A little known part of the National Security Council has been thrust into the spotlight after details of an unpublished manuscript by former national security adviser John Bolton became public late Sunday, upending the Senate impeachment trial.
The records management office is located in the New Executive Office Building across the street from the White House. It is a process-focused office, so if something big is placed on their lap — for instance, a former national security adviser writing a book that could change the trajectory of the President’s impeachment trial — they would typically consult the current NSA, according to a person familiar with the matter.
Something big indeed was placed in the hands of the officials who work there in recent weeks: a manuscript of Bolton’s forthcoming book alleging Trump wanted to continue freezing security aid to Ukraine until he got help with investigations into Democrats.
The main job of the records office is to review potentially classified information for release, and it received Bolton’s manuscript for that purpose in recent weeks.
Typically, the records office has a quick turnaround, though multiple sources acknowledged that a book as explosive as Bolton’s could take longer than usual submissions.
The declassification coordinators who work at the records management office have specific duties, like reviewing op-eds and congressional testimony. They are the ones who would review such a manuscript as Bolton’s.
In addition to reviewing submissions for potential classification issues, the records management division also looks at issues related to the disclosure of information that might be covered by executive privilege. One source familiar with the process told CNN that they were under the impression this is one of the primary functions of the office when it receives something for pre-publication review.
“Presumably, if there is something in there where someone is talking about a conversation with the President, that at the minimum would trigger a look to see if its covered by executive privilege,” the person said. “When you are referencing a conversation with the President, there are only so many people you can go to and talk about that.”
“In the case of Bolton, he is referencing conversations so few people would have knowledge of so … in order to pursue a legitimate process that’s part of the prepublication review, you would have to go to somebody and the first stop would presumably someone connected to the NSC,” they added.
A separate source told CNN that the NSC records office would typically kick any issues related to executive privilege back to the White House Counsel and West Wing for review.
Given the current hyper-sensitive political environment, this source said the material was almost definitely handed over to the White House counsel’s office for review if they had questions about the manuscript related to executive privilege.
Officials in the Records Management Division likely would have gone to national security adviser Robert O’Brien and NSC attorneys with questions about the manuscript, essentially moving it on to the next step in the review process, per two people who explained it to CNN.
On Monday, after details became public, the NSC denied anyone outside the council had seen the draft. John Eisenberg, the top lawyer at the council who played down aides’ complaints about Ukraine policy, hasn’t seen the Bolton manuscript and is not on the review team for the manuscript, according to a source close to Eisenberg.
But how the Records Management Division addresses issues related to executive privilege remains unclear.
“In my experience working in the White House Counsel’s office for President Bush and having gone through the NSC prepublication review process since I left, I’m not aware of the NSC Records Management office doing anything more than reviewing material for NSC classification equities,” said Jamil N. Jaffer, former associate White House counsel to President George W. Bush and the founder and executive director of the National Security Institute at George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia Law School.
“And even if the NSC or some other office in the White House — like the Counsel’s office — were to have concerns about John Bolton releasing material covered by the executive privilege, the idea that they’d be the ones leaking that information to the press simply makes no sense; presumably they’d want to prevent the release of that material, not encourage it,” said Jaffer, who also served in the Bush Justice Department and on Capitol Hill as legal counsel to the House Intelligence and Senate Foreign Relations committees.
White House trying to work out how manuscript got out
A major question inside the White House right now is, of course, how details related to Bolton’s manuscript got out.
Only a handful of substantive NSC people would have been aware the manuscript had been sent to the Records Management Division. Republican senators, who said they felt blindsided by the development, have privately demanded answers from the administration about what they knew about Bolton’s book.
Some outlets that are favorable to the President have implied that Eugene Vindman, the NSC lawyer whose twin brother Alexander testified in the House impeachment hearings, could have been responsible for the leak. He is someone who in the past would have been involved in the review process. But his responsibilities were significantly limited after his twin brother testified in November.
Bolton’s forthcoming book has been a topic of speculation and intense interest inside the West Wing for months. Almost from the moment he was fired, there was broad expectation that he would detail his experience in a book drawn largely from the copious notes he took on the job.
So there would have been plenty of officials — including high-ranking officials — aware that his book would eventually arrive at the records management office for review, and would have been anticipating the arrival.