At the heart of the lawsuit is the idea that Bolton’s book contains classified information despite months of back-and-forth between him and the White House over its contents. The federal government requires officials and former officials like Bolton to clear their books before publication to protect such sensitive information. Bolton has pushed forward with publication, suggesting he believes the White House’s objections are no longer in good faith.
And as the Justice Department’s own suit admits, there was indeed a point at which the White House official who had worked extensively with Bolton decided the manuscript of the book was free of classified information. Shortly thereafter, though, she was overruled by officials with closer ties to Trump — and, in one case, thanks to an official with a history of politically charged actions benefiting Trump.
The lawsuit states Ellen Knight, a National Security Council official who has original classification authority over such publications, worked with Bolton for months and finished her work in late April.
“On or around April 27, 2020, Ms. Knight had completed her review and was of the judgment that the manuscript draft did not contain classified information,” the lawsuit states.
But a few days later, on May 2, another official launched an “an additional review,” according to the lawsuit. The official was Michael Ellis, the senior director for intelligence on the National Security Council. Interestingly, the lawsuit says the additional review was conducted “at the request of” Bolton’s replacement as White House national security adviser, Robert O’Brien. O’Brien had reviewed the manuscript and Knight’s guidance and decided there was still classified information in the book.
The lawsuit contends Ellis was in a better position than Knight to know about what was actually classified material. It says he “routinely receives extremely sensitive intelligence reports and analysis that most members of the NSC staff, including Ms. Knight do not” and “he has a broader base of knowledge to identify and determine information that is classified that others may not be able to identify and determine as classified.”
That may indeed be true. But it’s very notable that Knight reached her determination after months of working with Bolton. Even considering she might have less access to sensitive information than Ellis, her judgment was apparently not just that she wasn’t aware of the book containing classified information but that it did not, period.
The two men involved in reaching a different conclusion are also important here. O’Brien is a Trump appointee, so his injecting himself into the process by requesting the additional review by Ellis is important. O’Brien has also proved to be one of Trump’s most loyal aides, shifting the National Security Council from its traditional role of advising a president on policy to defending, implementing and enabling his preexisting policy ideas, according to a February New York Times analysis.
Ellis’s past is also completely notable here. Elevated to his current position in March, he has been embroiled in some high-profile White House controversies.
A former aide to the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Devin Nunes (Calif.), Ellis in 2017 was one of three White House officials involved in the handling of sensitive intelligence that was shared with Nunes to discredit the Russia investigation. The New York Times, which initially reported on this, said it “showed that Mr. Nunes and one of the aides, Michael Ellis, a lawyer in the White House Counsel’s Office, were using intelligence to advance political goals.”
Ellis was later party to controversy in the Ukraine investigation. Then-NSC official Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman testified under oath that he recalled it was Ellis who first raised the idea of putting Trump’s call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on a highly classified NSC server. This was the infamous call on which Trump pushed Zelensky for politically oriented investigations, including one involving Joe Biden.
“ … Just on the mere fact that it was sensitive without necessarily diving deeper into why it’s sensitive or of that nature, he was like, why don’t we just put it into this restricted system, and then we can deal with it later,” Vindman testified.
Officials have suggested it was unusual for NSC lawyers like Ellis to be involved in such decisions, and critics have alleged the NSC was burying the call not because of classified information but because it could be politically damaging to Trump. Vindman added in his testimony, “I don’t think there was any malicious intent or anything of that nature.” But Ellis refused to appear for a scheduled deposition in the impeachment inquiry.
The backdrop of all this is also important. Trump’s three-plus years in the White House have been replete with evidence of political considerations seeping into administration business that is supposed to remain free of politics. Just this week, a report indicated officials in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration violated their agency’s scientific integrity when they sought to defend Trump’s false claim that a hurricane was set to hit Alabama — an episode that has come to be known as “Sharpie-gate.” The Food and Drug Administration’s reversal this week on authorizing the emergency use of hydroxychloroquine to treat coronavirus patients also raises very valid questions about whether those officials succumbed to political pressure from Trump, who had promoted the drug despite reservations of scientists.
In that case, Trump’s own words lend credence to the idea that he intervened in an apolitical process. Trump said on March 30 that “hydroxychloroquine is something that I have been pushing very hard. I got the very early approval from the FDA. It was going to take a long time, and Dr. Stephen Hahn, the head of the FDA, gave us an early approval, a very quick approval, a 24-hour approval.”
Trump has offered somewhat similar comments when it comes to Bolton’s book. At one point, he told national TV anchors in an off-the-record meeting, “We’re going to try and block the publication of the book. After I leave office, he can do this. But not in the White House,” according to notes from the meeting.
That quote suggests the goal wasn’t about protecting classified information, but about protecting Trump. And the machinations described in the Trump Justice Department’s own lawsuit don’t exactly diminish that possibility.