Former national security adviser John Bolton will likely be forced to give all earnings from his controversial new book to the U.S. Treasury, if government lawyers succeed in convincing a federal judge that Bolton violated government rules by moving forward with publication without final sign-off by officials vetting the memoir for classified information, according to a top national security lawyer.
But — as predicted Friday by Mark Zaid, a Washington lawyer with deep experience in national security and intelligence — the judge hearing the case declined to halt publication of Bolton’s memoir of his tenure in the Trump administration, “The Room Where It Happened,” paving the way for it to go on sale Tuesday.
Zaid told the Yahoo News “Skullduggery” podcast that a Friday federal court hearing to determine whether to stop Bolton’s book from being published was “painful at times to listen to.” He predicted that Bolton will forfeit his profits to the U.S. government, making the Treasury the likely biggest financial beneficiary from Bolton’s book.
But Zaid doubted that the government would succeed in stopping publication of the book, which is scheduled to go on sale Tuesday and is already a prepublication bestseller on Amazon.
Leaks from the book appearing in newspapers this week have led to an uproar over Bolton’s scathing portrait of a corrupt and ignorant president who went against his own administration’s policies by, among other examples, telling Chinese President Xi Jinping he didn’t object to constructing concentration camps for China’s Uighur minority.
Trump didn’t know that Britain had nuclear weapons, or that Finland was an independent nation, according to Bolton, a longtime Republican national security operative who was reportedly paid $2 million for the book.
Zaid predicted legal consequences for Bolton after Friday’s pivotal hearing even while concluding the Justice Department would have no success in persuading Judge Royce Lamberth to order the former national security adviser to stop distribution of his book, hundreds of thousands of copies of which have already been shipped to bookstores around the world.
“They got a lot of things wrong,” Zaid said of Bolton’s legal team, which was led by Charles Cooper. “There were a lot of things that were said that I think are going to be used later against Bolton in particular.”
Lamberth, who presided over Friday’s hearing to consider the administration’s request to stop publication of the book, appeared skeptical that Bolton had met his contractual obligations to the U.S. government to review the book for classified material prior to publication. The Justice Department is attempting to block the book from being published, but with copies already having been shipped, Lamberth made clear it may be too late to do anything.
“This motion will fail,” Zaid predicted. “Simon & Schuster, Bolton’s publisher, has indicated that 200,000 copies were already shipped overseas or were printed overseas. One of the requirements in a temporary restraining order has to do with the practicality of, ‘Can the relief even really be granted?’ And there’s no way it can be.”
Zaid also pointed out that the publisher, not Bolton, owns the content, making it questionable that Bolton even has the authority to pull the book back.
But on the government’s core claim — that Bolton violated a signed agreement not to disclose any classified information without prior approval — there are problems for Trump’s former top national security aide. The government has made an extensive effort to document that although the manuscript received preliminary vetting and clearance, Bolton did not have final approval to move forward with publication. If the government can prove that some of the contents are legitimately classified, Bolton could even face criminal charges, Zaid said. However, the government will have to reveal how and why the information is considered classified in order to pursue criminal charges, which will be difficult to do without revealing additional national security secrets. Zaid said the government’s decision to apply for a temporary restraining order was shortsighted.
“If they ever want to pursue criminal charges against Bolton, they have to basically reveal what specific passages in the book fit those classification determinations and reveal the information,” Zaid said. But doing so could prove difficult given what the government contends is the sensitivity of the information.
Asked about Bolton’s lawyer’s contention that the Trump administration is retroactively classifying information to stop the book, Zaid said it is too early to know whether that is the case — and it may be a moot point regardless. Bolton faces a legal problem, Zaid said, because although a career NSC official, Ellen Knight, vetted the manuscript and had the authority to approve it for publication, she never formally exercised that authority. The book then was subject to a second round of vetting by another White House official, Michael Ellis, who said it contained information that should not be made public.
“She wasn’t the final authority who was going to weigh in on it,” Zaid said. “And we have had this happen before. I have seen it happen countless times where one official says, ‘I don’t think there’s anything classified in it.’ But then it goes to other people and they have a different view.”
The bottom line, Zaid said, is that Bolton never received a final approval letter.
“When Bolton was then told later on that there is classified information in the book, it was his obligation to either go sue the U.S. government about it or to comply and not move forward with the publication,” Zaid said. “He doesn’t get the choice to say, ‘Well, I disagree, so I’m going to go forward.’”
Zaid represented the whistleblower whose disclosures about President Trump’s efforts to pressure the Ukrainian government to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden triggered the impeachment proceedings against Trump. He said given what he knows about what’s in the book, he is “incredibly disturbed” by Bolton’s refusal to testify before Congress during impeachment — especially in light of one of the book’s central contentions, that Congress “committed malpractice” by focusing the impeachment inquiry only on the Ukraine.
The book contains numerous other allegations against Trump that, if brought before Congress and substantiated, could have formed the basis for additional charges.
“He said that the Congress or at least the House committed malpractice by narrowing its allegations or claims against the president to just Ukraine, because he knows of so much more egregious activity that the president did,” Zaid said. “Are you kidding me? You knew that and you withheld it from the American public and the Congress?”
“Personally, I’m pretty disturbed that Bolton didn't come forward,” Zaid continued. “I know there was nothing stopping him from testifying before Congress as a matter of law. ... He could have taken the meat of his book, drafted it into testimony, given it to White House for prepublication review. It would have had to be reviewed in time for him to testify and he wouldn’t be going through what he’s going through now. … I think Bolton should have spoken up back then, and that was his patriotic obligation.”
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