Dershowitz’s power play, name-dropping Bolton and a Trump team stumble: The moments that mattered in the Senate Q&A

The omnipresent John Bolton

Democrats scarcely wasted an opportunity the entire day name-dropping John Bolton, Trump’s former national security adviser who is about to publish a book in which he accuses Trump of linking a freeze on military aid to Ukraine with his demand that the country investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, a 2020 rival.

Bolton has offered himself as a willing witness, but Senate Republicans appear increasingly uninterested in calling him, a decision that would likely conclude the trial as soon as Friday. So Democrats spent the entire day seeding Bolton’s name into their answers to questions, pointing out all the aspects of their case in which he could illuminate or add to the evidence they collected — and provide firsthand insight where other witnesses offered suppositions or guesswork.

“When you have a witness as plainly relevant as John Bolton, who goes to the heart of the most serious and egregious of the president’s misconduct, who has volunteered to come and testify, to turn him away and to look the other way, I think, is deeply at odds with being an impartial juror,” said Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the lead House impeachment prosecutor.

During a question on whether the House collected evidence of Trump making aid to Ukraine’s contingent on investigating Biden, Schiff again cited Bolton.

“If you have any lingering questions about direct evidence, any thoughts about anything we just talked about, anything I just relayed or we talked about the last week, there is a way to shed additional light on it. You can subpoena Ambassador Bolton and ask him that question directly,” he said.

And so it went for hours, while the president’s team countered that a move to call Bolton would delay the trial for weeks or months because Trump would demand his own voluminous set of witnesses. Democrats said they viewed this as an implicit threat to tie the Senate in knots if they dared extend the trial for new testimony, but Republicans have become increasingly wary of a protracted process.

In another illuminating moment, senators pressed the White House legal team whether they had any window into the allegations in Bolton’s book, which has been under review by the National Security Council since late December. Trump attorney Patrick Philbin answered by reading an NSC statement indicating that no one outside the NSC had reviewed the manuscript. But Schiff quickly countered that position, noting that it didn’t indicate whether anyone in the counsel’s office had been briefed or warned about the severity of Bolton’s allegations.

Dershowitz’s executive power play

Alan Dershowitz, the former Harvard law professor and prominent criminal defense attorney, took his expansive view of presidential power to an entirely new level.

Dershowitz, a member of Trump’s legal team, said a president could do virtually anything — including engaging in a quid pro quo for purely political benefit — as long as it’s in service of winning reelection.

“Every public official that I know believes that his election is in the public interest,” Dershowitz said on the Senate floor, responding to a question about how presidents conduct foreign policy. “And if a president did something that he believes will help him get elected — in the public interest — that cannot be the kind of quid pro quo that results in impeachment.”

Dershowitz’s argument cuts at the heart of the House managers’ case against the president: that Trump sought to leverage official U.S. government acts in order to boost his reelection bid, and that he improperly solicited foreign interference in an American election.

But his contention is well outside the mainstream of legal scholars — and one that the House impeachment managers said would put the president above the law and the Constitution.

Schiff said Dershowitz’s view gives a president “carte blanche” to use his or her office to further his or her own political interests, rather than the interests of the nation.

Dershowitz’s remarks underscore the extent to which Trump has surrounded himself with lawyers who believe in the so-called unitary executive theory — the idea that the president’s power is all but absolute and rarely subject to congressional oversight or investigation. But Dershowitz’s justification of all presidential quid pro quos goes even further than some of the most vocal proponents of expansive presidential power and quickly raised eyebrows on and off Capitol Hill.

Trump team struggles on Biden question

Trump’s lawyers dodged a direct question from two of the most important GOP senators in the chamber over whether the president had ever mentioned Joe Biden or his son Hunter to the Ukrainians or his own top staff before the former vice president entered the 2020 race last April.

In response to GOP Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine, associate White House counsel Patrick Philbin started out by pleading for some wiggle room on his answer because he was “limited to what is in the record” that the House created during its impeachment probe.

From there, he pivoted to more friendly ground by reciting arguments that the president’s interest in Burisma, a Ukrainian national gas company connected to Hunter Biden, was tied to a desire to ferret out corruption in Ukraine.

Collins and Murkowski scribbled furiously on their notepads as Philbin went on to cite a number of news articles that ran in the wake of Rudy Giuliani’s nonstop media campaign — which was launched around the end of March — which only helped draw attention to Biden’s apparent conflicts of interest. “That is what makes it suddenly current, relevant, probably to be in someone’s mind,” Philbin said.

What is perhaps most notable in Philbin’s answer is his insistence that he is confined to a record that the Trump lawyers themselves keep adding to. One very recent example: White House associate counsel Michael Purpura about 15 minutes earlier in the session referenced a Daily Beast interview with a former Ukrainian official that had only been published Tuesday.

Democrats pounced on the contradictions. On Twitter, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) criticized Philbin’s response. On the Senate floor, Schiff diverted at the end of the next question to jab back at the initial Collins-Murkowski question.

“Are we to believe that of all of the companies in all of the land, of all of the gin joints in all of the land in Ukraine, that it was just Hunter Biden walking into this one, and that is the reason why he was interested in Burisma, was just a coincidence that involved the son of his opponent?” he asked.