The White House and John Bolton’s team agree on this much, at least: It wasn’t us.
As the explosive news of the former national security adviser’s forthcoming book ricochets across Washington — it reportedly accuses the president of tying military aid to Ukraine to investigations of Democrats — each side in the emerging dispute is begging off responsibility for leaking to the New York Times.
Understanding the sourcing behind the story could shine light on whether those who shared information with the Times were motivated to influence the Senate impeachment trial, or — as Republicans suggested on Monday, they were merely trying to juice Bolton’s book sales. And it could clarify whether top White House officials were aware of Bolton’s allegations, with several GOP senators telling reporters they felt blindsided by the story.
Even Mitch McConnell felt compelled to issue a statement through a spokesman who said the Senate majority leader “did not have any advance notice” of Bolton’s manuscript and its contents.
Bolton’s side was the first to play the blame game on Sunday evening, with his lawyer Chuck Cooper sharing a letter he had sent to the White House official in charge of reviewing outside publications for classified information. The letter, dated Dec. 30, asked Ellen Knight of the National Security Council Records Management Division to restrict access to “those career government officials and employees regularly charged with responsibility for such reviews.”
“It is clear, regrettably, from The New York Times article published today that the pre-publication review process has been corrupted and that information has been disclosed by persons other than those properly involved in reviewing the manuscript,” Cooper wrote in an accompanying statement.
The letter’s release seemed aimed at deflecting blame from Bolton for leaking, given that the Times story said the former national security adviser had circulated his draft to “close associates” and noted that “multiple people described Mr. Bolton’s account of the Ukraine affair.”
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On Monday morning, the White House fired back with a spare statement of its own.
“Ambassador Bolton’s manuscript was submitted to the NSC for pre-publication review and has been under initial review by the NSC,” the council’s spokesman John Ullyot said. “No White House personnel outside NSC have reviewed the manuscript.”
Ullyot did not clarify, however, whether other White House aides had been briefed on its contents, expanding the scope of potential leakers. Nor did he respond to questions about whether White House lawyers were aware of Bolton’s claims as they launched their impeachment defense of the president.
Finally, Bolton’s personal spokesperson said that neither he, nor his publisher or his literary agents had coordinated with the Times to leak the contents of the book as the book went on sale on Amazon.com, which made it available to pre-order on Sunday night — something less, apparently, than a full-throated denial that anyone from Bolton’s side had leaked to the paper.
As online commentators speculated about the Times’ sourcing, Bolton’s friends and associates circulated their own theories.
“I take Bolton and his staff at their word that they did not leak the manuscript to the New York Times,” his former NSC chief of staff, Fred Fleitz, wrote in an op-ed published on FoxNews.com. “But I believe they are still responsible for this leak since Bolton’s explosive book was sent to the leak-prone National Security Council for a security review in December 2019 so the book could be published in the spring of 2020. It also is inexplicable how such a sensitive manuscript could be sent to the NSC in the middle of the impeachment process. Under such circumstances, a leak of the manuscript was all but certain.”
Others said Bolton was leery of getting crosswise with the GOP base, which has steadfastly backed Trump throughout the Ukraine scandal.
“It’s hard to imagine that he wants to assert himself at this moment in a controversial way,” said one person close to Bolton. “He still sees himself as this leader in the party, he wants to be a speaker and a player and it doesn’t seem like he wants to go to war with Trump and the entire base of the Republican Party. It doesn’t seem like that would make sense for him.”
Bolton’s handling of his role in the Ukraine scandal has been a topic of much speculation in Washington.
He declined to share his knowledge of events before the House impeachment inquiry, saying he hoped the federal courts would clarify whether a former White House adviser could be compelled to testify. House Democrats invited him to testify but declined to compel his appearance, wary of a protracted legal fight. Meanwhile, he repeatedly teased his forthcoming book on Twitter, suggesting he had important information to share.
But Bolton then popped up in early January to announce that he was willing to obey a Senate subpoena, setting off a furious round of commentary about his possible motives. The statement also fueled Democrats’ demands that the Senate trial allow witnesses.
Bolton’s former underlings at the White House declined to comment on the manuscript news, including Fiona Hill, the onetime NSC Russia hand who testified last fall that Bolton had said he wanted no part of a “drug deal” cooked up by Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani.
“I have nothing to say about a book I haven’t read,” said Tim Morrison, who succeeded Hill as NSC senior director for Russia and Europe and also testified before House lawmakers.
Asked for his help in deciphering Bolton’s strategy, Morrison replied, “I wish I was that smart.”
Reuel Marc Gerecht, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies who has known Bolton for decades, acknowledged the fortuitous timing for the manuscript’s contents to leak. But he suggested that Bolton is motivated more by his negative view of the president’s conduct than he is by book sales.
“It’s fairly clear now that John certainly was not pleased by the morality of the actions in Ukraine. I think he was deeply disturbed by that,” Gerecht said. “It’s fair and accurate to say that John Bolton is not cracked up with Donald Trump.”
Gerecht declined to speculate on who might have provided information to the Times, and said he had no knowledge of who did.
But he argued that Bolton doesn’t need the money.
“John is not a poor man,” Gerecht said, noting that Bolton had already received a sizable advance. “I think he’s saved up quite a little kitty so I would be cautious about saying that he’s doing this just because of the financial rewards coming from his book.”
Another associate, who served in the Bush administration with Bolton and knows him, noted that despite his age, Bolton still has future ambitions that are “more than just selling books. He'd love to be secretary of state. He'd love to be president one day.”
“Sure, everybody wants history to record that they were awesome and did a great job and were powerful and influential,” this person said, “but I don't think John considers his career to be over.”
If Bolton had indeed leaked to the Times, Gerecht said it would mean, “obviously he wants to testify. He wants to set his version of events. He wants it written in marble.”