WASHINGTON - Former National Security Adviser John Bolton is known as a political bomb thrower, and if he appears before the closed-door House impeachment panel on Thursday, he could be an unpredictable, explosive witness.
Bolton is a hard-charging hawk who clashed repeatedly with his boss, President Donald Trump, and left the White House under acrimonious circumstances. But he is also a GOP stalwart who hinted Thursday that he is not inclined to cooperate with the House Democrats' impeachment probe.
"Frankly, I don't think anybody knows, except John Bolton, exactly what role he wants to play in this drama," said Aaron David Miller, who served as a foreign policy adviser to presidents in both parties and is now a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
"Is he looking for revenge?" Miller said. Or will he see this inquiry as a "Democratic show" that he wants no part of?
Bolton offered a tease on Thursday morning, blasting out an "opening statement" via his political action committee, which raises money to support GOP candidates who, like him, embrace hardline positions on national security issues. In the pitch, Bolton blasted "radicalized Democrats" and suggested he sees the impeachment inquiry as a dangerous distraction.
"While America is preoccupied with events on Capitol Hill, Russia, China, Iran and North Korea are doing everything in their power to take us down," Bolton says in the email, which links to a "survey" on political and national security questions. "We're doing more to destabilize ourselves than they could ever accomplish in their wildest dreams."
Bolton's lawyer, Charles Cooper, has said he wouldn't appear before the impeachment panel without a subpoena. Cooper did not say whether Bolton will testify if Democrats subpoena him, as they have done with other reluctant witnesses.
Danielle Pletka, senior vice president for foreign and defense policy at the American Enterprise Institute, a center-right think tank, said if Bolton agrees to testify, he will be walking a tightrope.
"I think it will be a balance for John, who has been a lifelong Republican and who is a big supporter of the party through his PAC," said Pletka. Bolton worked at AEI before he joined the Trump administration in 2018. He also runs a political action committee that doles out campaign contributions to hawkish GOP candidates.
On the one hand, Pletka said, Bolton will not want to become "a political football." On the other, he will want to "stay on the right side of the law and of the principles that he embraces."
"... There's just a lot of forces at work here that make it very hard," she said.
Whether Bolton testifies or not, one thing is clear: he was a central player in the Ukraine saga. Previous witnesses have portrayed him as a leading critic of the effort, led by Trump's personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, to pressure Ukraine's new leader to open two investigations that would have benefited Trump's domestic political prospects ahead of the 2020 election.
Bolton reportedly referred to Giuliani as "a hand grenade who's going to blow everybody up." Fiona Hill, who served under Bolton as the National Security Council's senior director for Europe and Russia, told lawmakers in her closed-door testimony that Bolton wanted no part of what he derided as a White House "drug deal" to pressure Ukraine into investigating Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.
If he shows up on Thursday, Bolton would be the highest-ranking Trump administration official to testify in the impeachment inquiry, and the closest adviser to the president.
"He saw this whole movie up close and personal, which means his testimony would be incredibly damaging and devastating should he agree to do the full reveal," said Miller.
A string of other witnesses, from the State Department and other executive agencies, have already provided private depositions. But Bolton could offer an insider's account of whether Trump urged Ukraine to investigate his political rival, while withholding nearly $400 million in U.S. military aid that Ukraine needed to counter Russian aggression. State Department and National Security Council officials have said Giuliani was running a shadow foreign policy campaign on Ukraine.
Bill Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, told lawmakers it was his "clear understanding" that U.S. military aid to Ukraine was being withheld until Ukraine's president publicly agreed to open investigations that Trump and Giuliani wanted. Taylor mentioned Bolton numerous times in his testimony, according to a transcript released Wednesday.
Taylor said Bolton shared his concerns about Trump's refusal to release the military aid, and told him to send a cable to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo expressing alarm about that situation.
"He indicated that he was very sympathetic," Taylor said of Bolton.
Still, Pletka said she does not expect Bolton's testimony to provide a watershed moment in the House probe, because Democrats have already drawn their conclusions and are bent on impeaching Trump. Plus, she said, Bolton will not be easily flummoxed by Democrats' grilling.
He is a shrewd lawyer and is "very good at understanding where to draw these sorts of lines."
Bolton either quit or was fired in September amid numerous disagreements with Trump over foreign policy.
Some other administration officials have refused to testify, citing the White House's argument that executive privilege or absolute immunity protects them from being compelled to testify before Congress.
Former White House counsel Don McGahn continues to fight his congressional subpoena in federal court. Bolton's deputy, Charles Kupperman, asked a federal court to rule which carries more weight: a White House directive not to testify or a congressional subpoena. But the House withdrew Kupperman's subpoena Wednesday.
Bolton could become one of the final closed-door witnesses for the three key committees investigating Ukraine: Foreign Affairs, Intelligence, and Oversight and Reform. Another witness summoned Thursday is Jennifer Williams, a State Department staffer assigned to Keith Kellogg, the national security adviser for Vice President Mike Pence. The panels summoned two witnesses Friday, including Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, but neither is expected to appear. Public hearings before the Intelligence Committee begin next week with Taylor, the U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, on Nov. 13 and Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, on Nov. 15.
Several State Department officials, including Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, and Bill Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, described two channels setting policy for Ukraine. One channel was through the State Department. The other was guided by Giuliani, who worked with Sondland; Kurt Volker, a former special envoy to Ukraine; and Energy Secretary Rick Perry, according to Taylor.
The irregular channel began in May 2019 after an American delegation returned from Ukraine, Taylor said. Diplomats described learning that Trump and Giuliani repeatedly sought a Ukraine investigation of former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, Hunter.
A flashpoint came at a July 10 meeting at the White House on Ukraine policy. Hill, then the National Security Council's senior director on Europe and Russia, testified that Bolton told her to contact John Eisenberg, the council's top lawyer, after the meeting.
Bolton said he wasn't part of "whatever drug deal Sondland and Mulvaney are cooking up," according to an account of Hill's testimony in The New York Times.
Taylor said that Hill and Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a National Security Council expert on Ukraine, relayed details of the meeting to him during a July 19 phone call.
"They told me that Ambassador Sondland had connected 'investigations' with an Oval Office meeting for President (Volodymyr) Zelensky, which so irritated Ambassador Bolton that he abruptly ended the meeting, telling Dr. Hill and Mr. Vindman that they should have nothing to do with domestic politics," Taylor said, according to his opening statement before the impeachment panel.
Bolton had argued against a phone call between Trump and Zelensky, fearing it would be a "disaster," according to Taylor.
Vindman testified that he was concerned about a briefing he attended after the July 10 meeting, when Sondland emphasized the need for a Ukraine investigation "into the 2016 election, the Bidens and Burisma," the Ukrainian company whose board had included Hunter Biden. Vindman said he told Sondland that "his statements were inappropriate, that the request to investigate Biden and his son had nothing to do with national security."
Vindman and Hill each reported their concerns to the council's lawyer, Eisenberg.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Impeachment: House inquiry has questions for John Bolton about Ukraine