White House interfered in Bolton book review, official says

David Yaffe-Bellany

White House officials interfered in a review of former National Security Advisor John Bolton’s tell-all memoir to block publication for “a seemingly political purpose,” according to the government official who conducted the first review of the manuscript.

On one occasion, a political appointee on the National Security Council urged the official to temporarily delay a response when Bolton asked to expedite the review of a chapter on President Donald Trump’s dealings with Ukraine so it could be published during the impeachment trial, according to a letter filed in federal court Wednesday on behalf of NSC official Ellen Knight.

A copy of "The Room Where It Happened," by former national security adviser John Bolton, is photographed at the White House, Thursday in Washington.

The letter, written by Knight’s lawyer, Kenneth Wainstein, was filed in response to a government lawsuit in Washington seeking to seize the proceeds from Bolton’s book, “The Room Where It Happened.” The book was published in June after the government failed in a last-ditch effort to stop its release on the grounds that it would endanger national security.

The government has argued that Bolton violated nondisclosure agreements when he released the memoir without completing a pre-publication review to ensure the book didn’t contain classified information. Bolton has countered that he fulfilled his obligations under two non-disclosure agreements by clearing the book with Knight and that the U.S. simply dragged its feet to prevent embarrassing revelations about the president.

Former U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton speaks with Bloomberg News.

The letter describing the review process takes direct aim at the Justice Department’s assertion that the published memoir contained classified material. Knight, a long-time government official who specializes in prepublication reviews, approved the book in April, according to the filing. Throughout the process, political appointees at the NSC discouraged her from using email to discuss the review and asked her to read aloud drafts of correspondence over the phone, the filing said.

Knight called the staffers’ role in the review process “unprecedented in her experience” and said she had “never previously been asked to take the above-described measures.”

After Knight approved the book, National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien instructed a politically appointed NSC lawyer, Michael Ellis, to perform a second review, even though he had no training in the process, according to the account by Wainstein.

Flawed Approach

In his review, Ellis marked hundreds of passages as containing classified information. But the approach Ellis took was flawed, Wainstein said, because he applied standards reserved for reviews of government records, not writings by a private citizen.

Ellis flagged passages that consisted of Bolton’s analysis of certain events, the lawyer wrote, “violating the basic tenet of prepublication review that a private author is entitled to his or her perspective of an event, even if that perspective is slanted or factually incorrect.”

“A designedly apolitical process had been commandeered by political appointees for a seemingly political purpose,” Wainstein wrote.

A Justice Department spokeswoman said Knight’s letter confirmed that Bolton published the book without receiving the required written approval from the government.

“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,” spokeswoman Kerry Kupec said in an emailed statement.

Applied Pressure

According to the letter, White House and Justice Department lawyers spent 18 hours in June pressuring Knight to sign an affidavit supporting their effort to block the book’s publication in court. The affidavit said the conflict between her review and the second appraisal by Ellis amounted to “a disagreement between experts,” according to the letter.

Knight refused to sign the affidavit, and the letter suggests the government retaliated. According to the letter, Knight had been assured she would be hired at the NSC to a permanent position at the end of her two-year posting. Less than a week after she refused to sign the declaration, the letter said, Knight received an automated email saying her job would end in 60 days, and a senior official later told her she had “no path forward” at the NSC. She was sent to work in the National Archives last month.

The letter describing Knight’s account of the review was included in a filing by Bolton’s lawyer, Charles Cooper. In a statement, Cooper said he received the letter late last night and did not solicit it in any way. “It came as a complete surprise,” he said.

While the letter raises serious concerns, it may not help Bolton’s legal case because he published without formal approval, said Mark Zaid, a lawyer who has represented former government officials in the pre-publication review process.

“It does little to afford Bolton a viable shield to either his civil or potential criminal liability,” Zaid said. “At best now it likely could mitigate any judgment or sentence against him.”

In June, U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth refused to block the book’s release, partly because excerpts had already appeared in major newspapers. But he criticized Bolton’s conduct, saying he had “gambled with the national security of the United States.”

Earlier this month, amid reports that the Justice Department has opened a criminal investigation into the book’s publication, Bolton denied breaking any laws.

A hawkish former diplomat who served as Trump’s top national security aide from April 2018 until September 2019, Bolton is highly critical of his ex-boss in the book. He depicts Trump as ignorant and incurious about U.S. foreign policy except where he sees the potential for personal political gain.

The case is U.S. v. Bolton, 20-cv-01580, U.S. District Court, District of Columbia (Washington).