White House accused of improperly politicising review of John Bolton's book

Last Updated : 24 September 2020, 03:40 IST
Last Updated : 24 September 2020, 03:40 IST

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White House aides improperly intervened to prevent a manuscript by President Donald Trump’s former national security adviser John R. Bolton from becoming public, a career official said in a letter filed in court on Wednesday, accusing them of making false assertions that he had revealed classified material and suggesting that they retaliated when she refused to go along.

The disclosures by the official who oversaw the book’s prepublication review, Ellen Knight, were the latest a series of accounts by current and former executive branch officials as the election nears accusing the president and his aides of putting his personal and political goals ahead of the public interest and an evenhanded application of the rule of law.

In an extraordinary 18-page document, a lawyer for Knight portrays the Trump administration as handling its response to the book in bad faith. Her account implied that the Justice Department may have told a court that the book contains classified information — and opened a criminal investigation into Bolton — based on false pretences.

She also said an aide to Trump also “instructed her to temporarily withhold any response” to a request from Bolton to review a chapter on Trump’s dealings with Ukraine so it could be released during the impeachment trial, wrote Knight’s lawyer, Kenneth L. Wainstein.

He said that his client had determined in April that Bolton’s book, “The Room Where It Happened,” no longer contained any classified information, but the “apolitical process” was then “commandeered by political appointees for a seemingly political purpose” to go after Bolton. The actions she was asked to take were “unprecedented in her experience,” the letter said.

Knight, a government classification expert previously assigned to the National Security Council, said that political appointees repeatedly asked her to sign a declaration to use against Bolton that made false assertions. She said that after her refusal, she was reassigned from the White House despite earlier expectations that she would transition to a permanent position there.

“She had never previously been asked to take the above-described measures, and she has never heard that predecessors in her position ever received such instructions in the course of their prepublication reviews,” the letter said.

The Justice Department defended the review process and the White House’s decision to deem the materials in Bolton’s book classified, citing sworn statements by national security officials. “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,” said a department spokeswoman, Kerri Kupec.

A lawyer for Bolton, Charles J. Cooper, declined to comment on the specifics of the letter but said his client had not asked Knight to disclose her account of events and that he had received a copy of the letter unexpectedly on Tuesday evening.

The document was an extraordinary twist in the legal saga surrounding Bolton’s book. The Trump administration unsuccessfully sought to block distribution of the book this year after it was printed, claiming despite Knight’s assessment that it contained large amounts of classified information. It is moving to seize his $2 million advance and has opened a criminal investigation, threatening charges for unauthorised disclosures of secrets.

But the letter called into question the premise underlying those efforts — that the book contains any classified information.

Wainstein recounted a series of irregularities that he said were unlike any other prepublication review Knight had handled in her two years working at the National Security Council.

Knight, after extensive work with Bolton to change his draft to eliminate classified information, had told his team informally in April that it no longer had any unpublishable material. But the White House never sent a formal letter saying the process was over and political appointees in the White House directed Knight not to communicate with them in writing about the book.

In June, as the delay dragged on, Bolton and Simon & Schuster published the book, arguing that Knight’s informal assurance fulfilled the legal commitment he had undertaken, as a condition of receiving his security clearance, to submit future writings about his job to prepublication review.

But the White House had by then proceeded to have a politically appointed lawyer — Michael Ellis, a former aide to Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., a close Trump ally — conduct his own review of the book.

Ellis had no training in the task at the time — he went through it after he completed his review — and pronounced the book replete with still-classified information. The Justice Department adopted that view in court in seeking to block Bolton from distributing the book.

Ellis was wrong, Wainstein wrote. Rather than evaluating the book by prepublication review standards for writings by a private citizen, he essentially treated the manuscript as a government document being subject to a classification review.

The two are very different, the letter explained, on matters like discussing a phone call between a president and a foreign leader. Bolton’s book contains numerous accounts of such discussions.

While an official record of that call would be presumptively classified, if the White House press secretary has disclosed the call’s existence and some its details, the prepublication review standards would not flag a manuscript’s similar discussion of the call as classified and unpublishable.

“Mr. Ellis failed to analyse whether the information he marked as classified was still, in fact, classified and subject to redaction,” Wainstein wrote.

Classification determinations are typically left to career experts, rather than White House lawyers, to keep prepublication reviews apolitical, said Joshua Geltzer, a former National Security Council lawyer under the Obama administration who worked on such issues.

“The letter strikes me as alleging a very serious infection of the prepublication process by political actors to the detriment of the classification experts who, in any normal administration, would handle these matters based on their experience,” Geltzer said.

The letter also called into question a statement made by Judge Royce C. Lamberth of the Federal District Court of the District of Columbia, who rejected the Justice Department’s request in June to block distribution of the already-printed book. Lamberth wrote in his ruling that the book appeared to contain large amounts of classified information and suggested that Bolton was likely to face civil and possibly criminal penalties.

But the letter noted that Lamberth considered only Ellis’ review and the assertions from intelligence officials that the book contained classified information, not the review led by Knight.

The letter also describes a pressure campaign that Trump’s appointees mounted against Knight to get her to admit error and say the book still had classified information, as they prepared their request for a judicial order blocking it.

Politically appointed White House officials — led by Patrick Philbin, the deputy White House counsel — called Knight in for a Saturday meeting in June and challenged her on why she had signed off on large amounts of material that Ellis claimed was classified, the letter said. By her account, she was able to explain why he was wrong about everything, frustrating them.

“It was clear to Ms Knight that they were trying to get her to admit that she and her team had missed something or made a mistake, which mistake could then be used to support their argument to block publication,” it said. “To their consternation, Ms Knight was able to explain the clear and objective reasoning behind her team’s decision-making as to each of the challenged passages.”

In the coming days, the letter continued, White House and Justice Department political appointees pressured her over 18 hours of meetings to sign an affidavit they could submit to a court for the litigation against Bolton that purported to describe her role in the process but was worded in a way that would support their narrative that her review was subpar and had left classified information in the book. She refused.

Knight — who was nearing the end of a two-year detail from the National Archives and Records Administration to the National Security Council — had expected up to that point that she would transition to a permanent position at the National Security Council. However, after the dispute over the Bolton book, she was instead sent back last month to the National Archives, where she got her start reviewing the secretly recorded conversations of President Richard Nixon for declassification before rising to more senior positions.

The allegations in Knight’s letter could dominate a hearing scheduled for Thursday in the civil dispute between the government and Bolton.

Bolton’s book presents an unflattering account of Trump’s conduct in office, including evidence supporting the accusations that prompted his impeachment: that he abused his power over the nation’s foreign policy to try to obtain personal political benefits. The Republican-led Senate acquitted him of the charges.

Trump has accused Bolton of lying while openly pressing the Justice Department to prosecute his former aide for spilling secrets.

In her account of the pressure from Trump aides, Knight asked the lawyers why they were so insistent on pursuing legal action and speculated that it was “because the most powerful man in the world said that it needed to happen.”

“Several registered their agreement with that diagnosis of the situation,” the letter said.

Published 24 September 2020, 03:40 IST

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