After a bombshell report about John Bolton’s forthcoming book, key Republican senators moved on Monday towards supporting testimony from the former national security adviser in Donald Trump’s impeachment trial.
On Sunday night, the New York Times reported that the manuscript version of Bolton’s memoir, The Room Where It Happened, contains the claim that the president told Bolton in August 2019 to keep withholding nearly $400m of security aid to Ukraine, until officials in Kyiv helped investigate Trump’s political rivals.
Trump’s attempts to have Ukraine investigate his rivals form the basis of the first article of impeachment, that he abused his power. The second article charges that he obstructed Congress as it attempted to investigate.
At the start of a week in which Trump’s defense team will lay out their full argument, news of Bolton’s claim conclusively scrambled the calculus among lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
Republican Senate leaders have been attempting to conduct Trump’s trial – and to acquit him and keep him in office – swiftly and without calling further witnesses.
But on Monday key Republican senators indicated that the new allegation underscored the importance of Bolton testifying in the impeachment trial.
“I think that the story that came out yesterday it’s increasingly apparent that it would be important to hear from John Bolton,” Utah senator Mitt Romney, the party’s nominee for president in 2012, told reporters.
“I of course will make a final decision on witnesses after we’ve heard from not only the prosecution but also the defense. But at this stage I think it’s fair to say that John Bolton has a relevant testimony to provide to those of us who are sitting in impartial justice.”
Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a key Trump ally, expressed openness to having Bolton testify. But he said others, including the former vice-president Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden – whose links to Ukraine partly motivated Trump’s push for investigations – should also testify.
In a statement, Susan Collins of Maine said: “reports about John Bolton’s book strengthen the case for witnesses and have prompted a number of conversations among my colleagues”.
Other Republicans said that the manuscript did not change anything and that Bolton’s allegation was simply motivated by his desire to sell his book.
The Democratic Senate minority leader, Chuck Schumer, called the revelations reported by the Times “stunning” and added: “It goes right to the heart of the charges against the president.
“Ambassador Bolton essentially confirms the president committed the offenses charged in the first article of impeachment,” Schumer said at a press conference, asking: “How can Senate Republicans not vote to call that witness and request his documents?”
The question of witnesses in the Senate trial has been an ongoing flashpoint in the impeachment proceedings. House Democrats wanted Bolton to testify as part of their investigation into Trump’s approaches to Ukraine but Bolton successfully avoided that request.
Democrats hope the new allegations will sway at least the four Republicans they will need to pass a motion to call witnesses in the Senate.
“I think it’s increasingly likely that other Republicans will join those of us who think we should hear from John Bolton,” Romney said. “Whether there are other witnesses or documents that’s another matter. I think John Bolton’s relevance to our decision has become increasingly clear.”
Romney declined to name which of his Republican colleagues, other than fellow moderate Collins, might be swayed.
Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, another senator viewed as a possible swing vote, told reporters on Monday: “I worked with my colleagues to make sure we have a chance after we’ve heard the arguments, after we’ve asked our questions, to decide if we need additional evidence and I’ll decide that at that time.”
If witnesses do testify, the impeachment process could go on for longer than wished by senior Republicans. Under the leadership of Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the party has indicated a desire to acquit Trump before his State of the Union address, which is due next Tuesday, 4 February.
Speaking to reporters on Monday, Trump claimed Bolton’s allegation was false and added that he had not seen the manuscript. How much the White House communications team knew about the manuscript remains unclear.
Books by former White House officials usually go through a review process to check for potentially sensitive or classified information.
A National Security Council spokesman, John Ullyot, said on Monday: “Ambassador Bolton’s manuscript was submitted to the NSC for pre-publication review and has been under initial review by the NSC. No White House personnel outside NSC have reviewed the manuscript.”
Bolton’s lawyer, Charles Cooper, said on Sunday the manuscript was submitted in the belief it contained no classified information. Cooper also said it was clear that there were holes in the review process, as proven by the Times obtaining the manuscript.
“It is clear, regrettably, from the New York Times article, that the prepublication review process has been corrupted and that information has been disclosed by persons other than those properly involved in reviewing the manuscript,” Cooper said in a statement.
On Monday, Bolton, his literary agency and his publisher said in a statement: “There was absolutely no coordination with the New York Times or anyone else regarding the appearance of information about his book.”