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Subpoena John Bolton, Democrats

After indicating for weeks that he’d seek guidance from a federal judge if he received a subpoena from House impeachment investigators—promising, in essence, to delay the proceedings indefinitely—former national security adviser John Bolton has announced that he will testify in President Trump’s impeachment trial, but only if he receives a subpoena from the Senate.

Bolton’s arbitrary decision to comply only with some subpoenas and only at certain times has cast a bright light on the shamelessness of the Republicans’ ongoing coverup—the only reason to reject his offer is to conceal evidence—but it also raised the immediate question of whether House Democrats would finally issue Bolton a subpoena of their own, and set about to enforce it aggressively. 

Senate Republicans would have made such a subpoena unnecessary had they promised to seek his testimony. Instead, they have accelerated their effort to complete the coverup. A day after Bolton issued his statement, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced he’d secured 51 votes to begin a trial while putting off the question of whether to seek witness testimony for a later date—buying him and his members precious time to concoct new, disingenuous arguments for acquitting Trump without hearing from any witnesses at all.

That trial can’t begin under Senate rules until House Speaker Nancy Pelosi transmits the articles of impeachment to McConnell, which leaves the two leaders deadlocked until she decides what to do next: Let the trial begin, or leave Republicans in limbo while seeking Bolton’s testimony themselves.

“I think the time has past. She should send the articles over,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT).

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer echoed this advice, noting “The speaker has said all along she wanted to see the arena in which she was playing when it came to a trial so she could appoint impeachment managers. Now it’s becoming clear that Mitch McConnell wants to do everything he can to avoid a fair trial so she has some idea of what’s happening.”

Schumer’s view reflects the strategy Democrats set in motion before Bolton chimed in: Delay the trial until Republicans announced whether they would rig it or not. Maximize pressure on them to conduct a fair trial, but make their coverup scheme clear to the world if not. With Bolton’s statement in hand, and Republicans grasping at inane justifications for not issuing him the subpoena he’s requested, House Democrats should change plans: issue him a subpoena themselves, and advise Republicans that the trial won’t begin until Bolton testifies, in one chamber or the other.

Bolton rested his decision to honor a Senate subpoena on the idea that the truncated timeline of an impeachment trial would leave him no time to seek a court ruling on whether a congressional subpoena overrides Trump’s dressed-up efforts to obstruct the impeachment inquiry. “It does not appear possible that a final judicial resolution of the still-unanswered Constitutional questions can be obtained before the Senate acts,” he wrote, adding that his decision reflected his effort to “resolve the serious competing issues as best I could.”

No consistent or defensible principle underlies any of Bolton’s pronouncements, beginning with his ridiculous assertion, issued as one government witness after another defied Trump and provided testimony to the House, that complex legal questions would require him to seek input from a judge about whether he could appear for a deposition. But having agreed that, when push comes to shove, he’d testify without a judge’s blessing, his argument for defying a House subpoena would be weaker still.

Bolton would presumably claim that by sitting on the articles of impeachment while compelling his testimony, the House had created a window of opportunity to seek court guidance after all. House Democrats should dare him to do just that. Their decision to place Trump’s impeachment in limbo hasn’t harmed their party politically at all, but it has driven Trump and Senate Republicans somewhat mad, and drawn extensive scrutiny to the fact that they’re engaged in a coverup. Issuing Bolton a subpoena would create three potential paths: One by which Bolton, having already agreed to testify to the Senate, seeks permission from a court to testify to the House, prolonging Trump’s agony for at least several weeks; another by which he testifies to the House directly; and a third by which Senate Republicans relent and agree to bring their coverup to an end.

Any of these outcomes would be advantageous to Democrats. The alternative, by contrast, is fraught with risk. Transmitting the articles to the Senate without first subpoenaing Bolton would stake everything on a final climactic Senate vote on whether to complete the coverup or not. That would be a difficult vote for vulnerable Republican incumbents, but once they cast it, it’s unlikely we’d ever hear testimony from Bolton or any of the other witnesses who have refused to cooperate with the impeachment inquiry. Subpoenaing Bolton now puts him in a bind while his “offer” to honor a Senate subpoena is live. Once the trial’s on he can resist all future efforts to secure his testimony by noting (however disingenuously) that the Senate chose not to subpoena him, the impeachment process ended, and he will respect Congress’s decision.

Democrats can maximize the likelihood that the coverup fails, without sacrificing any of the eventual upside of forcing Senate Republicans to acquit Trump in the face of overwhelming evidence of his guilt. They should leap at the opportunity.