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Impeachment witness John Bolton says he'll testify. House Democrats should call his bluff.

What Congress does — or doesn’t do — will be used as a blueprint for whoever comes next.
President Donald J. Trump
John R. Bolton listens in the Oval Office at the White House on July 19th, 2019.Jabin Botsford / The Washington Post via Getty Images file

Former national security adviser John Bolton announced on Monday that “if the Senate issues a subpoena for my testimony, I am prepared to testify.”

My first thought was that House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff, D-Calif., should issue a subpoena immediately. As Trump’s national security adviser during the Ukraine aid scandal, Bolton is a key witness who could presumably provide important context about the decision to withhold funds.

The House chose not to subpoena Bolton during its impeachment hearings, and he had said that he would fight such a subpoena in court. But his apparent willingness now to cooperate with the Senate would most likely undermine efforts to fight a subpoena issued by the House.

The House cannot allow the president or Republicans to dictate Congress’s constitutional duties.

There are two broad reasons why Schiff should subpoena Bolton. First, because the House should continue its investigation into President Donald Trump’s potential abuses of power if new and relevant information becomes available. And second, because symbolically, the House cannot allow the president or Republicans to dictate Congress’s constitutional duties.

I know Trump was expecting a “red wave” in 2018, but the reality is the voters unleashed a blue tidal wave of Democrats into the House of Representatives and with it, the subpoena authority to conduct vigorous oversight of the president.

Despite that mandate, the Trump White House has flagrantly ignored the legislative branch’s role as a check to the executive. In July, the House voted to hold both Attorney General William Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in contempt of Congress for their refusal to cooperate with a congressional investigation into the 2020 census. Former White House counsel Don McGahn is in the middle of a separation-of-powers standoff that’s currently in federal court over his refusal to comply with a House Judiciary Committee subpoena seeking his testimony about the Mueller probe. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo blatantly ignored an October deadline to produce Ukraine-related documents that were subpoenaed by the House. The White House budget office refused to produce subpoenaed documents over the Ukraine aid. White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney defied a subpoena to testify during the House’ impeachment proceedings.

Repeatedly, the House of Representatives’ oversight authority has been trampled on by the president and his men. It is defiant obstructionism. Regardless of what happens in the Senate with the impeachment trial, the House Democratic majority needs to reclaim its role. They should not allow Republicans like Mitch McConnell to dictate the terms in which we hear from Bolton, if McConnell is even willing to call him as a witness at all.

Furthermore, given the fact that McConnell has already conceded he is not willing to be an impartial juror in these proceedings and is in fact coordinating with Trump’s legal team, the public would be better served if any testimony provided by Bolton is conducted in the Democrat-controlled House. We’ve seen how important managing the structure of public hearings can be, and to this point, Senate Republicans seem to be making exonerating Trump their priority instead pursuing the facts and the truth.

At stake is more than just the testimony of one credible witness. As Matthew Miller, the director of the office of public affairs for the Justice Department under President Barack Obama, noted on Twitter: “If a subpoena issued by the Republican Senate is valid and doesn’t require him to go to court, so is one issued by the Democratic House. Subpoenas aren’t printed on red or blue paper.” Former U.S. Attorney Joyce Vance noted that there is “no reason Rep. Adam Schiff can’t continue to investigate, especially when witnesses who previously declined to testify but newly agree.” Perhaps Republican strategist Rick Wilson put it best, though, tweeting, “If it’s a bluff, call it.”

We cannot permit the continued undermining of our democratic institutions. Personal political allegiances should not be allowed to trump the Constitution. The House should subpoena Bolton for testimony and documents immediately. If he refuses, they should hold him in contempt of Congress. If he still resists, they should invoke inherent contempt and have the sergeant-at-arms arrest him.

What Congress does — or doesn’t — do will be used as a blueprint for whoever comes next. This has been said repeatedly over the past few months and yet bears repeating: We cannot have a functioning democracy if one branch of government is permitted to ignore the power and authority of the other.

After all, it was a leading Trump defender, Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, who said at a House Oversight Committee contempt proceeding this past December that “the only remedy we have to get to the truth is to use every tool at our disposal.”