What happened: The Trump administration won an early round in its court showdown Thursday with John Bolton as a federal judge rejected the former national security adviser’s bid to throw out a lawsuit seeking to seize the proceeds from Bolton’s tell-all memoir.
U.S. District Court Judge Royce Lamberth largely upheld the government’s interpretation of nondisclosure agreements Bolton signed in exchange for access to both classified information and a more-closely held category of secrets known as sensitive compartmented information (SCI).
The background: Bolton has denied that his book, “The Room Where It Happened,” contains the kind of intelligence sources and methods that are treated as SCI. But Lamberth said that Bolton was obliged to submit for prepublication review any book that even discussed topics related to SCI, which typically involves intelligence sources and methods.
Bolton said a broad interpretation of the SCI agreement would force him to submit even a cookbook for advance approval, but the judge rejected that argument out of hand.
“While the National Security Advisor’s role may require many of his writings to be submitted for prepublication review, the nexuses apply only to information related to intelligence sources and methods,” wrote Lamberth, an appointee of President Ronald Reagan. “Bolton may freely publish a cookbook, unless he intends to edit a set of recipes from CIA operatives and sources.”
In his 27-page ruling, Lamberth also said it did not matter legally whether the government designated the information as SCI before or after Bolton disclosed it. The initial suit the Justice Department filed over the book in May claimed only that it contained classified information, but a version filed a few days later added the allegation that it contained SCI.
The former Trump White House official got some backing for his position last month when a lawyer for the official who handled the initial phase of the prepublication review of Bolton’s book, Ellen Knight, submitted a detailed letter claiming that officials close to Trump undertook a secretive, second review of the manuscript after she had already completed a painstaking initial review to remove potentially classified topics from the book.
What’s next: Bolton’s lawyers have asked the court to allow them to take discovery and demand documents from the White House and others in a bid to show that the claims about classified information in the book are just pretexts for an attempt by Trump to suppress a book that paints a deeply unflattering portrait of him.
Lamberth has yet to rule on Bolton’s motion for discovery or the related government motion for judgment in their favor. If the government prevails in the case, it could be entitled to any advance Bolton received as well as any royalties he may get from the book in the future.
So far in the case, Lamberth has taken a dim view of Bolton’s actions, suggesting he was reckless by failing to stick with the prepublication review process until he got formal notification it was OK to proceed with the book. Bolton’s lawyer has said he thought he had confirmation from Knight that there was nothing classified in the book.
Lamberth suggested in an earlier ruling that Bolton could face criminal prosecution over his actions. No charges have been filed, but POLITICO reported last month that a criminal probe appears to be underway, with at least one grand jury issued to Bolton’s publisher.