WASHINGTON – A federal judge on Friday criticized former Trump administration national security adviser John Bolton for moving to publish his book without formal clearance from the White House, but also suggested he was probably powerless to stop its release given that copies of the manuscript have already been widely distributed.
U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth told lawyers during arguments Friday that “the horse seems to be out of the barn” and appeared skeptical that there was anything he could do to retrieve books that had already sent out “all over the country."
A lawyer for Bolton agreed with the judge and said the Justice Department's request to halt the publication of the book and to recover copies was both surreal and impractical. More than 200,000 copies have already been printed and distributed to booksellers throughout the country, and the book has received substantial publicity from major news media organizations who have reviewed it ahead of its scheduled release next week.
But the Justice Department bristled at the idea that nothing could be done. Justice Department lawyer David Morrell said Bolton had created a “mess” by publishing his book without receiving what he said was formal authorization that the manuscript was free of classified information.
He said Bolton should not be permitted to profit from a problem of his own making by flouting his contractual obligation to not disclose classified material he was exposed to on the job.
“He has flung the barnyard doors open. He has let the horses out, and now he looks at us collectively and says, ‘What are you going to do about it?’” Morrell said of Bolton.
Lamberth did not immediately rule, giving himself time to further evaluate the government's classification arguments in a court case that raises core First Amendment and national security concerns. Bolton's lawyers on Friday evening asked for access to any classified hearing the court holds.
The book is due out on Tuesday. Lamberth is expected to make a ruling before then.
The Justice Department sued earlier in the week to halt the release of “The Room Where it Happened,” insisting that the book contained classified information that could damage national security and that Bolton had failed to complete a prepublication review process designed to prevent the exposure of government secrets.
Bolton's lawyers say he moved forward after being assured by the White House official he had worked with for months that the manuscript no longer contained classified information. Lamberth, though, appeared to find compelling the Justice Department's assertion that Bolton had prematurely bailed on the review process.
“He can't just walk away, and he didn't tell the government he was walking away," the judge told Bolton's attorney Chuck Cooper.
The Justice Department similarly argued that it wanted the judge to send a message that government employees who become “disgruntled” during the manuscript review process cannot simply give up and publish classified information without approval.
“Deterrence matters because there's a massive government interest in ensuring that these agreements aren't breached" by a disgruntled author, Morrell said.
But the judge also repeatedly pressed the Justice Department on how the White House came to reach the conclusion that Bolton's manuscript contained classified information, especially since Bolton had been assured on April 27 by the career official responsible for supervising the National Security Council's prepublication review process, Ellen Knight, that edits on the manuscript were done and that there was no classified material.
Bolton’s lawyers argued that he had labored painstakingly for months with Knight, sometimes on a line-by-line edit. But another White House official, Michael Ellis, soon after embarked on an additional review and identified material that he said was classified, prompting the administration to warn Bolton against publication.
That late-stage, end-round around Knight's judgment was troubling, Cooper said.
“The question becomes, is she an authorized official? Well, there's no doubt that she is. Did she confirm that the information is unclassified? There's no dispute by the government that she did,” he added.
Bolton’s lawyers have argued that the White House assertions of classified material are a pretext to censor him over a book the administration finds unflattering.
“If the First Amendment stands for anything, it is that the Government does not have the power to clasp its hand over the mouth of a citizen attempting to speak on a matter of great public import,” they wrote in a court filing.
The book, due out Tuesday, depicts a president whose foreign policy objectives were inexorably linked to his own political gain. It recounts how Trump “pleaded” with China’s Xi Jinping during a 2019 summit to help his reelection prospects, and how he linked the supply of military assistance to Ukraine to the country’s willingness to conduct investigations into Democratic rival Joe Biden — allegations that were at the heart of an impeachment trial that ended with the president’s Senate acquittal in February.
Trump on Thursday called the book a “compilation of lies and made up stories” intended to make him look bad. He tweeted that Bolton was just trying to get even for being fired “like the sick puppy he is!”
Other administration officials who figure prominently in the book, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, denied comments or actions that were attributed to them and joined Trump in condemning the book.
Even Democrats who seized on some of Bolton’s anecdotes to portray the president as unfit for office nonetheless expressed frustration that he had saved his damaging accounts for his book instead of sharing them in the impeachment case.
Bolton declined to testify voluntarily in the impeachment proceedings. House Democrats pressed ahead with their case without subpoenaing him.
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