WASHINGTON — White House aides improperly intervened to prevent a manuscript by President Trump’s former national security adviser John R. Bolton from becoming public, a career official said in a letter filed in court Wednesday, accusing them of making false assertions and trying to coerce her to join their efforts, and suggesting that they retaliated when she refused.
In an extraordinary 18-page document, a lawyer for the official who oversaw the book’s prepublication review, Ellen 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 pretenses.
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.
Wainstein 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 said that political appointees repeatedly asked her to sign a declaration to use against Bolton that made a range of 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.
Representatives for the National Security Council and the Justice Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment. A lawyer for Bolton, Charles J. Cooper, declined to comment on the specifics of the letter but said that his client had not asked Knight to disclose her account of events and that he had received a copy of the letter unexpectedly Tuesday evening.
The filing was an extraordinary twist in the legal saga surrounding Bolton’s book. The Trump administration unsuccessfully sought to block distribution of the book earlier this year after it was already 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 criminal charges for unauthorized disclosures of secrets.
But the letter called into question the premise of all of those efforts — that the book, in its published form, contains any classified information.
Knight’s account is also the latest in a series of disclosures by current and former executive branch officials as the election nears accusing the president and his political appointees of putting his personal and political goals ahead of the public interest and an evenhanded application of the rule of law.
Wainstein recounted a series of irregularities that he said were unlike any other prepublication review that Knight had handled in her two years working at the National Security Council.
Knight, after extensive work with Bolton to change aspects of his draft to eliminate classified information, had told his team informally 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 earlier 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 prepublication reviews at the time — he underwent it after he completed his review — and pronounced the book replete with still-classified information, a position the Justice Department then made in court 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 between Trump and his counterparts.
While an official record of that call would be presumptively classified in its entirety, if the White House press secretary has disclosed the fact of that call and put aspects of what was discussed into the public domain, the prepublication review standards would not flag a manuscript’s similar discussion of such a call as classified and unpublishable.
The letter called into question a statement made by the judge who in June rejected the Justice Department’s request for an order blocking distribution of the already-printed book. The judge, Royce C. Lamberth of the US District Court of the District of Columbia, wrote in his ruling that it appeared the book contained large amounts of classified information and suggested that Bolton was likely to face civil and possibly criminal penalties.