On the surface, the rhetorical conflict between Donald Trump and John Bolton is itself extraordinary. The former White House national security advisor worked side by side with Trump for a year and a half, and after reflecting on his West Wing tenure, the far-right hawk concluded that the president poses a "danger for the republic" and is not "fit for office."
Trump fired back by calling Bolton an "idiot." There's no precedent for such a public conflict between a sitting American president and his hand-picked, right-hand man on matters of national security.
The problem, of course, is that Trump doesn't appear to be satisfied merely lobbing insults in Bolton's direction. In June, the administration went to court in the hopes of derailing publication of the former White House official's book. That effort failed and the book became a bestseller.
Three months later, the New York Times is reporting that Trump's Justice Department has opened a criminal inquiry into Bolton's book.
The Justice Department has opened a criminal investigation into whether President Trump’s former national security adviser John R. Bolton unlawfully disclosed classified information when he published a memoir this summer, a case that the department opened after it failed to stop the book’s publication this summer, according to three people familiar with the matter. The department has convened a grand jury, which issued a subpoena for communications records from Simon [and] Schuster, the publisher of Mr. Bolton’s memoir, "The Room Where It Happened."
In the abstract, it's possible the inquiry is legitimate. In fact, in June, when a federal court cleared Bolton's book for publication, the judge in the case left little doubt that he was concerned about how Bolton dealt with his book and the publishing process.
Three days after that court ruling, Trump turned to Twitter to call for his former aide's prosecution. "Washed up Creepster John Bolton is a lowlife who should be in jail, money seized, for disseminating, for profit, highly Classified information," the president wrote in June.
And therein lies the problem: did the Justice Department decide to pursue a case against Bolton on the merits, or because Attorney General Bill Barr has positioned himself as Trump's fixer, launching political interventions in cases the president cares about?
The New York Times' report today added, "Lawyers for the National Security Council and the Justice Department expressed reservations about opening a criminal case, in part because Mr. Trump’s public statements made it seem like an overtly political act, according to two officials briefed on the discussions."
Well, yes, it does make it "seem like an overtly political act," coming on the heels of several other overtly political actions taken by the overtly political attorney general -- whose overtly political intervention in a case relevant to Trump is now being investigated by the Justice Department's inspector general.
With a record like Barr's, it's impossible to give the administration the benefit of the doubt, and it's painfully easy to see steps like these as the latest in a series of abuses. Watch this space.
Postscript: For more background on the Bolton book, the Washington Post had a good report in June on the White House's declassification process, which appears to have been far from kosher.