When it comes to blocking witnesses from testifying and keeping evidence out of the public view, President Donald Trump and his defense team have used every tool they’ve got. One of their top rationales is national security.
According to this line of argument, which is meant to scare Senate Republicans out of caving, allowing testimony from witnesses like former national security adviser John Bolton could jeopardize national security. Trump himself argued last week that Bolton’s testimony posed a national security risk.
“He knows some of my thoughts. He knows what I think about leaders. What happens if he reveals what I think about a certain leader and it’s not very positive?” Trump said. The president also added that Bolton’s departure in September wasn’t exactly amicable, “so you don’t like people testifying when they didn’t leave on good terms.”
And that was before the New York Times obtained a description of Bolton’s book and reported that Trump told Bolton directly that he wanted Ukraine military aid withheld unless Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky announced investigations into political opponents, including the Bidens.
An upcoming challenge
The Senate is scheduled to vote as early as Friday on whether to call witnesses, a reckoning Trump is desperate to head off. His defense team and Senate allies have floated various options to avoid it, including forcing Bolton to testify in a classified setting, ensuring the public doesn’t get to hear what he has to say. But of course, now everyone has a very good idea of what he might say, and it’s not positive for the president. Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., suggested that in lieu of Bolton testifying, senators should be allowed to read his manuscript in a classified setting. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer called the idea absurd.
With the vote on witnesses fast approaching, the White House has also claimed that Bolton’s book contains “significant amounts of classified information,” an assertion Bolton disputes. The White House has warned Bolton’s lawyers that the book can’t be published until this information is removed. The memoir, “The Room Where It Happened,” is scheduled to come out March 17.
Trump’s lawyers have repeatedly claimed that executive privilege protects all presidential conversations about national security matters from congressional scrutiny. Advisers are “absolutely immune from compelled testimony before Congress,” especially on matters of “foreign relations and national security,” they wrote in a Jan. 18 response to the articles of impeachment.
Under this logic, any presidential action related to national security or foreign policy would essentially be shielded from impeachment, creating a presidential immunity the Founders never intended. As George Washington and his advisers made clear: Executive privilege claims mostly go out the window in the impeachment context.
And to the extent where actual secret items (nuclear codes, foreign asset identities) could be at risk, then that is a good argument for protective measures like redactions or accessing information in a closed session or a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility (a secure room), rather than the White House’s blanket refusal to provide any testimony or documents to Congress. As for Trump and his conversation with Bolton about Ukraine aid, former U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade argues that the president waived his executive privilege when he tweeted that Bolton was lying.
We already know Trump’s secrets
Setting aside the legal and historical precedents and arguments, it is also important to acknowledge this: There are no national security secrets at risk here. The building blocks of the Ukraine story — and the impeachment articles — are already known. The most important piece of evidence was made public by the White House in November: the record of Trump’s July 25 phone call with the Ukrainian president.
It is right there for all to see that Trump asked Zelensky to investigate Biden and his son, and thereby invited a foreign country to interfere in the upcoming election. Trump’s request set off so many alarm bells that National Security Council staffers sought the advice of White House lawyers about what to do. It also prompted an intelligence official to share his or her concerns with a colleague, who passed them on to CIA General Counsel Courtney Simmons Elwood.
Elwood found these concerns reasonable and serious enough to make a criminal referral to the Justice Department. That same intelligence official eventually filed a formal whistleblower complaint with the Intelligence Community inspector general, who tried to pass it on to Congress, as required by law, before being stopped by the Justice Department in consultation with the White House.
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In addition to the phone record, we now have hours of testimony from key witnesses that tie Trump’s request of Zelensky to a months-long pressure campaign that included removing the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine to appease corrupt Ukrainian actors, as well as withholding high-level U.S. meetings and almost $400 million in military assistance.
The only missing pieces of the puzzle are what the principal actors — men like Bolton, acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and former Energy Secretary Rick Perry — said and did throughout the summer to try to appease Trump’s corrupt request as well as manage the fallout on Capitol Hill and within the U.S. government.
It’s true, having them testify could reveal how little they think of the president. That in and of itself might be a national secret, but it’s probably one the public should know before it votes again in November.
Kate Brannen is editorial director of the Just Security blog. Follow her on Twitter: @K8Brannen