WASHINGTON – A federal judge on Saturday rejected the Justice Department’s emergency request to block publication of John Bolton’s White House memoir but said the former Trump national security adviser “likely jeopardized national security” and exposed himself to criminal prosecution.
U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth of the District of Columbia denied the Trump administration’s request for a restraining order on the book, set for publication Tuesday, citing his publisher’s declaration that more than 200,000 copies have already shipped for sale.
But Lamberth noted that it appeared Bolton failed to complete a pre-publication government review and get written authority that his manuscript contained no classified information before publishing.
“While Bolton’s unilateral conduct raises grave national security concerns, the government has not established that an injunction is an appropriate remedy,” Lamberth wrote. “For reasons that hardly need to be stated, the Court will not order nationwide seizure and destruction of a political memoir.”
However, Lamberth said a private review of passages the government alleged contain classified information persuaded him that Bolton “has gambled with the national security of the United States… [and] has exposed his country to harm and himself to civil (and potentially criminal) liability.”
“The Room Where It Happened” recounts Bolton’s 17 months as Trump’s top national security official and offers a withering portrait of the president as an “erratic” and “stunningly uninformed” leader. Bolton called Trump incompetent and “unfit for office” in promotional interviews.
Bolton, a veteran diplomat and security expert, denied the book contained any classified information. He asserted that after a painstaking, months-long review, a career White House official, Ellen Knight, effectively cleared his manuscript in April before Trump political appointees undertook to stall it through November’s election.
Bolton in that case could have sued the government, Lamberth said, instead of”unilaterally” opting out of the review process.
“This was Bolton’s bet: If he is right and the book does not contain classified information, he keeps the upside [of publicity and sales]; but if he is wrong, he stands to lose his profits from the book deal, exposes himself to criminal liability, and imperils national security,” the judge said.
“Bolton was wrong,” Lamberth concluded.
On Saturday, reaction from Trump was swift. The president – who previously said he thought and hoped Bolton would have “criminal problems” – wrote in a tweet: “Bolton broke the law and has been called out and rebuked for so doing, with a really big price to pay. He likes dropping bombs on people, and killing them. Now he will have bombs dropped on him!”
The judge’s ruling came after the government sued Bolton on Tuesday, seven days before the book’s planned June 23 publication, which has been excerpted and widely covered in the media. The court’s denial applied only to the government’s follow-up request Wednesday for an emergency injunction blocking publication, based on declarations by four of the government’s highest-ranking national security officials that the manuscript contained classified information. The government’s request included a sealed submission of what they said were six examples.
Legal experts said the ruling in some ways marked a “symbolic” victory for the government as far as stopping Bolton’s book. The government waited to the 11th hour to file suit, and Bolton’s attorney argued Friday it was political “theater” intended to placate the president.
But Lamberth’s decision also dealt a personal and professional blow to Bolton, while the government continues to litigate to clawback any of his book profits, including a reported $2 million advance, by alleging he violated government nondisclosure agreements.
Mark S. Zaid, a lawyer who has represented more than two dozen current and former government employees who have sought to publish books, said the likelihood of the government being able to show “irreparable harm” now that an injunction was denied is “literally impossible.”
“But absent some cataclysmic event occurring, Bolton is facing loss of millions of dollars,” he said.
The Justice Department also could seek to prosecute Bolton for publishing the book without authorization.
The government did not name publisher Simon & Schuster as a defendant but asked the court to enjoin it along with Bolton. In a statement, company spokesman Adam Rothberg said, “We are grateful that the Court has vindicated the strong First Amendment protections against censorship and prior restraint of publication. We are very pleased that the public will now have the opportunity to read Ambassador Bolton’s account of his time as National Security Advisor.”
Bolton attorney Charles J. Cooper said, “We welcome today’s decision by the Court denying the Government’s attempt to suppress Ambassador Bolton’s book.”
Cooper added, “We respectfully take issue, however, with the Court’s preliminary conclusion at this early stage of the case that Ambassador Bolton did not comply fully with his contractual prepublication obligation to the Government, and the case will now proceed to development of the full record on that issue. The full story of these events has yet to be told – but it will be.”
At a hearing conducted by videoconference Friday, Deputy Assistant Attorney General David M. Morrell said he did not know whether the president was involved in the process of clearing the book for publication and acknowledged he knew of no precedent in which high-level officials intervened in classification reviews.
The government acknowledged that after Knight on April 27 said Bolton had completed required edits, Trump appointees began another review.
That process was led by Michael Ellis – a former aide to Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., and the National Security Council’s new senior director for intelligence – who received his classification authority March 1 and was not trained on it before he completed the Bolton manuscript review.
Morrell acknowledged the government could confirm that only three of the six samples it gave the court were classified before Ellis’s re-review.
One of those included a matter described in a government declaration Wednesday, in which Gen. Paul M. Nakasone, director of the National Security Agency, said a limited portion of the draft manuscript “implicates” TS/SCI. He said “compromise of this information could result in the permanent loss of a valuable [signal intelligence] source and cause irreparable damage to the U.S. [signal intelligence] system.”
Bolton in a court filing Thursday argued that “sweeping” changes demanded just two days earlier by the White House after Ellis’s re-review apparently would eliminate passages describing most of Trump’s conversations with advisers, foreign leaders and numerous others portraying him in an unflattering light, Bolton said in a court filing.
Among its disclosures already reported, the book states Trump asked Chinese President Xi Jinping to help him win the 2020 U.S. election, confirms Trump attempted to use military aid to pressure Ukraine on political investigations, and says Trump expressed willingness to halt or obstruct criminal investigations as personal favors to authoritarian foreign leaders.
Trump has previously responded on Twitter by calling Bolton a “Wacko” and claimed that the former close aide’s account is “a compilation of lies and made up stories, all intended to make me look bad.”