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Transcript: The Bolton Facctor

The full episode transcript for Article II: Inside Impeachment, The Bolton Factor.
Image: National Security Advisor John Bolton adjusts his glasses as U.S. President Donald Trump speaks while meeting with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in the Oval Office
National Security Advisor John Bolton adjusts his glasses as U.S. President Donald Trump speaks while meeting with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in the Oval Office, April 2, 2019.Joshua Roberts / Reuters file


Article II: Inside Impeachment

The Bolton Factor

Chaplain Barry C. Black: And the truth shall make you free. And lord, thank you for giving our chief justice another birthday (LAUGHTER) Amen.

Senate Chamber: Amen.

Chief Justice Roberts: The majority leader is recognized.

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell: As the chaplain's indicated, on behalf of all of us, happy birthday. I'm sure this is exactly how you planned to celebrate the day.

Chief Justice: Well, thank you very much for those kind wishes. And thank you to all the senators for not asking for the yeas and nays. (LAUGHTER) Pursuant to the provisions of Senate Resolution 483--

Steve Kornacki: From NBC News, this is Article II: Inside Impeachment. I'm Steve Kornacki. Today is Monday, January 27th, and here's what's happening.

Ken Starr: Indeed, we are living in what I think can happily be described as the age of impeachment.

Kornacki: President Donald Trump's legal team continued its defense today in the Senate impeachment trial. But these opening arguments are being overshadowed by a major development.

Ari Melber: The New York Times reporting ousted National Security Advisor John Bolton has receipts.

Kristen Welke: Reporting President Trump did in fact direct him to withhold aid to Ukraine in exchange for investigations into the Democrats and Joe Biden.

Guthrie: There's new pressure this morning to call former National Security Advisor John Bolton to testify.

Ari Melber: They're stepping up their calls for Bolton to be witness number one.

Kornacki: Last week, Republicans were confident the trial would wrap up quickly. Now, it's not so clear. Today, on Article II, we're asking: How are these allegations by John Bolton affecting the White House defense and the possibility that witnesses may be called? Shannon Pettypiece is a senior White House reporter for NBC. Shannon, thank you for bein' part of the show.

Shannon Pettypiece: Sure. Glad to be here.

Kornacki: So, opening day. Really, the second opening day. I guess the first one counts as a half-day for the Trump legal defense team on Saturday. They had a relatively brief (compared to what we've been seeing) set of opening remarks. Now, today, a more fulsome opening argument from the president's legal defense team. We heard the prosecution make its case. The Trump defense now taking shape. What are the key arguments they're making?

Pettypiece: Well, so far, what we've heard from the president's lawyers today is trying to paint a picture of a president who was not trying to use funding to Ukraine for personal, political reasons, but a president who had other motivations involving the country's best interests and heart.

So, this argument that we have heard from Republicans, from the president's allies, in the past that the president wasn't putting a hold on money to Ukraine because of the Biden investigations, it was because of corruption, and going back to comments that the witnesses (that the Democrats have actually cited from the House trial) have used to show that the president did actually have concern about corruption in Ukraine, and corruption was actually an issue there.

Purposa: According to Ambassador Volker, President Trump demonstrated that he had a very deeply rooted, negative view of Ukraine based on past corruption. And that's a reasonable position, according to Ambassador Volker. Most people who know anything about Ukraine would think that.

Pettypiece: They have tried to make this case that the president couldn't have been putting a hold on aid to Ukraine unless it investigated the Bidens because the president actually did release aid to Ukraine. And again, going back to words from the Democratic witnesses in the House trial where they said that the aid was eventually released, and that there was eventually a meeting with the president.

Purposa: On September 11, based on the information collected and presented to President Trump, the president lifted the pause on the security assistance. As Mr. Morrison explained, our process gave the president the confidence he needed to approve the release of the security sector assistance.

Pettypiece: Of course, the president's legal team is failing to mention the fact that that aid was only released, and that meeting only happened, after reports of the president's alleged pressure on Ukraine came out and a full House investigation began.

So, we've heard the lawyer get into a bit more detail today, a bit more meat and specifics in the president's case, as opposed to Saturday when it was a more high-level, what the legal team described as a movie trailer version of their defense.

Kornacki: So, along these lines, we actually have a question that came in from one of our listeners. We're always askin' folks. Send in your questions if you got anything you're wondering about. Daniel, from Petaluma, California, I think up by the Bay area, he wants to know this. Of the arguments put forward by the White House team, which is the most compelling from a legal perspective? Shannon, you have a sense of that?

Pettypiece: Well, I'm obviously not a lawyer (LAUGH) but I can give you a bit of perspective on that, that I've been hearing. So, on a broad level, there's an argument that even if the president did put a hold on funding to Ukraine until they investigated the Bidens, there is nothing wrong with that is what the president's lawyers have been tryin' to argue.

Because the president has broad authority, they say, under the Constitution, to make whatever decisions he wants when it comes to foreign aid. And they have pointed to other instances where Obama or another president put a hold on aid. And they've said that politics is always involved.

And the second one is sort of attacking the overall process; arguing the process was unconstitutional, arguing that this is all an attempt by the House to invalidate the election and that the American public should decide who the president is, not the senators.

Archival Recording: And may it please this court of impeachment, I stand before you today in defense of my fellow Americans who, in November, 2016, elected Donald Trump to serve the people as their president. Their reasons for that vote were as varied as any important decisions are. But their collective judgment, accepted as legitimate under our Constitution, is deserving of my respect and yours.

Kornacki: So, Shannon, John Bolton, the president's former National Security Advisor, he's kind of been hovering over this entire process. There's been the question of whether he'd be called as a witness. And then in the last 48 hours, that question was reinforced in a dramatic way. What has happened with John Bolton?

Pettypiece: So, there were reports that first came out in the New York Times that John Bolton was working on a book and that a manuscript of the book (that he had actually submitted to the White House for review) said that President Trump directly told him that he was freezing aid to Ukraine until Ukraine carried out investigations that he wanted to see, including an investigation into the Bidens.

Now, we have heard that from other witnesses. But the White House has argued that none of those witnesses had firsthand knowledge of this, that they were just assuming this or that this was something they had heard from someone else. Now, the White House has until now blocked anyone who would have had firsthand knowledge (so, anyone who'd had direct conversations with the president) from testifying, asserting (essentially) executive privilege.

Now, Bolton is no longer an administration official. He is now on the outside. He had said he would be willing to testify if the Senate called him. They have not made that decision yet in the Senate trial of whether or not witnesses will be called. But now, we finally have a sense of what John Bolton would say if he was to be called in this Senate trial, and that is directly linking, from the president's own mouth, the funding to Ukraine and these investigations into the Bidens.

Kornacki: So, we've got this news of what's in Bolton's book. We've got, as you say, this unresolved issue of whether the Senate will hear from him, whether he'd be called as a witness at all. And as that's sort of there, kinda in the background, you've got the president's lawyer, Jay Sekulow, making this argument today.

Jay Sekulow: Not a single witness testified that the president himself said that there was any connection between any investigation and security assistance, a presidential meeting or anything else.

Kornacki: So, Shannon, Sekulow's saying not a single witness has testified that there was this connection, this connection between the security aid and an investigation. That statement, Sekulow's ability to make it, seems to depend on Bolton not testifying. Is that right?

Pettypiece: That is right. And again, this is something we have heard from the president's advocates and allies all along, discrediting the various witnesses, saying that none of them had firsthand information; and also discrediting them as these deep state, never Trumpers that they've used.

And of course, John Bolton is not a never Trumper. He worked in the Trump administration, has been a big advocate of the president. He is a popular Fox News contributor. He's worked in the George W. Bush administration. He has a lot of credibility with conservatives. He is someone who has a lot of credibility with a lot of Republican Senators.

So, yes, certainly his testimony poses the risk of undercutting a lot of what we have heard from the president's lawyers in the past two days, except for (as I said a moment ago) these two points that even if the president did tie the Ukraine to investigations, it doesn't matter; presidents are allowed to do that. And this whole process is unconstitutional and it's an attempt to overthrow the voters. And those, I think, are really the last two key arguments they could go back to, if Bolton does indeed say what we reportedly have that he has said in his book.

Kornacki: And so, what's the president saying? What are folks around the president saying about Bolton and about, again, what's reported to be in this book?

Pettypiece: So, the president has denied that he ever said this to Bolton. He called it false. He insinuated that Bolton's someone just tryin' to sell books.

Reporter: Is he gonna be called to testify?

Donald Trump: Well, I haven't seen a manuscript. But I can tell you, nothing was ever said to John Bolton. But I have not seen a manuscript. I guess he's writing a book. I have not seen it.

Pettypiece: As far as inside the White House, though, our reporting indicates that the president's legal team is prepared to make an argument of executive privilege should the Senate call Bolton to testify. That's something that's been a likely option that they've had all along, that they could try and block this testimony by executive privilege.

And it's looking increasingly likely, though, today that they're gonna have to make that argument. And of course, if they do assert a claim of executive privilege, the expectation is that then that is gonna go to the courts. And it's gonna go all the way up to the Supreme Court to decide.

And whether you can use executive privilege in an impeachment hearing is sort of untested waters. It came up in the Nixon impeachment hearing but that involved tapes. It involved a criminal investigation. And this actually involves testimony in an actual Senate trial. So, it's pretty unclear what exactly the courts would do in this scenario.

Kornacki: Shannon, we're gonna take a quick break here, but stick around. We'll be right back. So, speaking of this news, Shannon, the reporting about what is in John Bolton's book, it raises the question if this is even gonna be part of the Senate trial. Is John Bolton gonna be part of the Senate trial? Will there be witnesses? Will he be called if there are witnesses?

We've talked about this a lot on here. For Democrats to get witnesses into this trial, to get a Bolton or somebody else, Democrats need to stand together in the Senate and they need four Republicans to break over and join them on those votes. We've been goin' through it and it's been hard to see exactly which four that might be. But there is the question now of whether this Bolton news might jar a few loose (a few critical Republican votes loose) for Democrats. Are you seeing any signs that that might be in the works here?

Pettypiece: Yes, definitely. The issue of witnesses, and specifically John Bolton as a witness, seems much more likely today than it did on Friday. And you know, I know there has been talk of witnesses all along, as you mentioned. But there's definitely been some senators who've been leaning in the direction of witnesses. And we got a better sense of what their thinking is on that, again, today. Susan Collins came out.

Susan Collins: The reporting on John Bolton strengthens the case for witnesses and has prompted a number of conversations among my colleagues.

Pettypiece: We heard Romney come out, saying he wants to hear from John Bolton, essentially.

Mitt Romney: I think with the story that came out yesterday, it's increasingly apparent that it would be important to hear from John Bolton. I, of course, will make a final decision on witnesses after we've heard from not only the prosecution but also the defense. But I think, at this stage, it's pretty fair to say that John Bolton has a relevant testimony to provide to those of us who are sitting in impartial justice.

Pettypiece: A couple other senators we've heard weigh in? Lisa Murkowski. I'll add another name out there that we're watching; Lamar Alexander, which as of now, I don't believe he's spoke out on this. But he's another one who could defect. So, it definitely seems the momentum is starting to really head in that direction.

And the John Bolton news has certainly pushed a lot of senators in that way. And it's gonna put pressure on them politically because you see news reports, if you're a voter out there, about what Bolton says in his book and what you're reading in the New York Times or seein' on NBC News. Well, you're gonna wanna hear that right out of his mouth. And there's gonna be this question of, well, why not (why not let him testify) that I think a lot of these moderate senators in the middle are gonna have to answer that question from their constituents.

Kornacki: That's interesting, though. I do wonder if that sets up the potential for friction between Trump and some of these Republicans, maybe even Mitch McConnell, if it were to come to what you're describing there, just in that we've seen this president have no hesitation to go after his own party if he thinks they are wronging him. And I imagine he's not eager to have John Bolton be a part of this. If they were to cast a vote that sort of opens the door to that, I wonder if there'd be some, we'd see some division there on the Republican side.

Pettypiece: Well, the White House is hoping that if the door to witnesses does get opened with John Bolton, that they will argue that they then should be able to call their own witnesses, and that's when you get into a Hunter Biden situation or a situation where they can then call their own witnesses that they hope will exonerate the president.

Now, there's no guarantee that's necessarily going to happen because the senators are the ones who get to decide. Yes, it could be a real moment where you have to see some real daylight between the president and the Senate. But again, at the end of the day, the White House does feel like they will be able to defend themselves and that, still, at the end of this process, the president will be acquitted. They will head into reelection and they will be able to run on a whole myriad of other issues (outside of impeachment) and get the president reelected that way.

Kornacki: What would witnesses do to the timeline of this trial? I mean, I've heard suggestions that, without witnesses, this could wrap up really fast. I've even heard people suggest the end of this week, without witnesses. But if there were a vote to have witnesses, how long would that extend this trial for?

Pettypiece: Well, that is the question every reporter in Washington wants to know. And we were all, like, doing the math on our phones this weekend, realizing this could be done by Friday or Saturday, potentially. So, if there is a John Bolton subpoena and the White House asserts executive privilege, it goes to the courts.

And that could really take weeks, even in an expedited process. And while that waits in the courts, I don't know exactly what happens. I'm assuming the trial just gets put on hold and everyone in the Senate goes back to their regularly scheduled programming. But yes, there's definitely a potential, with witnesses, that this trial could still be overhanging the president during his State of the Union on February 4th.

It could still be hanging out there during the Iowa primaries, during the New Hampshire primaries, during South Carolina, during these key election primaries that are going on for the Democrats. So, just sort of uncharted territory, and we're really just taking it, I think here, one day at a time, and sometimes one hour at a time, waiting to see what's gonna happen next.

Kornacki: Pretty big pivot point comin' up then. Either this thing wraps up quickly or it goes (LAUGH) on for a while. We'll find out, looks like, later this week. Shannon Pettypiece, senior White House reporter for NBC, thanks so much for joinin' us.

Pettypiece: Thank you.

Kornacki: The president's legal team is planning on continuing their opening arguments tomorrow. Article II: Inside Impeachment is produced by Isabel Angel, Max Jacobs, Claire Tighe, Aaron Dalton, Preeti Varathan, Allison Bailey, Adam Noboa and Barbara Raab. Today, we had help from Bryson Barnes. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. Steve Lickteig is the executive producer of audio. I'm Steve Kornacki. We'll be back on Wednesday.