Security Brief

Will Bolton’s Bombshell Affect the Impeachment Trial?

New revelations from Trump’s former national security advisor could alter the fight in the Senate over whether to allow witnesses.

Then-National Security Advisor John Bolton listens to U.S. President Donald Trump during a meeting of his cabinet in the White House on Feb. 12, 2019, in Washington.
Then-National Security Advisor John Bolton listens to U.S. President Donald Trump during a meeting of his cabinet in the White House on Feb. 12, 2019, in Washington. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Security Brief. What’s on tap today: New revelations from John Bolton’s book rock Trump’s impeachment trial, conflicting reports emerge of a U.S. military plane crash in Afghanistan, and France pushes the United States to keep troops in West Africa.

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Bolton’s Book Offers New Revelations

As U.S. President Donald Trump’s defense team lays out their arguments in the next phase of his impeachment trial in the Senate, Democrats are seizing on new revelations outlined by former National Security Advisor John Bolton in his forthcoming book. Bolton writes that Trump told him last August that he wanted to keep withholding nearly $400 million of military aid to Ukraine until it agreed to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, one of Trump’s potential presidential Democratic rivals.

The account in Bolton’s book, first reported by the New York Times, appears to contradict the White House’s assertions that the hold on aid to Ukraine was separate from Trump pushing its government to investigate Biden—a central part of Trump’s defense. The eleventh hour bombshell could increase pressure on enough Senate Republicans to vote to allow witnesses in the trial, including Bolton—a measure Democrats have pushed for from the outset. Trump vehemently denies the claims in Bolton’s book.

Esper’s role. The New York Times report on Bolton’s book includes a key detail that may implicate Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who has managed to remain largely out of the spotlight on the Ukraine issue. Esper reportedly joined Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in urging the president to release the military aid after lower-level Ukrainian officials complained about the holdup. Trump rebuffed them.

Esper has remained largely untouched by the Ukraine scandal because he was confirmed as defense secretary on July 23, 2019, two months after the Pentagon approved the aid. But the new report raises questions about how much the defense secretary knew—and whether he could have done more to stop it.

Pompeo heads to Ukraine. Meanwhile, Pompeo finds himself in hot water on the eve of a trip to Ukraine after a contentious interview with NPR. “Do you think Americans care about Ukraine?” he reportedly said in an expletive-filled outburst after the interview, according to NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly. The interview led Pompeo to issue a highly unusual official statement accusing Kelly of lying to him—though he did not specifically deny the her account of events. Pompeo is expected to visit Ukraine on Thursday, followed by stops in Belarus and Central Asia.

The domino effect. The series of events that led to Trump’s impeachment saga began with unfounded conspiracy theories on the fringes of the internet that Ukraine, not Russia, interfered in U.S. elections. FP’s Robbie Gramer and Amy Mackinnon trace the origins of one of those theories, the muddled world of Russian disinformation, and what it says about the ongoing impeachment trial.

What We’re Watching 

Plane crash in Afghanistan. A spokesperson for U.S. Central Command told Foreign Policy on Monday that the Pentagon is investigating reports of a possible crash of a U.S. Air Force battlefield communications aircraft in Afghanistan over territory controlled by the Taliban. The group has reportedly claimed credit for shooting down a U.S. military aircraft, but the Pentagon hasn’t released any further information at this time.

Trump’s Middle East peace plan. Trump is set to unveil his long-awaited Middle East peace plan at the White House on Tuesday after meeting today with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his chief rival, Benny Gantz. The deal is expected to be favorable to Israel. In response, Palestinian officials threatened on Sunday to withdraw from key provisions of the Oslo accords, the current arrangement that governs relations between Israel and Palestine.

The timing is significant as both Trump and Netanyahu face domestic challenges: Trump with his impeachment trial, and Netanyahu with corruption charges. Both leaders also face elections this year. Though details of the plan remain unknown, White House Senior Advisor Jared Kushner—one of the plan’s architects—has said that it would not contain the phrase “two-state solution,” one of the main planks of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process to date.

Macron to Trump: Don’t withdraw troops from Africa. French President Emmanuel Macron is pleading with the United States not to reduce its support of French counterterrorism efforts against extremist organizations in Africa’s Sahel region. The appeal comes ahead of French Defense Minister Florence Parly’s visit to Washington this week. The United States has provided crucial logistical support for French troops, including plane refueling and intelligence support. But the French mission has faced challenges in recent years, including an upsurge in terror activity. As U.S. security officials grow skeptical, they are also weighing shifting U.S. military presence toward geopolitical threats posed by China and Russia.

Tensions mount in Iraq. Five rockets crashed near the U.S. embassy inside Baghdad’s high-security Green Zone on Sunday—the third such attack since the assassination of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Suleimani earlier this month. No injuries were reported, and it is unknown who carried out the attack. The strike is part of a broader escalation of tensions within Iraq since the U.S. military killed Suleimani in Baghdad. The attack on the U.S. embassy happened days after thousands of Iraqi protesters, supported by influential Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr, took to the streets of the capital to demand that U.S. troops leave the country.

Movers and Shakers

Dunford goes to Lockheed. Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford will join the board of Lockheed Martin, the Pentagon’s largest weapons supplier and maker of the F-35 fighter jet, Reuters reports. Dunford retired last year as the U.S. military’s top commander.

A post-Brexit ambassador. Veteran EU diplomat João Vale de Almeida, former EU ambassador to the United States and United Nations, will become the EU’s first top envoy to the United Kingdom, as the long break up between Britain and EU nears its end.

That’s it for today.

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Dan Haverty contributed to this report. 

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman

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