WASHINGTON (CN) — Bolstered by a career official’s searing affidavit, attorneys for John Bolton told a federal judge Thursday that the Trump administration blocked the former national security adviser’s explosive tell-all to shield the president's fragile ego rather than protect classified information.
The Washington proceedings follow the injection of fiery details from Ellen Knight, the former National Security Council official who led a prepublication review of Bolton’s book to see if it contained for classified information.
Knight concluded the “designedly apolitical process had been commandeered by political appointees for a seemingly political purpose,” her attorney Ken Wainstein wrote in a letter to the parties.
Bolton’s attorneys told U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth that the letter paints a frightening picture of the Trump administration acting in bad faith to bury the account of the president as “stunningly uninformed” and beholden to foreign leaders to win reelection.
Lamberth allowed a long detailing of the letter in Thursday’s hearing, but made clear his distaste for what he said was nothing more than “political diatribe.”
“It really has no place in what we are arguing today,” the judge said.
Previously the Reagan appointee has criticized Bolton for having “gambled with the national security of the United States.”
After Lamberth rejected the government’s bid to block publication, Bolton’s 577-page book, “The Room Where It Happened: a White House Memoir,” hit shelves in June, offering an insider's account of President Donald Trump’s conduct in office.
The Justice Department is fighting now to bar the book’s continued distribution and seize any profit made to date.
While the government contends that Bolton violated his nondisclosure agreement in publishing the memoir, his attorneys worked paragraph by paragraph through the contract Thursday arguing he complied with it “to the letter” and did not require written authorization.
Attorney Charles Cooper said Bolton “fervently believed” that he took “pain to avoid discussing classified information” in drafting his book.
Another of his attorneys, Michael W. Kirk, said Knight’s letter contains “devastating” new details showing that Bolton had received NSC authorization that the manuscript did not contain classified information.
“There should be no doubt that she was authorized to give him that confirmation,” Cooper said. “That was her job. She does it day in, and day out.”
Knight describes how, after months of painstaking review of Bolton’s writings, she was prepared to clear the manuscript when NSC higher-ups instructed her to stand by.
The NSC attorneys then began to play what Knight terms an “unprecedented” and “outsized role” in the review process, with then-deputy legal adviser Michael Ellis, a political appointee, launching his own separate review of the manuscript despite not being trained to do so.
Kirk argued, relying on Knight’s letter, that as the official authorized to clear Bolton’s book for publication, she had reported to the NSC legal adviser John Eisenberg that the manuscript no longer contained classified information.
Eisenberg, the letter says, rejected Knight’s suggestion to inform Bolton of her conclusion.
But the Justice Department argued that Bolton’s extensive writings on daily activities as the national security adviser, including access to the president’s daily briefs, were subject to the prepublication review that only concludes with written authorization from the NSC.
Bolton had submitted to the exacting process “but then he jumped the gun,” Justice Department attorney Jennifer Bandy Dickey said.
But Kirk accused the White House of having “violated good faith and fair dealing.”
The monthslong delay in authorizing Bolton’s book for publication was not an effort to protect classified information, Kirk argued, but rather a “strategy to run out the clock before the election” and “prevent political embarrassment to the president.”
Lamberth appeared ready to look past Knight’s letter, saying the former NSC official — having been removed from her post after refusing in June to sign a declaration for the Justice Department to use in its lawsuit against Bolton — had not seen the classified information he reviewed in chamber.
“So she doesn’t know what the final classifications were,” Lamberth said.
Bolton’s legal team has asked the judge to wait on issuing a final ruling. They moved to dismiss the Trump administration’s case, plus they want discovery to review the classified information the government relies on in its arguments.
They also seek to depose NSC legal officials Ellis and Eisenberg, as well as national security adviser Robert O’Brien. Knight’s letter says O’Brien made the call that her office’s determination that the manuscript was publishable was wrong.
Knight told White House and DOJ attorneys who interviewed her over the course of five days in early June, totaling 18 hours, that Ellis’s re-review of the manuscript was fundamentally flawed because the political appointee conducted a “classification review” rather than a “prepublication review.”
Unlike a classification review, the prepublication process is more complex and time-consuming and focuses on a citizen’s right to publish all information protected under the First Amendment.
“Had their concern been to produce a publishable manuscript without classified information, they presumably would have asked the experts who had devoted hundreds of person-hours to a painstaking review of every page of the manuscript,” Wainstein wrote.
The government argued Thursday that Knight’s account, even if true, is not relevant because Bolton was legally bound to wait for written authorization before submitting the manuscript to his publisher Simon & Schuster.
Dickey also said Bolton and his attorneys have no right to discovery to view classified information, a process that would draw out litigation for months.
“It would not create a material dispute of fact on the question of whether he breached his agreement,” the Justice Department attorney said.
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