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Fact-checking Trump’s and Barr’s attacks on John Bolton’s book

Barr claimed that the timing of Bolton’s book is “unprecedented,” suggesting it is novel for a former official to write about ongoing policy issues while the president who appointed him is still in office. That isn’t true.

Trump claimed that Bolton “knows” he has not come close to completing the White House manuscript review process. Bolton’s lawyer, however, says Bolton was told in late April that the process was finished.

And Trump asserted that Bolton should face “criminal problems” for publishing allegedly classified information — since, Trump claimed, “any conversation with me is classified.” Though the president is in charge of deciding what is classified, experts in national security law called Trump’s sweeping claim absurd. Trump is staking a claim for far more secrecy than previous presidents have sought — and ignoring an executive order that makes clear that certain material should not be classified.

Bolton served as Trump’s national security adviser until Trump ousted him in September 2019 after a series of policy disagreements. Bolton plans to publish his book, “In the Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir,” on June 23.

“This is unprecedented, really,” Barr said during a Monday exchange with reporters at a White House roundtable. “I don’t know of any book that’s been published so quickly while, you know, the officeholders are still in government and it’s about very current events and current leaders and current discussions and current policy issues, which — many of which are inherently classified.”

Facts First: Numerous other former White House officials, over decades, have published memoirs discussing current policy issues while the president who appointed them was still in office. Bolton’s book is indeed coming out sooner after his departure from the administration than many other memoirs from former officials, but only by a matter of months in some cases.

Bolton’s book is scheduled to come out about nine months after he was ousted. Sean Spicer, who resigned as White House press secretary in July 2017, published a memoir — albeit one far gentler on Trump than Bolton’s is expected to be — about 12 months later. Matthew Whitaker, who served as Trump’s acting attorney general, was critical of the Department of Justice in an “inside story” book published about 14 months after his last day.

Another former Trump official, Omarosa Manigault Newman, published a book critical of Trump, and released secret recordings of her White House colleagues, less than nine months after her 2017 departure. And former staffer Cliff Sims published a 2019 memoir about administration infighting well under a year after his 2018 departure.

While President Barack Obama was still in office, Hillary Clinton, who had served as his Secretary of State, published a memoir about 16 months after she resigned. While George W. Bush was still in office, his former press secretary, Scott McClellan, published a scathing tell-all about two years and one month after his departure.

And while Bill Clinton was still in office, his former Secretary of Labor, Robert Reich, published a memoir just over a year after his departure.

We can’t call Barr’s “unprecedented” claim false, since he added so many qualifiers that it wasn’t clear exactly what he was calling unprecedented. But he certainly created the inaccurate impression that it’s unprecedented for a former adviser to write a frank book about pressing matters of governance during the term of the president they served.

The review process

Both Trump and Barr said that Bolton was publishing the book without completing the pre-publication review process in which the White House National Security Council inspects the manuscript to prevent the disclosure of classified information.

“He understands he did not complete a process or anywhere near complete a process,” Trump said.

Facts First: We don’t have independent corroboration either way about the extent to which Bolton completed the review process. However, Bolton himself does not acknowledge that he failed to complete the process. His lawyer, Chuck Cooper, wrote in the Wall Street Journal last week that Ellen Knight, the NSC official handling the review, told Bolton on April 27 that she had provided “the last edit I really have to provide for you.” Cooper wrote that this remark made clear that the process was “over” — but that Knight then told him that unnamed others at the White House had gotten involved in some way.

Cooper wrote that Knight’s remark about a final edit followed “perhaps the most extensive and intensive prepublication review in NSC history,” in which Bolton and Knight “spent almost four months going through the nearly 500-page manuscript four times, often line by line.”

Cooper wrote that Knight stopped communicating with Bolton on May 7; on June 8, he wrote, John Eisenberg, White House deputy counsel for national security, alleged in a letter to Bolton that the manuscript contained classified information.

“This is a transparent attempt to use national security as a pretext to censor Mr. Bolton, in violation of his constitutional right to speak on matters of the utmost public import,” Cooper wrote.

Cooper declined to comment to CNN on Monday.

Bolton and classification

Trump said: “If he wrote a book, I can’t imagine that he can, because that’s highly classified information. Even conversations with me — they’re highly classified. I told that to the attorney general before. I will consider every conversation with me as president highly classified. So that would mean that if he wrote a book, and if the book gets out, he’s broken the law.”

Facts First: The President is the authority over what is classified and not; he is allowed to declare, even after the fact, that a conversation is classified. However, courts could still overturn him if he formally tried to assert that every single thing he said to someone as president was classified — a claim that five experts told CNN is plainly unreasonable. And the still-standing 2009 executive order that is supposed to govern classification specifically says that there are certain reasons for which material cannot be classified.

“That order, like its predecessors dating back to the 1940s, imposes both procedural and substantive requirements on what information can properly be classified — and how. Suffice it to say, ‘because I said it’ is not one of the appropriate criteria for classifying national security information,” said Stephen Vladeck, a University of Texas law professor and a CNN legal analyst.

The order explains, rather, that disclosure of the information has to be expected to cause damage to national security. It says that information can never be classified to “(1) conceal violations of law, inefficiency, or administrative error; (2) prevent embarrassment to a person, organization, or agency; (3) restrain competition; or (4) prevent or delay the release of information that does not require protection in the interest of the national security.”

Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, said that “yes, hypothetically he could exercise his classification authority retroactively in an expansive way beyond what current standards permit. But doing so, especially in an arbitrary and self-serving manner, would make it easier for a court to overturn his action on First Amendment grounds.”

Sam Vinograd, a CNN national security analyst who served under Obama as senior adviser to national security adviser Tom Donilon, said that while the president is the authority on classification, Trump was “indicating that he’s willing to abuse the system” with his claim that every single one of his conversations is classified.

Vinograd said it’s true that “a lot” of the president’s exchanges with his national security adviser in particular are classified — “but I can’t say all of them.” Sometimes, for example, the two might have a benign conversation about newspaper article, or discuss the scenery at Camp David.

Bradley Moss, a national security lawyer, said that “prosecuting Bolton for retroactively classified information would be very difficult but not impossible.” Much more likely: that the government would be able to seize Bolton’s proceeds from the book.

CNN’s Zachary Cohen and Katelyn Polantz contributed to this article.

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