Politics|Justice Dept. Ends Criminal Inquiry and Lawsuit on John Bolton’s Book
President Donald J. Trump had pressured the department to use its legal powers to stop his former national security adviser from publishing embarrassing details about him.
June 16, 2021
The Justice Department closed a criminal investigation into whether a disparaging memoir by President Donald J. Trump’s national security adviser John R. Bolton illegally disclosed classified information and dropped a lawsuit aimed at recouping profits from the book, according to Mr. Bolton and a court document filed on Wednesday.
The agreement ends an effort that began under the Trump administration to silence Mr. Bolton after Mr. Trump waged a campaign pressuring investigators to prosecute him. Dropping the legal action against him is a rebuke by Attorney General Merrick B. Garland of the previous administration’s use of government power to suppress former Trump officials who became critics of Mr. Trump.
“We argued from the outset that neither action was justifiable because they were initiated only as a result of President Trump’s politically motivated order to prevent publication of the ambassador’s book before the 2020 election,” said Mr. Bolton’s lawyer, Charles J. Cooper.
By ending the legal action, Mr. Cooper said, “the Department of Justice has tacitly acknowledged that President Trump and his White House officials acted illegitimately.”
The Justice Department notified the judge overseeing the case of its decision in a one-sentence filing. A spokeswoman for the department declined to comment.
The deal came as Mr. Garland has fallen under scrutiny for continuing some Trump-era policies and legal positions that Democrats had attacked as politically motivated. Mr. Garland has in recent weeks allowed the Justice Department to continue to represent Mr. Trump in a defamation lawsuit and has sought to keep secret a document that his predecessor William P. Barr relied on to clear Mr. Trump of wrongdoing in the Russia investigation.
But the Bolton settlement did have some benefits for Mr. Trump and members of his administration. It will shield the former officials from being forced to answer questions under oath about how they handled Mr. Bolton’s book and how Mr. Trump pressured them. A federal judge had given Mr. Cooper approval to begin deposing those officials, but the settlement ends that litigation.
As part of the deal, the Justice Department agreed to dismiss the suit without receiving any money from Mr. Bolton and said it would never again sue him over the book, “The Room Where It Happened.” Mr. Bolton told the department that if he writes another book, he will submit his materials to a process intended to ensure that classified information is kept secret.
That process was at the heart of the issue over Mr. Bolton’s memoir. Before joining the Trump administration, he had signed nondisclosure agreements as a condition of receiving access to classified information. Under the agreements, officials are typically required to submit any later writings about their work to prepublication review to ensure they contain no classified information.
The legal action against Mr. Bolton began last year after Mr. Trump publicly and privately pressured White House aides and Justice Department officials to use their powers to stop Mr. Bolton from publishing his book, which contained disparaging details about his time working in Mr. Trump’s White House.
News articles in the months before the manuscript was published detailed some of its contents and set off a firestorm, including accounts of Mr. Trump’s dealings with Ukraine during his impeachment trial over the matter.
Behind closed doors, Mr. Trump called Mr. Bolton a “traitor” and said his book contained highly sensitive classified information. “We’re going to try and block the publication of the book,” Mr. Trump told television anchors in an off-the-record meeting in February 2020. “After I leave office, he can do this. But not in the White House.”
In the weeks leading up to the release of the book last June, the Justice Department sued Mr. Bolton seeking to stop its publication and to recoup the $2 million he had been paid for it.
Judge Royce C. Lamberth of Federal District Court ruled that Mr. Bolton and his publisher, Simon & Schuster, could go forward with the book but that the Justice Department could continue to seek profits from it. Judge Lamberth undermined Mr. Bolton in his ruling, saying that he was “persuaded that defendant Bolton likely jeopardized national security by disclosing classified information in violation of his nondisclosure agreement obligations.”
Released within days, the memoir immediately became a best seller and fed an increasingly damaging narrative about Mr. Trump during his re-election campaign. Relying on detailed accounts from Mr. Bolton’s tenure as national security adviser, the book depicted Mr. Trump as a corrupt leader who put his personal and financial interests above the country’s national security.
After failing to halt the memoir’s publication, the Justice Department opened a criminal investigation into whether Mr. Bolton had unlawfully disclosed classified information in the book. As part of the inquiry, the department took the unusual step of issuing a grand jury subpoena to Simon & Schuster for communications records about the memoir.
The Biden Justice Department inherited the matter and had spent recent weeks negotiating the terms of the settlement with Mr. Bolton’s legal team, according to a person briefed on the discussions.
During the presidential transition, Biden advisers examined an array of difficult issues related to Mr. Trump and how the Justice Department operated under Mr. Barr that they were likely to confront after taking office.
From an examination of the publicly available materials about Mr. Bolton’s case, the Biden transition advisers concluded that the department had acted in a highly political manner. Some advisers contended it would set a bad precedent for the executive branch if top national security officials were forced to produce documents or testimony, according to a person familiar with those conversations.
It would be better to drop the lawsuit altogether, some advisers concluded, and for the Biden administration to focus on revising the prepublication review process, the person said.
Critics have said that the vetting of memoirs and other written materials by former officials is slow and can be subject to political interference. Some view it as having a chilling effect on former officials who wish to write about their time working in government, particularly those who seek to criticize it.
The White House’s efforts to interfere with Mr. Bolton’s book came to light in September when a career administration official accused Trump aides of improperly intervening to prevent Mr. Bolton’s account of his time as Mr. Trump’s national security adviser from becoming public.
The official, a specialist in reviewing books for classified materials named Ellen Knight, said that the aides made false assertions that Mr. Bolton had revealed classified material and suggested that they retaliated against her when she refused to go along.
She also said an aide to Mr. Trump “instructed her to temporarily withhold any response” to a request from Mr. Bolton to review a chapter on the president’s dealings with Ukraine to prevent it from being released during Mr. Trump’s first impeachment trial, which centered on allegations that he abused his powers in conducting foreign policy with the government in Kyiv.
The Biden administration has also dropped a suit brought by the Trump Justice Department against a former friend and aide to Melania Trump who had written an embarrassing book about the Trumps.
Mr. Garland has recently acknowledged the difficulties he and the department have faced in trying to ensure that the agency appears as though it treats all Americans the same, regardless of who is in power.
There should “not be one rule for Democrats and another for Republicans” or “one rule for friends and another for foes,” Mr. Garland said at a recent Senate hearing.
“It is not always easy to apply that rule,” he testified. “Sometimes it means that we have to make a decision about the law that we would never have made and that we strongly disagree with as a matter of policy.”