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Bolton Feud With White House Escalates

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 6/16/2020 Rebecca Ballhaus
Mike Pence, Donald Trump are posing for a picture © carlos barria/Reuters

Former national security adviser John Bolton is expected to move forward with the scheduled release of his book, following a monthslong campaign by the White House—including an effort by President Trump and the attorney general on Monday—to stop him.

The book will focus on Mr. Bolton’s 18-month tenure at the White house and include a scathing assessment of the president, its publisher said.

Mr. Trump on Monday said it was “highly inappropriate” for Mr. Bolton to have written a book and accused him of including “highly classified information” in the manuscript, which has undergone a monthslong review by the White House’s National Security Council.

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Mr. Trump said he considers any conversation he has with another official “highly classified.” Presidents have claimed the authority to classify national security information and direct subordinates to do the same, but no president has claimed the total authority to prevent former employees from speaking about non-national security matters—and typically the First Amendment would protect such speech, experts say.

“Maybe he’s not telling the truth,” Mr. Trump said of his former national security adviser. “He’s been known not to tell the truth a lot.” He didn’t detail what he was referring to.

Attorney General William Barr, speaking alongside the president on Monday, said Mr. Bolton “hasn’t completed the process” of clearing the book. He didn’t respond to questions about why Mr. Bolton’s lawyer said the NSC had told him the process had been completed.

Mr. Bolton’s lawyer and a spokeswoman didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

The president’s comments mark the White House’s latest effort to block the publication of Mr. Bolton’s book, which Mr. Trump has fumed about—privately and publicly—for months, aides said. Simon & Schuster has twice delayed the book’s publication while the NSC reviewed the manuscript.

Mr. Trump dismissed Mr. Bolton in September after a series of disputes over foreign policy. Mr. Bolton, the president’s third national security adviser, had served in the job for 18 months.

In a Wall Street Journal opinion column last week, Bolton attorney Charles Cooper detailed his client’s interactions with the White House over the manuscript.

Mr. Cooper said he first sent the manuscript to Ellen Knight, the NSC senior director for prepublication review, on Dec. 30. “What followed was perhaps the most extensive and intensive prepublication review in NSC history,” he said, with Mr. Bolton and Ms. Knight going over the 500-page manuscript four times, “often line by line.”

On April 27, after several meetings and phone calls, Ms. Knight told Mr. Bolton that she had completed her edits, according to Mr. Cooper. For weeks, Mr. Bolton waited to receive a letter saying his book had been cleared.

Then, on June 8, John Eisenberg, deputy counsel for national security, said in a letter that Mr. Bolton’s manuscript contained classified information and that publishing it would violate his nondisclosure agreements.

“This is a transparent attempt to use national security as a pretext to censor Mr. Bolton, in violation of his constitutional rights to speak on matters of the utmost public import,” Mr. Cooper wrote. “This attempt will not succeed.” Mr. Cooper said the book would be published on June 23.

The White House’s legal recourse to block the publication of Mr. Bolton’s book is limited, experts said. Were the White House to file a lawsuit seeking an injunction to block the book’s publication, it would likely fail, according to Jameel Jaffer, executive director at the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, which works to defend freedoms of speech and of the press.

“For good reason, American courts almost never issue prior restraints against the publication of matters of public concern,” Mr. Jaffer said. “Prior restraints squelch speech before it occurs and almost always sweep too broadly.”

According to the book’s publisher, “The Room Where it Happens” will include Mr. Bolton’s account of what he describes as “chaos in the White House” and “the president’s inconsistent, scattershot decision-making process,” as well as details of Mr. Trump’s interactions with other world leaders.

“I am hard-pressed to identify any significant Trump decision during my tenure that wasn’t driven by reelection calculations,” Mr. Bolton writes in the book, according to a press release.

Among the more incendiary allegations expected in the book is Mr. Bolton’s claim that Mr. Trump told him in August he wanted to keep aid to Ukraine frozen until the country aided investigations into Democrats, including former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter—an allegation that went to the heart of the impeachment investigation against Mr. Trump. Mr. Bolton’s claim—which Mr. Trump denied—was leaked to the New York Times in January, ahead of the final week of the president’s Senate impeachment trial.

Two days after Mr. Bolton’s allegation surfaced, the National Security Council said the manuscript contained “significant amounts” of classified information and couldn’t be published as it was. At the time, the book was scheduled to be released on March 17.

Even before details of his manuscript were published, Mr. Bolton factored prominently into the House impeachment investigation, in which several witnesses described Mr. Bolton as alarmed by efforts by some administration officials to link a meeting between Mr. Trump and his Ukrainian counterpart to Kiev’s willingness to announce investigations that Mr. Trump sought.

House Democrats invited Mr. Bolton to testify as part of the inquiry, but he declined. The House didn’t subpoena him, concerned that a lengthy court battle could slow down the investigation. In November, Mr. Bolton’s attorney told the House’s general counsel that Mr. Bolton had knowledge of “many relevant meetings and conversations that have not yet been discussed in the testimonies thus far.”

In the book, Mr. Bolton is expected to accuse House lawmakers of committing “impeachment malpractice” by focusing their investigation too narrowly on the president’s dealings with Ukraine, when “Trump’s Ukraine-like transgressions existed across the full range of his foreign policy,” according to the publisher’s press release.

That accusation drew immediate blowback from House Democrats, who rebuked Mr. Bolton for not testifying in the impeachment investigation when he was invited to do so.

“He would have been the most senior official to testify with probably the most access to President Trump’s behavior, so I think it would have been profoundly important for him to testify,” said Rep. Jim Himes (D., Conn.) “Instead, he chose for his own commercial purposes to write what he knows in a book, rather than share with Congress what he knew, which is an indication of the depth of his patriotism.”

In January, Mr. Bolton said he would testify in a Senate trial if lawmakers subpoenaed him. The Republican-led Senate voted against doing so. On Feb. 5, 10 days after details of Mr. Bolton’s manuscript leaked, the Senate voted to acquit the president.

Write to Rebecca Ballhaus at


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