Lawyers for former national security adviser John Bolton told a judge Thursday they want to interview White House officials following new allegations that a pre-publication review of his tell-all book was politicized in an effort to block its release.
Michael Kirk, a lawyer for Bolton, said the interviews were needed to help establish whether President Donald Trump's political appointees at the White House acted in “bad faith” when overruling the judgment of a career classification official and concluding that Bolton's manuscript still contained classified information.
A lawsuit over Bolton's book, including whether the Justice Department is entitled to profits, is still pending even though a judge months ago refused to block the release.
Arguments in the Justice Department's lawsuit against Bolton over his book, “The Room Where it Happened,” took place after a new court filing from a lawyer for Ellen Knight, the White House official with whom Bolton worked for months to ensure that his manuscript was free of classified information that could possibly threaten U.S. national security.
In the filing, Knight said she determined in late April that the manuscript no longer contained classified information and told Bolton she had no more proposed changes. But after she advised National Security Council lawyers that she intended to clear the book for publication, she was told to take no action.
Weeks later, she learned that a White House official who she says had no previous classification experience had been instructed to conduct a second review of the manuscript. That official, Michael Ellis, flagged hundreds of passages that he believed were still classified. Knight disagreed with that conclusion.
The book, which details Bolton's 17 months as Trump's top national security adviser, contained description of Trump's conversations with foreign leaders that could be seen as damaging to the president. Those include accounts that Trump withheld aid to Ukraine for political reasons and that he asked China's President Xi Jinping for help in the election.
The Justice Department in June sued Bolton to block the release of the book. Though U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth denied the request since hundreds of thousands of copies had already been distributed, he also sharply scolded Bolton for moving ahead with the book's publication without waiting for formal, written authorization that it had been approved.
The case is still pending as the government looks to be able to seize profits from the book's sales. Lamberth heard arguments Thursday as he weighs whether to dismiss the lawsuit or to allow it to move forward into an information-sharing stage known as discovery.
It was not immediately clear when the judge might rule.
Kirk argued that Knight's behind-the-scenes account opened the door to arguments that the White House acted in bad faith during the classification review process, with an eye not toward protecting national security but rather to avoiding embarrassment.
He requested access to White House communications on the matter as well as depositions of senior White House officials, including current national security adviser Robert O'Brien, who according to Knight's statement had directed Ellis to undertake another classification review after Knight had completed hers.
“The government cannot and does not dispute that the law does not permit it to classify information for the purpose of preventing embarrassment," he said.
Lamberth, who has previously said that Bolton's actions may have exposed him to possible prosecution, chided the lawyer for what he said was a “political diatribe” unrelated to the question of whether Bolton mishandled classified information.
Justice Department lawyers, meanwhile, maintain that Bolton shirked his obligation to wait for formal clearance and wasn't entitled to abandon the pre-publication review process out of frustration.
“What is unprecedented here is a national security adviser releasing his memoir (of his time as) a national security adviser within months of leaving that job,” said Justice Department lawyer Jennifer Dickey.
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