mr. Ka­vanaugh, Se­nate Repub­li­cans bent over back­ward to hear from wit­nesses; with Mr. Trump, they’ve gone into a de­fen­sive crouch to avoid it. And that may not be enough any longer.

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