Anton Chekhov, the nineteenth-century Russian author, did not believe in red herrings. The metaphorical gun that bears his name is a reminder to writers that everything matters, or at least that everything should matter, when crafting a narrative. “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one, it should be fired,” he wrote in an 1899 letter to a literary colleague. “Otherwise don’t put it there.”
John Bolton apparently agrees. While the House of Representatives wrangled over subpoenas and potential witnesses last November, a lawyer for President Donald Trump’s former national security adviser sent a letter saying his client wouldn’t testify in the impeachment inquiry without a judicial order. Bolton, the lawyer wrote, “was personally involved in many of the events, meetings, and conversations about which you have already received testimony.” Then he indicated that Bolton was also privy to “many relevant meetings and conversations that have not yet been discussed in the testimonies thus far.” The House ultimately decided to proceed without Bolton’s testimony, using other evidence to impeach the president last December. The Senate began its trial earlier this month.
Then the gun went off. In a forthcoming book, Bolton reportedly says that Trump personally told him last August that he wanted to withhold millions in military aid for Ukraine until the country’s leaders helped him smear Joe Biden. That account would demolish the White House’s already dubious claims that Trump’s order to freeze the aid and his persistent desire to smear a domestic political rival were unrelated.
The exact nature of Bolton’s version of events is uncertain, as is its potential impact on the trial. What’s clearer is the irony it represents. Over the past five months, some potential witnesses chose to stay quiet, fearing either legal consequences or the loss of Trump’s favor. Others, sensing an urgent civic duty, rose to the occasion and went public with their accounts. But Bolton somehow forged a third path in the Ukraine scandal: unvarnished self-enrichment. The least Trumpian of Trump’s recent advisers now resembles him more than ever.
Bolton became a focus of interest soon after the Ukraine scandal burst into public view late last September. In most administrations, the national security adviser is a key conduit for all foreign policy discussions and decisions taking place within the White House. But Trump’s freewheeling approach to governance made those processes somewhat obsolete. Who needs a National Security Council, after all, when Fox News hosts Sean Hannity and Lou Dobbs are a phone call away? That made Bolton, a staunch neoconservative and a veteran bureaucratic infighter, an awkward choice for the job he took in April 2018.
By the end of last summer, this uneasy arrangement had fallen apart. Trump embraced some of Bolton’s priorities, including his hard line against international courts that might scrutinize U.S. abuses overseas. Trump hardly needed much persuasion: The president pardoned a slate of accused and convicted U.S. war criminals last December. But on a number of key priorities—most notably the ongoing negotiations with North Korea and the push for regime change in Iran—Bolton was unable to steer Trump in his preferred direction. In early September, Trump wrote on Twitter that Bolton’s services were “no longer needed at the White House,” and that he “disagreed strongly with many of his suggestions.” (Bolton later commandeered his own Twitter account to insist he hadn’t been fired, but that he had quit.)
The fallout from Bolton’s dismissal was quickly overshadowed by the Ukraine scandal. Though Trump’s efforts to coerce Ukraine’s president became public thanks to a whistleblower, some White House aides in October told reporters that they suspected Bolton might be the source behind other damaging leaks about the scandal. Fiona Hill, the NSC’s former top Russia expert, told lawmakers that month that Bolton had warned other White House staff to avoid taking part in the president’s scheme. “I am not part of whatever drug deal Sondland and Mulvaney are cooking up,” she recalled him saying (referring to Gordon Sondland, ambassador to the EU, and acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney). She also recounted his apt description of Rudy Giuliani as “a hand grenade who’s going to blow everybody up.”
In other words, Bolton appeared to be an excellent potential witness. His high-level role inside the White House, in all likelihood, provided him with a much more substantial understanding of the extent of Trump’s scheme than the ones offered by his former subordinates when they testified under oath. His apparent distance from the plot meant that he would face no personal exposure by testifying. His service in the Trump and George W. Bush administrations made it hard to dismiss him as a Never Trumper, or a Democrat, or a member of the deep state, as happened to other witnesses. And he could not be fired for violating executive privilege, since he no longer worked for the executive branch. But he never testified, claiming that he would only appear if a judge forced him to do so.
Other potential witnesses from Trump’s Cabinet and his inner circle also refused to testify, either out of loyalty to the president, fear for their current or future jobs, or both. If those factors were animating Bolton’s thinking, he’d likely stay quiet until at least after the 2020 election. (Indeed, a Fox News guest urged him today to stop snitching until next year.) Publishing a tell-all book after the impeachment trial but before the election looks like an effort to maximize attention and value for a one-time cash grab. In essence, Bolton is withholding relevant evidence in the president’s impeachment trial for profit.
Senate Republicans had already struggled to defend their decision to not call witnesses before Bolton’s bombshell went off. It would be indefensible not to obtain his account, either by compelling him to testify in person or forcing his publisher to hand over the manuscript, before the trial ends. Whatever the outcome, it’s a poetic turn of events. The president’s greatest threat may not be from high-minded civic idealists but from a grifter whose shamelessness may exceed his own. After all, Trump only wanted a corrupt quid pro quo with Ukraine. Bolton wants one with the American people.