Pelosi should message McConnell: If you don’t subpoena John Bolton, we will

A House intent to subpoena Bolton if the Senate doesn’t should send fear down the spine — or whatever work-around fulfills the spinal function — of this group of inveterate invertebrates.

Lesley Becker/Globe Staff; Adobe; Globe file photos

In the impeachment chess match between House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, the next big move should be clear:

The Democratic queen needs to capture the Republican rook.

That is, Pelosi should announce that if the Senate refuses to hear from former Trump national security adviser John Bolton, the House will subpoena him to testify.

No one knows quite what Bolton would say, but there is ample reason to think he has firsthand knowledge of the administration’s effort to use foreign aid and a possible White House meeting to prompt an unwarranted Ukrainian investigation into former vice president Joe Biden and his son Hunter. Bolton had previously signaled he would fight a House subpoena; the prospect of a lengthy court battle dissuaded the House from going that route.


But Bolton has since said he will testify in the Senate impeachment trial if subpoenaed.

Which has made things uncomfortable for the meek sheep who mill about in the Senate pen under the watchful eye of herdsman McConnell.

With a few honorable exceptions, they have shown little interest in hearing from Bolton. Which is curious indeed, given the endless Republican refrain that the House’s impeachment articles against Trump were based on testimony from those who weren’t in actual meetings with the president.

Alert observers may note something of a double standard in the way Republicans assess evidence. Deep skepticism abides when evaluating anything that reflects poorly on the president. However, vague, undetailed assertions about supposedly imminent terrorist attacks seem to suffice when it comes to assassination raids this president launches.

But back to Bolton. Subpoenaing him is on the House table as an option, top Pelosi lieutenant Jim McGovern, the House Rules Committee chairman, told me after Pelosi met with the House Democratic Caucus on Tuesday.


“I think what she said was that we reserve that right, and we do," said McGovern, adding that he wished Bolton had made the same offer to testify during the House proceedings.

Advancing that from prospect to promise would change the current dynamic in a crucial way.

Thus far, McConnell has declared he has the votes to start the Senate impeachment trial without making any commitments on calling witnesses. The majority leader obviously hopes to keep the Senate trial as pro forma and uninformative as he can, and to end it as quickly as possible.

If Bolton isn’t heard from, McConnell might well be able to accomplish that. Think, however, of how Republican senators would look if they approved a no-witnesses trial and proceeded to vote down both impeachment articles, only to then have Bolton testify before the House and offer a revealing account of Trump’s attempts to leverage a Ukrainian investigation of the Bidens. (It’s possible Bolton would fight a House subpoena, but as legal experts have noted, his offer to honor a Senate subpoena would weaken his arguments.) If so, Republican senators would be revealed for what most have become: craven servitors to an imperial president.

So announcing a House intent to subpoena Bolton if the Senate doesn’t should send a frisson of fear down the spine — or whatever work-around fulfills the spinal function — of this group of inveterate invertebrates.

The half a handful of “I’m open to hearing from witnesses” Republicans might just morph into a larger “We need to hear from witnesses (to cover our own tails)” caucus.


That’s all the more true when you consider that two-thirds of the American people want Bolton to testify before the Senate.

Embarrassment has proved a feeble motivating force in today’s Republican politics, of course.

But electoral fear can still accomplish remarkable things.

Like, say, transforming a sheep into a US senator — if only for a bleating moment.

Scot Lehigh is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at scot.lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh