During the Senate impeachment trial Monday, Trump lawyer Jay Sekulow made a bold claim. “Not a single witness,” he declared, “testified that the president himself said that there was any connection between any investigation and security assistance, a presidential meeting, or anything else.” While he talked, Trump’s legal team displayed a slide making a similar assertion: “NONE of the Democrats’ witnesses say President Trump linked investigations to security assistance or a meeting.”
Sekulow, less than a day after the Bolton news broke: "Not a single witness testified that the president himself said that there was any connection between any investigation and security assistance, a presidential meeting, or anything else." pic.twitter.com/uDv9ZrMnGz
— Jeremy Schulman (@jeremyschulman) January 27, 2020
And that’s true! Sort of. While Trump’s EU ambassador, Gordon Sondland, testified that there was indeed a quid pro quo—Ukraine’s president would get a meeting at the White House only after he announced investigations into Trump’s political foes—he acknowledged that Trump had not told him this directly.
But here’s the thing. Less than 24 hours ago, multiple news outlets reported that John Bolton, Trump’s former national security adviser, wrote in a draft of his forthcoming book that yes, Trump really did link the military aid to an investigation of Joe Biden. According to the New York Times, Bolton wrote that Trump told him in August 2019 that “he preferred sending no assistance to Ukraine until officials had turned over all materials they had about the Russia investigation that related to Mr. Biden and supporters of Mrs. Clinton in Ukraine.”
And Bolton isn’t the only one. Acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney last year also appeared to acknowledge—while speaking to reporters on camera—that Trump had linked the Ukraine aid to his demands for an investigation into Democrats. (Mulvaney later tried to walk back that admission.)
So was Sekulow lying? Well, not exactly. Sekulow didn’t say that no Trump administration official had said that Trump told them about the quid pro quo. Instead, Sekulow said that no “witness” had “testified” that Trump had done so.
You see, Trump ordered Bolton and Mulvaney not to participate in the House impeachment inquiry, and—unlike many other administration officials—they chose to comply with the president’s demand. They were not “witnesses.” They have not “testified.”
Senate Democrats tried to subpoena Bolton and Mulvaney last week, but Republicans blocked that effort on a party-line vote. Democrats will soon have another opportunity to persuade a handful of Republicans to issue those subpoenas. If they succeed, Sekulow may need to find a new talking point.