Thursday, January 30, 2020
Why Having Hunter Biden Testify Would Be Bad for Trump
If there are to be witnesses in the impeachment trial of President Trump — at this moment an unknown — John Bolton and Hunter Biden would almost certainly be among those called to testify. Some people on Capitol Hill describe it as a one-for-one trade.
This idea has been widely dismissed by both sides. Democrats say Hunter Biden, son of former Vice President Joe Biden, is irrelevant to the issues in the articles of impeachment. The president and Republicans assert that Mr. Bolton, the former national security adviser who was fired by Mr. Trump — Mr. Bolton says he quit — is simply promoting a forthcoming book and has nothing meaningful to say.
To my own surprise, I now think that such an arrangement might well be highly valuable — for the country.
For some time, I was against the Democrats’ offering any Biden as a witness in Mr. Trump’s trial, on principle. Just because the Republicans want to batter Hunter Biden is no reason to submit either him or his father as fodder to hostile Republicans. But principle can be turned on its head; calling Hunter Biden could backfire on the Republicans big time.
In a television interview last October Joe Biden’s sole surviving and troubled son came across as a straightforward, unassuming guy: He conceded that he most likely wouldn’t have been asked to join the lucrative board of one of Ukraine’s largest natural gas companies, Burisma, or been offered other opportunities, but for his last name.
A multitude of investigations of his arrangement with Burisma have turned up no wrongdoing on Hunter’s part — other than inviting the appearance of a conflict of interest, since at the time his father was in charge of Ukraine policy for Barack Obama. Having him appear as a witness could expose the fatuity of the Republicans’ efforts to smear him and his father. In fact, a number of Republicans actually don’t want to call the younger Biden. They’re worried about the circus atmosphere that might present — and they’d rather have the issue linger as a useful weapon. Acceding to Hunter as a witness would call the Republicans’ bluff.
Having Joe Biden’s son testify would illuminate the Bidens’ irrelevance to the issue of whether the president held up congressionally appropriated military assistance for Ukraine until the Ukrainian president announced — not necessarily conducted, just announced — a government investigation into the Bidens’ role. An appearance by Hunter before Senate questioners now could also go some distance toward removing him as an issue in the general election, should his father be the Democratic nominee. In fact, Hunter could be the star witness as to why a president’s (or vice president’s) offspring should stay out of any business that might have something to do with their parents’ job.
Moreover Joe Biden is at his most moving when he talks about his family and what it has been through: The Republicans could be handing him a lovely opportunity to make a knockout campaign speech.
And several advantages would accrue to the Democrats if Mr. Bolton were to testify. First, this would undermine the White House’s and Republicans’ plan to terminate the trial with a vote to acquit Mr. Trump by the end of this week. Second, Mr. Bolton could smash the White House’s and Republicans’ argument that there is no direct evidence that Mr. Trump himself directly linked military aid to Ukraine to a request that the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, announce an investigation of the Bidens. (Mr. Bolton reportedly said as much in an unpublished manuscript of his forthcoming book, causing the White House to threaten to block its publication.)
As in the case of the Mueller report, this won’t stop Mr. Trump from declaring a fabulous victory. But the Democrats, with the Republicans in control of the Senate and so far essentially united on not convicting the president and removing him from office, have to go with what they can get. Democrats publicly brush off suggestions of a Biden-for-Bolton witness swap, but that could be a negotiating position.
It’s odd that after three years of a Trump administration, Republicans didn’t foresee the danger in putting their political careers in the hands of a man who’s out solely for himself and has a very distant relationship with the truth. But they clearly felt that they had no choice, and thus they enabled Mr. Trump to take them out on his limb. They are so frightened of him and his base that they have accepted his demand that his bullying phone call with Mr. Zelensky be considered “perfect.” This has left them, as well as him, no wiggle room. Which makes a Bolton appearance all the more dangerous.
Also, having Mr. Bolton testify offers him and his newfound Democratic allies an opportunity to make other damaging disclosures that may not yet have been discovered in his book or may not lie therein. He can elaborate on another bit of damaging goods from his book that has already been revealed: that in Bolton’s view(he’s not alone in this) Mr. Trump has seemed particularly complaisant toward autocrats. Representative Adam Schiff, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and lead prosecutor in the impeachment trial, had planned to investigate whether Mr. Trump’s foreign policy has been guided by his business investments. Mr. Bolton may know if this occurred.
Mr. Trump’s company, from which he hasn’t divested his interest, has property in at least two countries led by autocrats with whom he’s on especially friendly terms: Turkey and the Philippines. Mr. Bolton has written that he worried about Mr. Trump’s particular warmth toward the leaders of China and Turkey. Might Mr. Trump’s subdued reaction to demonstrations in Hong Kong and to Turkey’s decision to invade northern Syria have anything to do with Trump company business?
Mr. Bolton may also know about other conversations with foreign leaders locked in the supersecret computer system where the full conversation between Mr. Trump and Mr. Zelensky was consigned. We’ve only seen a scrubbed transcript of that conversation. Why? And are there other conversations with foreign leaders revealing blunders or abuses of power by Mr. Trump stored there as well?
John Bolton might have answers. Democrats should strike a deal, even an implicit one, to get him on the witness stand.
Elizabeth Drew, a political journalist who for many years covered Washington for The New Yorker, is the author of “Washington Journal: Reporting Watergate and Richard Nixon’s Downfall.”