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Court battle over Bolton book could set precedent for tell-alls by ex-government employees

DOJ moves to block John Bolton's book
DOJ moves to block John Bolton's book 06:51

Washington — The White House fight with former national security adviser John Bolton is the latest chapter in a lengthy history of Washington book battles, yet it will likely define future cases between the U.S. government and former employees determined to write tell-alls. The government asked a federal court for a temporary restraining order to prevent the release of the book, claiming it contains classified material.

But the book, set to be released Tuesday, is already sitting in warehouses. And media outlets, including The Associated Press, have obtained advance copies and published stories on the book.

The 577-page book paints an unvarnished portrait of Mr. Trump and his administration. Bolton writes that Trump "pleaded" with China's Xi Jinping during a 2019 summit to help his reelection prospects and that political calculations drove Mr. Trump's foreign policy.

The president 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!"

Bolton appeared on ABC's Good Morning America Friday, saying the president is degrading civil discourse with his tweets. 

"I think it's unbecoming of the office of president I think it degrades the political civil discourse in our country and I'm just not gonna respond to it," Bolton said. 

Bolton added that he was very conscious to avoid including anything that could be deemed classifiable. Bolton also told ABC he doesn't think the president has "any guiding principle that I was able to discern, other than what's good for Donald Trump's reelection." 

The two sides are set to face off Friday in U.S. District Court in Washington, adding Bolton's name to a long list of authors who have clashed with the government over publishing sensitive material.

 Bolton filed a motion late Thursday to dismiss the government's complaint.

"The Government cannot plausibly argue that Ambassador Bolton has power to stop the Amazon delivery trucks in America, unshelve the copies in Europe, commandeer the copies in Canada, and repossess the copies sent to reviewers or in the possession of major newspapers," Bolton's court filing says.

The government says Bolton violated a nondisclosure agreement in which he promised to submit any book he might write to the administration for a prepublication review to ensure government secrets aren't disclosed.

After working for months with the White House to edit, rewrite or remove sensitive information, Bolton's lawyer says his client received a verbal clearance from classification expert Ellen Knight at the National Security Council. But he never got a formal clearance letter, and the Trump administration contends that the book, titled "The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir," still contains sensitive material.

The case "has the makings of being the defining litigation for nondisclosure agreements for decades," said Jonathan Turley, a constitutional law expert at George Washington University who has handled cases involving classified materials for decades. "Both sides have now dug in."

The White House has tried to use the firestorm sparked by the book to its advantage, as it looks to animate the president's loyal base of supporters against the media and Democrats. White House aides have circulated quotes from both groups critical of Bolton in an effort to highlight what they view as a sudden embrace of the departed aide now that he's turned critical of Mr. Trump.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo lashed out at Bolton in a statement late Thursday, declaring him a "traitor."

"I've not read the book, but from the excerpts I've seen published, John Bolton is spreading a number of lies, fully-spun half-truths, and outright falsehoods," Pompeo said. "It is both sad and dangerous that John Bolton's final public role is that of a traitor who damaged America by violating his sacred trust with its people."

The White House insists that classified material remains in the Bolton book even though he worked on revisions for months with Knight. The government said in its court filing that after Knight finished her review, the White House ordered a second review to be done by Michael Ellis, a political appointee who has been senior director for intelligence on the National Security Council since March and previously was the NSC's deputy legal adviser.

"The fact that the White House wanted multiple, sequential reviews is way out of the ordinary and it suggests the obvious point that there is a political motivation at work," said Steven Aftergood, a classification expert at the Federation of American Scientists.

Ellis began his review of the Bolton book on May 2 at the behest of national security adviser Robert O'Brien. The lawsuit said Ellis has had "original classification authority" since 2017, allowing him to make decisions to classify material.

A classification expert, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution from the administration, disputed that. The expert said it is highly irregular for a political appointee like Ellis to be involved in the prepublication process. The expert said Ellis has never done a prepublication review of a book and only received his initial "original classification authority" training, which is required every year, during the first week of June, a month after he was asked to review Bolton's book.

Turley and other legal experts wonder why the government waited until the last minute to go to court to stop the book's release.

"It's a rather curious way to protect classified information if you allow thousands of these books to be held in barely secured warehouses around the country," he said.

Classification battles have popped up regularly over the years. Aftergood said the Bolton case has turned the government's little-known prepublication review process into national news.

"It's becoming clear that the whole policy needs to be reexamined and rewritten," Aftergood said. "As it stands, it's arbitrary and subject to abuse."

Stephen Vladeck, a University of Texas School of Law professor who specializes in constitutional and national security law, said that while the court might be hesitant to prevent publication of the book, the Trump administration might "have a very good shot at preventing anyone from making any money off the book."

Keith Urbahn, one of Bolton's literary agents and founding partner of Javelin, based in Alexandria, Virginia, said the book has sparked interest in the past two days from television and film representatives, but no deals have been signed. Urbahn said it's too early to tell if the Bolton saga will lead to more books being published without full government sign-off.

"The Room Where it Happened" was published by Simon & Schuster, a division of ViacomCBS.  

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