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Republicans under pressure to call John Bolton to testify at Senate impeachment trial

U.S. President Donald Trump's fellow Republicans in the Senate came under renewed pressure on Monday to allow witnesses in his impeachment trial, while his defence team largely ignored disclosures from a former White House adviser.

Despite new revelations from former adviser, Trump impeachment lawyers skirt new disclosures

An unpublished book manuscript by former U.S. national security adviser John Bolton says President Donald Trump told him directly that he wanted a freeze on military aid to Ukraine until Kyiv helped with investigations into Democrats. 2:01

U.S. President Donald Trump's fellow Republicans in the Senate came under renewed pressure on Monday to allow witnesses in his impeachment trial, while his defence team largely ignored disclosures from a former White House adviser.

The elephant in the room on Day 2 of Trump's defence arguments was John Bolton, whose unpublished manuscript, according to the New York Times, included disclosures that go to the heart of the impeachment charges against Trump.

The former Trump adviser wrote that the president told him he wanted to freeze $391 million in security aid to Ukraine until Kyiv helped with investigations into Democrats, including political rival Joe Biden, and his son Hunter Biden, the Times reported.

The Bolton disclosures prompted new calls by Democrats for Bolton and other witnesses to testify.

Trump is accused of abusing the power of his office in seeking foreign interference in a U.S. election and of obstructing Congress.

Republicans are under increasing pressure to call Bolton, right, to testify at the Senate impeachment trial. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Republican Sen. Mitt Romney, a sometime critic of Trump, said there was a growing likelihood that at least four Republican senators would vote to call for Bolton to testify in the trial, which would give Democrats the votes necessary to summon him.

The Senate may resolve the issue of whether to call witnesses in a vote on Friday or Saturday. Democrats said the manuscript made it all the more pressing for the Senate to call Bolton as a witness.

The Democratic-led House of Representatives impeached Trump last month, setting up the trial in the Senate on whether he should be removed from office. Trump is expected to be acquitted in the 100-seat chamber, where Republicans hold 53 seats.

The White House directed current and former administration officials not to provide testimony or documents in the House inquiry that preceded the trial, and Senate Republicans have so far refused to allow any witnesses or new evidence.

Biden is a leading contender for the Democratic nomination to face Trump in the Nov. 3 presidential election.

Trump on Monday denied telling Bolton that he sought to use the aid to pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate the Bidens on unsubstantiated corruption allegations. Hunter Biden worked for a Ukrainian energy firm while his father was U.S. vice-president.

Bolton left his post in September. Trump said he fired him. Bolton said he quit.

"I think it's increasingly likely that other Republicans will join those of us who think we should hear from John Bolton," Romney told reporters.

Another moderate Republican senator, Susan Collins, said the reports regarding Bolton's book "strengthen the case for witnesses."

Senate judiciary committee chair Lindsey Graham, a Republican ally of Trump, said he would support issuing a subpoena to obtain Bolton's manuscript to see if it should be added to the record, a CNN reporter said on Twitter.

But the Senate majority is far from united. Sen. Kelly Loeffler of Georgia took to Twitter to call out Romney's position on witnesses:

Defence arguments

Despite the revelation of the Bolton book, Deputy White House Counsel Mike Purpura argued that no one testified during the House impeachment inquiry that there was a direct link between the aid and Ukraine undertaking investigations. 

House Democrats did in fact invite Bolton to testify, but he declined the invitation because the White House would not authorize him to appear. 

"His lawyer told us if you serve Mr. Bolton with a subpoena, he will fight you in court," the House's lead prosecutor, Adam Schiff, told reporters during a break in the trial.

"Had we done that, like we did with (former White House counsel) Don McGahn, nine months later, we would still be in court trying to get John Bolton's testimony."

The only member of Trump's legal team to explicitly reference the Bolton revelations in the Senate floor was Alan Dershowitz, who spoke last.

"Nothing in the Bolton revelations, even if true, would rise to the level of an abuse of power or an impeachable offence," he said at the end of his presentation, which was focused on the legal and constitutional arguments against the Democrats' impeachment case.

"That is clear from history and that is clear from the language of the constitution."

Trump attorney Alan Dershowitz argues that if a president issues a quid pro quo to a foreign country, it still does not constitute an abuse of power at the Senate impeachment trial. 2:15

Another of Trump's lawyers, Jay Sekulow, made a veiled reference to the manuscript in his opening remarks.

"We deal with transcript evidence," he said, soon after Monday's session began. "We deal with publicly available information. We do not deal with speculation, allegations that are not based on evidentiary standards at all."

White House had manuscript: Schiff 

On Monday evening, Republican Rep. Mark Meadows, suggested the Democrats orchestrated the release of the Bolton manuscript in a bid to shift the story just as the defence begins its case.

"My hypothesis is that this is part of a coordinated leak in order to change the narrative," Meadows told reporters during a break in the trial.

WATCH | Purpura makes his argument:

Deputy White House counsel Mike Purpura argues that Democrats failed to highlight testimony from Ambassador Gordon Sondland in their case. 1:01

Schiff accused the Trump team of having the manuscript and purposely keeping it hidden. He said it underscores why Bolton must be called to testify before the Senate. 

"[He] would corroborate exactly what the uncontested evidence that the House put on shows: that President Trump used hundreds of millions of dollars of military aid to coerce an ally to conduct these political sham investigations," he told reporters.

Trump's defence team also spent a good part of the afternoon trying to raise doubts around Hunter Biden's involvement in Burisma.

Defence team member Pam Bondi defended Trump's use of unsupported corruption allegations against the Bidens as the basis for his demand that Ukraine investigate them.

Former U.S. vice-president Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden in 2010. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

She presented a series of media reports, Ukrainian gas company records and excerpts from impeachment inquiry testimony in an attempt to demonstrate that a range of independent observers were concerned that Hunter Biden's role posed a potential conflict of interest.

"They all thought there was cause to raise the issue about the Bidens and Burisma," Bondi said. "All we are saying is that there was a basis to talk about this, to raise this issue, and that is enough."

She pointed to the Washington Post and ABC News, among others, which also tried to raise questions about Hunter Biden's involvement in Burisma. 

WATCH | Bondi shows media clips highlighting potential conflict of interest in Hunter Biden appointment: 

Trump impeachment lawyer Pam Bondi spent part of her presentation pointing out how several news outlets also tried to raise questions about Hunter Biden and his involvement in Ukraine gas company Burisma. 2:22

Ukrainian officials have said they found no indication that Hunter Biden had broken any law. Biden campaign spokesman Andrew Bates on Monday dismissed Bondi's allegations, saying they had been widely discredited.

"The president's lawyers spent about two hours trashing the Bidens," said Schiff. He added that Trump's defence team could not explain why Trump took an interest in corruption and Burisma only when Biden became a presidential candidate.

Republican Sen. Joni Ernst said it was appropriate to bring up the Bidens, and looked to next Monday's presidential caucuses in her home state. "Will they be supporting Vice-President Biden at this point? Not sure about that," she said during a break in the trial.

Biden himself predicted the attacks, warning voters at a campaign event in Iowa over the weekend: "Turn it on Monday, watch the news. It's going to be all about Biden."

Acting under 'constitutional authority'

Trump's defence team also said a crucial reason that House Democrats impeached Trump was not due to misconduct by the president but because of deep political differences.

"We live in a constitutional republic where you have deep policy concerns and deep differences. That should not be the basis of an impeachment," Jay Sekulow, one of Trump's lawyers, told the senators.

"It is our position, as the president's counsel, that the president was at all times acting under his constitutional authority, under his legal authority, international interest, and pursuant to his oath of office. Asking a foreign leader to get to the bottom of issues of corruption is not a violation of an oath," Sekulow added.

Trump impeachment lawyer Ken Starr — the former independent counsel whose investigation paved the way for the failed impeachment of former Democratic President Bill Clinton in 1998 — began his argument by asserting that with no criminal charge against Trump, there are no grounds for impeachment. 

WATCH | Ken Starr begins his defence of Trump by arguing there are no grounds for impeachment: 

Donald Trump's impeachment lawyer Ken Starr argues that without a criminal charge against the president, there can be no impeachment. 1:27

Democrats prosecuting Trump in the trial have said that Trump's personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, played a central and improper role in pressing Ukraine to carry out politically motivated investigations.

"The House managers would have you believe that Mr. Giuliani is at the centre of this controversy. They've anointed him the proxy villain of the tale, the leader of a rogue operation," Trump impeachment lawyer Jane Raskin said.

"Their presentations were filled with ad hominem attacks and name calling: 'cold-blooded political operative,' 'political bag man.' But I suggest to you that he's front and centre in their narrative for one reason and one reason alone: to distract from the fact that the evidence does not support their claims," Raskin added.

Jane Raskin, a lawyer who represented President Trump in the Mueller investigation, argued in the Senate Monday that Rudy Giuliani did not play as central a role in the controversy as Democrats would lead one to believe. (J. Scott Applewhite/The Associated Press)

Trump denied telling Bolton he was seeking something in return for unfreezing the Ukrainian aid, which eventually was provided in September after the controversy became public.

"I haven't seen the manuscript, but I can tell you nothing was ever said to John Bolton," Trump told reporters outside the White House ahead of a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

This is the third presidential impeachment trial in U.S. history. 

Dershowitz, another Clinton impeachment alumnus, carried a pair of worn antique books as he began closing the day's defence with an argument disputed by most legal scholars. "Purely non-criminal conduct, including abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, are outside the range of impeachable offences," he said.

Dershowitz himself argued the opposite view during Clinton's impeachment.

If senators do not allow new witnesses and evidence, the Senate could vote as soon as the end of this week on whether to remove Trump. In that case, the trial could be over before the first of the U.S. presidential party nominating contest takes place in Iowa on Feb. 3 and before Trump is scheduled to deliver the annual State of the Union address to Congress on Feb. 4.

With files from Kazi Stastna, CBC News