Trump administration sues to stop John Bolton from publishing his tell-all book

Trump administration sues to stop John Bolton from publishing his tell-all book
Official White House Photo by Tia Dufour.

In a new lawsuit filed on Tuesday, the U.S. Justice Department sought to block former National Security Adviser John Bolton from publishing his tell-all book about his time in the White House.


President Donald Trump has previously threatened to block the long-delayed publication, which Bolton and his publisher have said contains explosive revelations — not just about he Ukraine scandal that sparked the impeachment saga, as anticipated, but other incidents that allegedly showed a similar pattern of misconduct.

The Justice Department charges that Bolton is "in clear breach of agreements he signed as a condition of his employment and as a condition of gaining access to highly classified information and in clear breach of the trust placed within him by the United States Government."

The administration asked for a judicial order "to stop the publication and dissemination of his book as currently drafted." It said the book contains classified material, and it must go through the official process of pre-clearance review before it is published.

Simon & Schuster has scheduled for the book to be published on June 23. It was supposed to come out in March, but the publication has been delayed due to the pre-clearance process, according to Bolton's lawyer Chuck Cooper.

Cooper recently wrote in the Wall Street Journal that Bolton began the process of clearing the manuscript in December, and he worked with Ellen Knight, the National Security Council's senior director for prepublication review. He described a "meticulous" review process going over the manuscript for months for multiple rounds of revisions. On April 27, Cooper said, Bolton received the last edit from Knight. He continued:

Yet when Mr. Bolton asked when he would receive the letter confirming the book was cleared, Ms. Knight cryptically replied that her “interaction” with unnamed others in the White House about the book had “been very delicate” and that there were “some internal process considerations to work through.” She thought the letter might be ready that afternoon but would “know more by the end of the day.” Six weeks later, Mr. Bolton has yet to receive a clearance letter. He hasn’t heard from Ms. Knight since May 7.

We did hear from the White House on June 8. John A. Eisenberg, the president’s deputy counsel for national security, asserted in a letter that Mr. Bolton’s manuscript contains classified information and that publishing the book would violate his nondisclosure agreements.

"This last-minute allegation came after an intensive four-month review, after weeks of silence from the White House, and—as Mr. Eisenberg admits in his letter—after press reports alerted the White House that Mr. Bolton’s book would be published on June 23," Cooper explained. "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."

In the lawsuit, the government said Bolton "apparently became dissatisfied at the pace of NSC’s review. Rather than wait for the process to conclude, Defendant decided to take matters into his own hands."

While the government says that Bolton's change of mood came "soon" after the process began, the lawsuit confirms the months-long timeline Cooper outlined.

Many have criticized Bolton for not testifying in the impeachment process. Had he participated and shared what he knew under these circumstances, he may have been able to publicly air much of the information now in dispute, thus neutralizing any claim the administration has against him.

But it also seems clear the president is abusing the process to protect himself. The Washington Post reported in February:

Trump told national television anchors on Feb. 4 during an off-the-record lunch that material in the book was “highly classified,” according to notes from one participant in the luncheon. He then called him a “traitor.”

“We’re going to try and block the publication of the book,” Trump said, according to the notes. “After I leave office, he can do this. But not in the White House.”

“I give the guy a break. I give him a job. And then he turns on me,” Trump added during the West Wing lunch. “He’s just making things up.”

As Cooper noted, "rules prohibit officials from classifying information 'to prevent embarrassment to a person' or to 'prevent or delay the release of information that does not require protection in the interest of national security.'" Trump certainly cannot simply block the publication of a book just because he wants to.

Trump has also repeatedly raised the concern that Bolton will lie or make up facts. But those facts couldn't be classified, since they're not true, so the government cannot block him from telling them on this ground.

“The government’s complaint is strategically ambiguous about what relief it s seeking, and against whom," said Jameel Jaffer, executive director at the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University. "But any effort to enjoin the publication of a book raises serious First Amendment concerns, and those concerns are heightened here because there are credible reports that the White House’s interest is not in protecting national security but in suppressing criticism of the president."

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