Trump attorney who ‘burrowed’ into critical job at last minute is placed on administrative leave

Donald Trump may have never admitted that he lost—bigly—but he sure spent his last months in office acting like a loser. That wasn’t just a matter of Trump completely checking out of his already inadequate governance, or drumming up support for an insurrection. It also included a firestorm of ripping out even marginally competent officials and making last-minute Trumpist substitutions. In particular, Trump got genuinely busy right after the election in replacing top Pentagon and national security officials. Some of those new officials seem to have been involved with the slow, inadequate response to the Jan. 6 insurrection. 

Even after the failed coup, the deck chairs kept moving on the Trumptanic. Less than 24 hours before Trump made the nation genuinely grateful by leaving Washington for good, Trump loyalist Michael Ellis was sworn in as the top attorney for the National Security Agency (NSA). This is a slot that’s supposed to be a nonpolitical civil service position awarded to the best qualified applicant. The push to seat Ellis in this post raised immediately generated calls for a review by an inspector general. But Trump’s team pushed around those calls to seat Ellis and keep him working until the last minute.

That minute is up. President Biden has placed Ellis on administrative leave. Now everyone wants to know just what he did in his less than two days on the job.

Ellis was not a newcomer to the Trump White House. He was originally a White House attorney before Trump handed him the role of senior director for intelligence on the National Security Council in March 2020. As Kerry Eleveld reported at that time, Ellis was considered a “Trump loyalist” who had no experience in intelligence. He was already known as someone who had slipped classified information to Rep. Devin Nunes and for requesting that transcript of Trump’s Ukrainian call be moved to a more secure server. His move to the NSC came shortly after Republicans handed Trump a free pass on his first impeachment—an impeachment that included key witnesses from the NSC who testified to Trump’s attempted blackmail of the Ukrainian president. 

Even though Ellis was already in the NSC and there were only days to go, The New York Times reports that former Acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller scrambled to move Ellis into place over objections. Among other things, Ellis’ appointment seems to be a clear violation of rules against “burrowing,” in which political appointees are assigned supposedly competitive civil service positions that normally carry on between administrations. Insiders have also said that Ellis was given the job over several more experienced attorneys who scored higher and had applied for the position. Why the rush? Well, for one thing, the top attorney has almost total control over that classified server where the transcripts from the Ukraine conversation and other classified conversations are stored. 

For the moment, Ellis has been ordered to the sidelines. The Biden White House put Ellis on administrative leave Wednesday evening.

However, if the investigation fails to show that seating Ellis violated regulations, the protections provided to civil service jobs could well see him returning. Which doesn’t mean he would once again be in charge of such critical areas. He may get to stay, but he can definitely be reassigned.

Bolton claims he wanted to release information during impeachment, was blocked by White House

John Bolton wrote a book. That seems kind of hard to remember now, but you may recall it as the one that came out just before the one from Donald Trump’s niece that confirms Trump as “the dumbest student” his school had ever seen, and before the book by Bob Woodward that explains how Trump knew about the deadliness of COVID-19, but decided to ignore it because he thought it would be a political “win.” But it was definitely after the 40-something other books (not kidding) about Trump. Somewhere in there.

Once upon a time—with that time being, unbelievably enough, the first month of this interminable year—what Bolton had to say might have mattered. With multiple witnesses at Trump’s impeachment having parts of the story about the effort to extort lies from the government of Ukraine, Bolton was uniquely positioned to fill in critical gaps. His testimony might have carried weight and had historical significance. Senate Republicans eventually voted that they didn’t want to hear from Bolton, or from anyone else, but well before that the former national security adviser made it clear that he wasn’t interested in talking anyway. He was saving it all for his book, where it wouldn’t do a damn thing for the nation but could earn him a tidy profit. Bolton, through his personal decisions, made himself into a minor footnote. 

Even so, it seems that the effort to suppress his book went deeper than has been known, and included interfering with a routine investigation. Because thanks to men like Bolton, there are no rules.

Bolton’s book was originally slated to appear in March. That was then pushed back to May, and eventually slid into June. The biggest reason for the slide was that even though the manuscript had been sitting with the White House for months, the publisher could not get a signal that the book did not contain classified information. Such investigations are routine, and usually result in either a thumbs-up or a list of information that needs to be removed or edited before publication.

That didn’t happen in this case. As the book rolled on toward its final publication date, Trump accused Bolton of knowingly including classified information. The William Barr Justice Department trotted off to do what they always do: act as Trump’s personal attorneys in court. That attempt to block release of the book eventually failed—not least of all because Barr moved at a point where the book was literally on the shelves of bookstores nationwide. However, the judge did have harsh words for Bolton, suggesting that he could forfeit that much-desired profit and possibly face additional penalties for the release of confidential information.

But now it seems that it wasn’t just Barr who was responsible for putting the book on hold. Because other members of Trump’s team interfered with the routine security clearance review of the book, purposely holding the book up to diminish its impact. Meaning that even as they were taking Bolton to court for moving ahead without getting clearance, they were also making sure that he never got clearance.

Bolton’s attorneys made this claim in a letter to the court on Tuesday. As The New York Times reports, Bolton now claims that he wanted to release one portion of his book—a portion relevant to the impeachment trial—at that time. But White House aides blocked the security review even though Bolton didn’t believe that there was any classified material in the section.

At the heart of this appears to be a lawyer named Michael Ellis who was a former assistant to (of course) Rep. Devin Nunes. Despite no background or training in security reviews, Ellis directed the official in charge of the security review to put a freeze on Bolton’s manuscript while he conducted “his own review of the book.” It was Ellis who then claimed that the book was “replete” with classified information. Ellis’ review then became the basis of the Department of Justice claims against Bolton.

No one is crying for John Bolton. Or his mustache. And at this point, the idea that he might have released some information at the time of the impeachment except for some maneuver by the White House dodges the fact that Bolton could have stepped in front of every news camera in the country and told everyone what he knew. However, the attempt to stifle Bolton is just another example of the lengths that the Trump White House has gone to to silence dissent, and the willingness of every Republican involved to throw “normal process” in the waste bin.