In a more functional and less corrupt White House, there would be scenarios in which this is perfectly justifiable and acceptable. But given what we’ve seen for years now, we can’t assume this is the case.
The White House has issued a formal threat to former national security adviser John Bolton to keep him from publishing his book, "The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir," sources familiar with the matter tell CNN.In a letter to Bolton's lawyer, a top official at the National Security Council wrote the unpublished manuscript of Bolton's book "appears to contain significant amounts of classified information" and couldn't be published as written.The letter, which is dated January 23, said some of the information was classified at the “top secret” level, meaning it “reasonably could be expected to cause exceptionally grave harm to the national security.”“The manuscript may not be published or otherwise disclosed without the deletion of this classified information,” the letter read.
The letter to Bolton, whose book will recount that Trump linked military aid to Ukraine with his demand for sham investigations that would help him politically, is from the senior director for record, access, and information security management at the National Security Council (NSC).
I spoke with Joshua Geltzer, a senior NSC official from 2015 to 2017, about how this would work under normal circumstances.
Geltzer told me that, ordinarily, the officials handling information security management at the National Security Council would do this in consultation with the NSC’s top lawyer. That post is occupied by one John Eisenberg.
“I would expect that Eisenberg and his team are at least tracking this,” Geltzer told me.
If that name sounds familiar, that’s because Eisenberg is the lawyer who reportedly loaded Trump’s call with the Ukrainian president onto an ultra-secret server after Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, then a top Ukraine adviser at the White House, sounded the alarm about it.
And when officials complained to Eisenberg about the shadow Ukraine policy orchestrated by Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, as part of Trump’s extortion scheme, the New York Times reported that Eisenberg “set aside” these concerns and didn’t raise them with the president.
Eisenberg also defied a subpoena and refused to show up for questioning before the House impeachment inquiry.
It’s difficult to know what Eisenberg’s role involving Bolton’s book will look like, or what it will mean. As Geltzer told me, there are scenarios in which this could play out innocently.
If so, Geltzer said, a dialogue would ordinarily take place between Bolton and NSC staff that would resolve the council’s classification concerns in good faith, producing language that worked for both sides.
As Geltzer put it, in such a situation, it would be a matter of pruning out classified information with a “scalpel-like” process. The concerns probably wouldn’t derail the book’s scheduled publication date of March 17.
“This shouldn’t become protracted or a wholesale blocking,” Geltzer told me.
But this is not a normal White House.
And so, as Geltzer noted, two scenarios have to be considered at least as possibilities. One is that the initial objection on classification grounds was actually made in bad faith, and not on a genuine assessment of information in the book.
The White House has had Bolton’s book since late December. White House counsel Pat Cipollone, who is leading Trump’s impeachment defense, reportedly wasn’t briefed on its contents in advance, but the president’s legal team has refused to say whether other White House lawyers were briefed on them.
Oddly, the letter to Bolton states that his book contains “significant amounts” of classified information. That’s a bit difficult to imagine, since you’d think Bolton would write with the pending classification review in mind.
That claim could lay the groundwork for an overly protracted process. As Geltzer noted, if officials wanted to delay publication, they could ”intentionally draw this out” and “slow it down,” perhaps by objecting to far more on classification grounds than would be normally warranted.
One question here is whether Eisenberg is shaping the NSC’s decision-making as to what will be permitted for publication and what will not.
“I’d like to think this is being done in good faith, but given the surprising approach to recusals and conflicts of interest taken by the Trump White House, one has to at least worry,” Geltzer told me.
Again, it’s completely possible this process is entirely innocent. But this administration already has an extraordinarily long record of twisting official pronouncements to make Trump’s lies true and of manipulating the machinery of government to serve his political needs.
Attorney General William P. Barr dishonestly represented the special counsel’s findings before their release — manipulating a timetable to do so. And his Justice Department and director of national intelligence tried to block the whistleblower complaint, which kicked off the Ukraine scandal, from reaching Congress.
So we need to be on guard for the worst.