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White House intervened to halt release of Bolton book with flawed classification review, federal official says

Then-national security adviser John Bolton and then-White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham in the Oval Office with President Trump in July 2019. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

White House aides took unprecedented steps to “commandeer” a pre-publication review of a book by former Trump national security adviser John Bolton and erroneously claimed it contained classified information to prevent its public release, a lawyer for a career official told a court Wednesday.

Kenneth L. Wainstein, an attorney for the official who conducted the clearance review, Ellen Knight, wrote that she came forward to warn against the “politicization” of government proceedings. He said that soon after requesting a copy of the manuscript on Jan. 6, for example, Trump appointees halted a response to Bolton’s request to prioritize approval of a chapter about President Trump’s interactions with Ukraine so it could be public during the Senate impeachment trial.

The Trump administration unsuccessfully sued in June to block the release of Bolton’s White House memoir, “The Room Where It Happened,” after a review by Knight concluded in April it no longer contained classified information. At that point, however, an untrained Trump appointee undertook a new review and wrongly challenged hundreds of passages, leading to the government litigation, Knight asserted.

Objecting that “a designedly apolitical process had been commandeered by political appointees for a seemingly political purpose,” Knight said several government attorneys agreed in a later debriefing when she speculated that the reason the Justice Department was suing Bolton was “because the most powerful man in the world said that it needed to happen,” Wainstein wrote.

Justice Dept. seeks emergency order to block publication of Bolton’s book

Wednesday’s court filing is the latest revelation triggered by Bolton’s disclosures over his 17-month tenure as Trump’s top national security official. Bolton has painted a portrait of Trump as an “erratic” and “stunningly uninformed” leader who repeatedly sought foreign leaders’ assistance for his personal benefit.

It comes after a June 20 ruling in which U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth of the District of Columbia denied the Trump administration’s request to halt publication but said the government might be able to seize Bolton’s profits if the book’s release came without written White House authorization that it contained no classified material.

White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany on June 17 slammed John Bolton for allegedly including classified information in his upcoming book. (Video: The Washington Post)

Bolton “exposed his country to harm and himself to civil (and potentially criminal) liability” in further litigation, the judge warned.

All sides are due back in court Thursday for further arguments. It is not clear what impact Knight’s disclosures may have. Lamberth said Bolton should have sued the government instead of “unilaterally” opting out of the review process if he was dissatisfied with it.

Separately, a federal grand jury has issued subpoenas to Bolton’s publisher as part of a Justice Department investigation of whether he criminally mishandled classified information in the book.

In a statement last week, Bolton attorney Charles J. Cooper said that “Ambassador Bolton emphatically rejects any claim that he acted improperly, let alone criminally, in connection with the publication of his book, and he will cooperate fully, as he has throughout, with any official inquiry into his conduct.”

The White House did not respond to a request for comment.

Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said that “Mr. Bolton chose to publish a manuscript that four senior National Security officials have stated, under penalty of perjury, contains classified information” and that “Ms. Knight’s letter confirms that Mr. Bolton did not receive the appropriate and required written, pre-publication approval.” Kupec added, “The publication of a memoir by a former National Security Adviser, right after his departure, is an unprecedented action, and it is not surprising that National Security Council staff would pay close attention to ensure that the book does not contain the release of classified information.”

Read the letter filed by counsel for Ellen Knight

NSC spokesman John Ullyot said it disagreed strongly with Knight’s assertion that additional review was politically motivated, saying multiple high ranking officials disagreed that her cleared version contained no classified information. “These officials had access to more information than Ms. Knight and were in a better position to assess classification,” Ullyot said, adding, “The National Security Council acted to protect exceptionally sensitive classified information that Ms. Knight simply missed.”

Deputy Assistant Attorney General David M. Morrell in June acknowledged in court that he knew of no precedent in which high-level officials intervened in classification reviews but said that, however irregular, the process was entirely appropriate, given “an extraordinary set of facts” — a former national security adviser detailing ongoing policy matters during the same administration in which he served.

Morrell and two superiors who oversaw civil litigation including Bolton’s case have left the department since the suit was filed. Assistant Attorney General Joseph H. Hunt resigned in July, and Morrell and acting assistant attorney general Ethan P. Davis departed two weeks ago.

Wainstein, who served as President George W. Bush’s White House homeland security adviser and as a D.C. U.S. attorney, said in a letter filed with the court that Knight did not take sides in the litigation or coordinate with either party.

He said she chose to speak out as a “central actor” to defend her team’s work, to protect the government’s pre-publication review process from politicization so authors do not seek to evade compliance, and “most importantly” to ensure that government litigation does not deny the public a “full understanding” of the handling of Bolton’s book.

Knight’s account sheds new light on the government’s acknowledgment that after Knight on April 27 said Bolton had completed required edits, national security adviser Robert C. O’Brien Jr., whom Trump appointed to succeed Bolton, ordered an additional review.

O’Brien tapped another new appointee, Michael Ellis — the NSC’s senior director for intelligence and a former aide to Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) — who received his classification authority March 1 and was not officially trained on it until the day after he completed the Bolton manuscript review.

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Wainstein said Knight asserted that the re-review was conducted in secret and wrongly sought to exclude any material reflected in other classified documents, rather than permitting publication of sensitive data that the government has already disclosed, the proper standard for First Amendment-protected writings of a private citizen.

Ellis may well have detected some remaining concerns, the letter acknowledged, but that could not explain his initial claim that “hundreds of passages” still contained classified information or the extended delay in clearing the manuscript, “as any such concerns could have been addressed — probably in a matter of hours — with a simple call or meeting” and revision.

No such call or meeting ever took place, Wainstein wrote. The government subsequently told the court it could confirm only that three of the six samples it gave the court were classified before the Ellis review.

In the letter, Wainstein said Knight found that several government lawyers acted “with absolute professionalism” and understood her concerns as a career public servant but that it appeared to her that most if not all of them “were being directed to implement a strategy with which they were not entirely comfortable.”

The letter also highlights Trump’s conduct toward Ukraine.

According to the letter, Cooper, Bolton’s attorney, at one point asked that staffers reviewing the manuscript prioritize a chapter describing Trump’s interactions with the president of Ukraine, so that it could be made publicly available during the president’s impeachment trial, which was examining his conduct regarding Ukraine. Knight’s attorney wrote that Ellis “instructed her to temporarily withhold any response” to the request — a direction that presumably impeded Bolton’s ability to publish the information while Trump was on trial.

In new book, Bolton belatedly says Trump attempted to use military aid to pressure Ukraine on political investigations

Democrats were anxious to have Bolton testify during the impeachment proceedings, believing he could provide a firsthand account to bolster the case that Trump withheld nearly $400 million in military assistance to Ukraine in a bid to force the country to open an investigation of Joe Biden, his political rival. Bolton has said he was not going to testify without a court order, in deference to the executive branch, and Democrats in the House did not seek to subpoena him and force a court fight. Republicans in the Senate chose to call no witnesses at all.

When his book was published, Bolton did provide evidence that supported the Democrats’ case against Trump — but by then, four months had passed since Trump was acquitted by the Senate. Bolton wrote that in an August 2019 meeting, Trump made explicit a quid pro quo in Ukraine that he has otherwise long denied, telling his national security adviser that he was not in favor of “sending them anything until all Russia-investigation material related to Clinton and Biden had been turned over.”

In the book, Bolton wrote that he has concluded that his testimony would have “made no significant difference” in Trump’s acquittal. Still, the new court filing reveals that his silence at the time was linked more closely to White House opposition than was previously known.

Knight, a 16-year career federal employee on detail to the NSC from the National Archives and Records Administration, was on track to be hired full time, in keeping with the practice that the senior director for records access remain through presidential transitions to ensure continuity of operations, Wainstein wrote in the letter. He wrote that after 18 hours of meetings with government lawyers, she refused in June to sign a statement concerning the government lawsuit against Bolton and was then told “there is no path forward” for her at the council.

Wainstein said Knight returned to NARA in August.

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