Will the Justice Department's new lawsuit derail Bolton's book?

The DOJ almost never tries to delay publication of a book. It's even rarer for it to go after a text written by a former White House official.
Image: John Bolton
National security adviser John Bolton with President Trump in the Oval Office on Sept. 28, 2018.Oliver Contreras / The Washington Post via Getty Images file
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By Steve Benen

When Donald Trump gets rattled, he likes to make all kinds of threats, usually involving lawyers. It's one of the president's go-to moves, even when it comes to book publishing: in 2018, for example, Trump's lawyers threatened a case against the publisher of Fire and Fury.

In most instances, the president and his attorneys quietly back off and the litigation never materializes, but Trump's fear of former White House National Security Advisor John Bolton appears to be a bit more serious.

As we discussed yesterday, the far-right hawk wrote a book, which according to his publisher, will pull back the curtain on a chaotic White House, led by a reckless president who's guilty of wrongdoing the public doesn't yet know about. On Monday, Trump went so far as to say Bolton could face a "criminal problem" if the book reaches the public.

Predictably, much of the president's bluster was meaningless, and no one seriously believes Bolton will be led away in handcuffs for writing a book the White House doesn't like. That said, the Justice Department did take part of the dispute to a federal court yesterday.

The Trump administration sued former national security adviser John Bolton on Tuesday, hoping to delay publication of his tell-all book, due to be released next week. "The United States is not seeking to censor any legitimate aspect" of the manuscript, the Justice Department lawsuit says. It claims, instead, that Bolton hasn't finished with the review process required of any author who had a government security clearance.

Right off the bat, it's worth emphasizing just how rare these circumstances are: it's very unusual for federal law enforcement to go to court in the hopes of delaying publication of a book. It's even rarer for the Justice Department to go after a text written by a former White House official.

Whether this is a meaningful legal effort, however, is a different matter entirely. In effect, the case is based on the idea that Bolton was supposed to jump through a series of procedural and bureaucratic hoops, and he didn't complete that process to the White House's satisfaction. As the New York Times reported, however, the Justice Department did not name Bolton's publisher in the case, and the lawsuit isn't asking for a temporary restraining order to block the book's release.

These are signs, the NYT added, that the Justice Department "is not mounting a serious bid to try to block the book's imminent release." This appears more focused on trying to pressure Bolton directly and financially by seizing his compensation.

Serious or not, is the case likely to succeed? Probably not. As NBC News' report added, "Legal experts predicted that the lawsuit would be unable to stop publication."

Ben Wizner, director of the Speech, Privacy and Technology Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement that the lawsuit is doomed. "As usual, the government's threats have nothing to do with safeguarding national security, and everything to do with avoiding scandal and embarrassment," he said in a statement.

However, assuming the book is released as scheduled, as now appears likely, the Justice Department may continue to go after Bolton's proceeds as part of this case.

I won't pretend to know what's going to happen, but I have a strong hunch this will fuel book sales quite a bit, drawing additional attention to allegations Trump doesn't want the public to hear.