But the already known facts suggest something seriously untoward is happening here. And this dispute raises important larger issues, about Trump’s abuses of power and the reforms need to prevent future abuses.
The immediate question is whether the Trump administration is abusing the declassification system to protect the president. What’s at stake is whether this constitutes more manipulation of the machinery of government to serve corrupt ends.
The lawsuit from the Justice Department seeks to block Bolton, Trump’s former national security adviser, from publishing his new memoir, on the grounds that it still contains classified information that could compromise national security.
We know Trump wants to block publication in part because the book will reveal more details about his impeachable conduct toward Ukraine and, possibly, other ways Trump perverted national security policy for reelection purposes.
The lawsuit accuses Bolton of violating the non-disclosure agreement he signed as a condition of employment. It claims Bolton “unilaterally” cut short the process by which books are reviewed for classified information.
The real issue here is what actually did happen during that process, and whether the administration corrupted it on Trump’s behalf.
How this process is supposed to work
Typically, when an author wants to publish a book with potentially classified information, National Security Council officials review the manuscript and enter a dialogue with the author, who edits the book until concerns are satisfied.
Those officials are supposed to act in good faith. They are supposed to ask whether the information in question legitimately should or should not be classified and whether divulging it legitimately would or would not harm the national interest.
In this case, the evidence suggests bad faith infected the process. The lawsuit itself recounts that one NSC official reviewed the book and, after revisions by Bolton, cleared it. A second official then undertook to review it, the lawsuit says.
As time passed, Bolton’s lawyer repeatedly inquired as to what was going on with that review, the lawsuit itself recounts. Again and again, an NSC official informed him that the process remained ongoing and that no new information was available.
Bolton concluded that the process was not unfolding in good faith, the New York Times reports, and moved forward with publication. The lawsuit’s complaint insists the process was ongoing according to protocol.
But the complaint justifies the delay unconvincingly. It notes that the official doing the second review had a “broader base of knowledge” to identify what shouldn’t have been published, a thin rationale.
Problems with the account
In an interview, Joshua Geltzer, a senior NSC official from 2015 to 2017, pointed to serious problems with this account. Geltzer noted that a career government official with experience in this sort of vetting did the first review, and that she cleared the book after an extensive process.
It was only after that, Geltzer pointed out, that the delays suddenly started taking place without explanation. And as Geltzer also noted, the official doing that second vetting — Michael Ellis, the NSC’s senior director for intelligence — is a political appointee.
Importantly, Geltzer points out, the lawsuit itself acknowledges that this second review took place “at the request” of the current national security adviser, Robert O’Brien.
“The claim by the government that the process was still ongoing does not feel in good faith,” Geltzer told me. “The official with genuine expertise had already weighed in. Bolton seemed to be getting the runaround with the goal of simply delay.”
What might have happened here? “We know Trump doesn’t want this book to see the light of day,” Geltzer said. “It seems natural to infer that O’Brien wanted to ensure the president got his way.”
It may be true that Bolton did violate his non-disclosure agreement. But that does not exonerate the government’s handling of this process.
One complication here concerns typical Beltway murkiness, this time around the status of former government officials who reenter the private sector and want to publicly recount their experiences. That act might be undertaken for self-interested purposes, but it constitutes protected speech and has a clear public-interest dimension.
As Geltzer explained, the process is meant to create a way to allow former officials to do this, for good reasons, while also protecting the country from damaging disclosures. So the process envisions a “scalpel, not a sledgehammer” approach to paring out classified info.
But here the administration appears to be wielding a sledgehammer.
“The idea that this whole book is being held up after an extensive process feels like an abuse of power,” Geltzer told me, adding that a cardinal principle of the classification process is that it must not be used to protect officials from “embarrassment.”
This whole process itself has grown problematic. As many former officials have claimed, it is plagued by vague standards and a lack of transparency that render it easily abused to suppress information for political purposes.
It doesn’t matter if Bolton’s views are loathsome (which they are), or that Bolton should have disclosed information during impeachment (which he should have). At issue is something much bigger: whether Trump and/or his loyalists are manipulating a process designed to balance competing public-interest imperatives, all to protect him politically.
Given all we’ve seen from Trump, and given the thinness of this lawsuit’s account, that seems more likely than not. And this is crying out for more scrutiny.
Watch the latest Opinions video: