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DOJ Admits Trump Loyalist Reviewed Bolton Book for Classified Information Before Undergoing Required Training

The Department of Justice admitted on Friday that a Trump loyalist who reviewed John Bolton’s book for classified information conducted that review before he received required annual training on the process for doing so. After Michael Ellis was trained, Ellis checked his own work but changed nothing, the DOJ said.

According to the DOJ, Ellis started as the National Security Council’s Senior Director for Intelligence on March 1, reviewed Bolton’s book on June 9, and received required annual training on June 10. After that training was done, Ellis investigated his own work and found no wrongdoing:

On May 2, 2020, Michael Ellis, the NSC’s Senior Director for Intelligence, commenced an additional review of the manuscript. Mr. Ellis assumed his current position on March 1, 2020, and has served as an Original Classification Authority since assuming that position, under authority that had been delegated to the APNSA dated March 29, 2017. He commenced this review at the request of the Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs, who, upon review of the manuscript reflecting Ms. Knight’s latest guidance, was concerned that the manuscript still appeared to contain classified information, in part because the same Administration that the Author served is still in office and that the manuscript described sensitive information about ongoing foreign policy issues. Mr. Ellis completed his initial review on June 9, 2020. Mr. Ellis became an [Original Classification Authority] upon assuming his position [on March 1, 2020]. In accordance with Executive Order 13526 section 1.3(d), Mr. Ellis received his annual training on June 10, 2020. After completing the training, Mr. Ellis reviewed his work and concluded that the information he received in training did not alter his decisions.

Section 1.3(d) of Executive Order 13526 specifically says that the required training is necessary, in part, to avoid over-classification:

(d) All original classification authorities must receive training in proper classification (including the avoidance of over-classification) and declassification as provided in this order and its implementing directives at least once a calendar year. Such training must include instruction on the proper safeguarding of classified information and on the sanctions in section 5.5 of this order that may be brought against an individual who fails to classify information properly or protect classified information from unauthorized disclosure. Original classification authorities who do not receive such mandatory training at least once within a calendar year shall have their classification authority suspended by the agency head or the senior agency official designated under section 5.4(d) of this order until such training has taken place. A waiver may be granted by the agency head, the deputy agency head, or the senior agency official if an individual is unable to receive such training due to unavoidable circumstances. Whenever a waiver is granted, the individual shall receive such training as soon as practicable.

The DOJ filing came ahead of the department’s Friday afternoon airing of grievances before U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth. The theme thus far? “The horse is out of the barn.”

The issue of Ellis’s lack of training came up during the hearing:

When Ellis was installed in his new role, his immediate superior became White House lawyer John Eisenberg, a key figure in the Ukraine affair, per Politico:

Ellis also featured in the Ukraine scandal, according to testimony heard by the House Intelligence Committee during the impeachment investigation.

Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a decorated Army officer who served as the National Security Council’s director for Ukraine, told lawmakers in October that Ellis and Eisenberg were the ones who decided to move the record of Trump’s phone call with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky into the NSC’s top-secret codeword system—a server normally used to store highly classified material that only a small group of officials can access.

What else do we know about Ellis? The White House included Ellis’s résumé when announcing his addition to the White House Counsel’s Office, when Don McGahn was running the show as of March 7, 2017:

Michael Ellis serves as Special Assistant to the President, Senior Associate Counsel to the President, and Deputy National Security Council Legal Advisor. Most recently, Mr. Ellis served as General Counsel of the U.S. House of Representatives Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. Prior to joining the U.S. House of Representatives, Mr. Ellis was a Law Clerk to Judge Jeffrey Sutton of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals and to Judge Amul Thapar of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky. Earlier in his career, Mr. Ellis served as an Associate Director in the White House Office of Strategic Initiatives. Mr. Ellis is also an intelligence officer in the United States Navy Reserve. Mr. Ellis earned his bachelor’s degree from Dartmouth College and his J.D. from Yale Law School.

In summary: 1) Ellis has intelligence experience; 2) he has experience working for President Donald Trump; 3) he was General Counsel for the House Intelligence Committee when it was chaired by Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.).

On that last point, the New York Times once identified Ellis as one of two White House officials who provided Nunes with “the intelligence reports that showed that President Trump and his associates were incidentally swept up in foreign surveillance by American spy agencies.” That was reported on March 30, 2017. These Nunes sources were described as “whistleblowers”:

Since disclosing the existence of the intelligence reports, Mr. Nunes has refused to identify his sources, saying he needed to protect them so others would feel safe going to the committee with sensitive information. In his public comments, he has described his sources as whistle-blowers trying to expose wrongdoing at great risk to themselves.

That does not appear to be the case. Several current American officials identified the White House officials as Ezra Cohen-Watnick, the senior director for intelligence at the National Security Council, and Michael Ellis, a lawyer who works on national security issues at the White House Counsel’s Office and was previously counsel to Mr. Nunes’s committee. Though neither has been accused of breaking any laws, they do appear to have sought to use intelligence to advance the political goals of the Trump administration.

Then-House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) repeated the “whistleblower” description during an interview.

“[Nunes] had told me that like a whistle blower-type person had given him some information that was new that spoke to the last administration and part of this investigation,” Ryan said.

During his time at Dartmouth, Ellis was the editor-in-chief of The Dartmouth Review. After graduating, he actually appeared on Jeopardy! as a contestant. Several years ago, Ellis spoke about that experience during an interview with the publication he used to run. He also discussed how he came to advance Republican causes.

Ellis said that when he was a college freshman, he volunteered for the George W. BushDick Cheney campaign, ascended pretty quickly and ended up getting a job in the Bush White House after he graduated.

[Image via Alex Wong/Getty Images]

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Matt Naham is managing editor of Law&Crime. He formerly worked as news editor and weekend editor at Rare.