WASHINGTON — When John R. Bolton’s book manuscript landed on the desk of a White House national security aide shortly after Christmas, no one had to page through it to know that the draft could upend the impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump.
Now the question of who did review the book — and to what extent — has become a subject of the Senate impeachment trial of Trump. The White House has acknowledged that National Security Council staff members reviewed the draft, and that they briefed the White House counsel, Pat A. Cipollone.
But the president’s impeachment defense lawyers — Cipollone among them — insisted Wednesday that they were unaware it contained the explosive revelation by Bolton, the former national security adviser, that Trump had directly linked aid for Ukraine to investigations he sought for personal gain.
“No one from inside the White House or outside the White House told us publication of the book would be problematic for the president,” Patrick F. Philbin, a deputy White House counsel and one of Trump’s lawyers, said on the Senate floor. “We assumed Mr. Bolton was disgruntled and wouldn’t be saying a lot of nice things about the president, but no one told us anything like that.”
The acrimony between Bolton and the White House also escalated Wednesday as both sides jockeyed for the upper hand over whether he can publish his book as planned or must wait for government censors to strip it of classified information, which would also serve to help keep more damning details from coming out during the impeachment trial.
The National Security Council released a letter sent last week to a lawyer for Bolton saying that the draft contained “significant amounts” of it.
Bolton’s lawyer fired back, releasing his response sent last week to the White House: Because Bolton could be called to testify to the Senate shortly, he said, it was “imperative” that officials review his Ukraine writings immediately.
Trump also jumped in, saying on Twitter that he had fired Bolton because “if I had listened to him, we’d be in World War Six by now.”
White House officials insist that their handling of Bolton’s manuscript was legally sound. But however by the book they played the initial review of the manuscript, the strategy proved politically treacherous.
Bolton’s account came out in the middle of the president’s lawyers’ presentation of their impeachment defense, undercutting a key element — that the aid freeze was separate from Trump’s requests that Ukraine announce investigations he stood to benefit from — and forcing the president’s defense team to scramble to address the charge.
And Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader who had worked to keep witnesses out of the impeachment trial, raged that he was not warned that such dramatic revelations could come at the eleventh hour.
But National Security Council lawyers and staff members believed they had little choice but to keep the book’s details closely held, according to people familiar with their decision making. White House officials had faced accusations of a cover-up last year after deciding to initially block Congress from receiving the whistleblower complaint about the president’s dealings with Ukraine that set off impeachment proceedings.
Though Cipollone was briefed about the manuscript, lawyers for the National Security Council — the foreign policy arm of the White House — withheld the draft from other White House officials, administration officials said. The lawyers asked career civil servants, not political appointees, to review the book, in an effort to ensure it was handled similarly to any other book written by a former official with access to classified secrets, the officials said.
The lawyers did realize that Bolton’s book would by its nature be politically sensitive. One of the career lawyers, Yevgeny Vindman, did not take part in the review to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest. His twin brother is Lt. Col. Alexander S. Vindman, a Pentagon official detailed to the National Security Council and a key witness about the president’s Ukraine dealings in the impeachment hearings.
The political appointees among the national security lawyers, Michael Ellis and his boss, John A. Eisenberg, saw the manuscript but had no direct role in scouring the document for potential classified material, according to a person familiar with the matter.
At critical moments throughout the Ukraine matter, Eisenberg and the National Security Council legal team have been drawn in, prompting questions by others in the White House about how they handled the issues. Eisenberg and Ellis handled the internal complaints immediately after Trump’s July 25 call with President Volodymyr Zelenskiy of Ukraine and ordered records of the conversation be restricted.
The White House has said Cipollone did not review the manuscript or know details about its content. On Monday, a spokesman for the National Security Council said that “no White House personnel outside NSC have reviewed the manuscript.”
Former officials say that while there are few regulations constraining the National Security Council, officials adhere to past procedures, which in reviews of manuscripts allows them to notify other officials of their existence but not to review their content.
The office that conducts prepublication reviews of manuscripts by former council officials is staffed by career officials rather than political appointees, said Brian Egan, who served as legal adviser to the National Security Council from 2013 to 2016. The career officials, about half a dozen, conduct reviews among other responsibilities, including ensuring that no presidential records are destroyed, declassifying old presidential records and reviewing proposed speeches, papers and quotes by former officials.
“Their job is not a P.R.-type job — their job is a much more technical job,” Egan said. “That’s how they see themselves.”
Still, Egan said, it was routine for the office to circulate portions of a manuscript to subject-matter experts on the council staff for input, suggesting that it might have shared any portions of Bolton’s draft about Ukraine with the European affairs office.
Bolton’s manuscript was not shared with the European affairs office, a person familiar with the matter said.
The White House notified Bolton’s lawyer that it had significant issues with classified information in the manuscript last Thursday, just days before Bolton’s draft was made public on Sunday.
Some information in the manuscript was classified at the top-secret level, said the National Security Council letter, signed by Ellen Knight, a senior director for records. The council staff would work with Bolton to identify classified information to “ensure your client can tell his story in a manner that protects national security,” she wrote.
It was not clear what material the National Security Council staff considered classified and would seek to block. But Bolton’s lawyer, Charles J. Cooper, said in his response that if his client was called as a witness in the impeachment trial, he was sure to be asked questions that would elicit the material contained in the Ukraine chapter of the manuscript.
Classification reviews can often drag on for years, delaying publication and drastically restricting what former officials can reveal in a book.
The review process “is liable to abuse,” said Kevin Carroll, a lawyer who is representing former CIA and Air Force officers trying to publish a book.
“I find it highly unlikely that a very experienced official such as Ambassador Bolton, the former national security adviser, would put top-secret material in his manuscript,” Carroll said.
Knight offered no deadlines for completing the review.