National Security Adviser John Bolton listens as President Donald Trump holds a Cabinet meeting at the White House, April 9, 2018.
Kevin Lamarque | Reuters
WASHINGTON — Former national security advisor John Bolton filed a motion in federal court asking the judge to dismiss a last-minute Trump administration lawsuit against him that seeks to halt the release of his damning memoir, “The Room Where it Happened.”
The motion by the Justice Department late Thursday was the latest tactical maneuver in an ongoing battle between the career Republican foreign policy wonk and President Donald Trump over the book, which is scheduled for release Tuesday.
The Justice Department alleged in a lawsuit against Bolton filed one week before the book’s release that the memoir contains classified information. A day later, it asked a judge to halt distribution and sale of the book, details of which already have been widely reported.
In the motion to dismiss, Bolton attorney Charles Cooper denied there is classified information in the book, and detailed a months-long prepublication review process that Bolton underwent with the National Security Council.
This editing process ended in late April, Cooper said, when Bolton received an email from the official reviewer saying his manuscript did not contain any classified information. The fact that the government never sent Bolton an official letter clearing the book for publication is meaningless, he argued.
The White House’s subsequent claim that the NSC reviewer missed some classified information is “pretext designed to cover up what is in fact a determined political effort to suppress Ambassador Bolton’s speech,” said Cooper.
But barring all of this, Cooper said, the entire question of blocking the book’s release is already moot, because thousands of copies have already been shipped to stores across the United States and around the world.
A preliminary hearing on the government’s lawsuit is scheduled for Friday at 1 p.m. ET via videoconference.
A damning portrait of Trump
Trump’s personal interest in quashing Bolton’s memoir goes as far back as February, when he told reporters at a private lunch: “We’re going to try and block the publication of the book. After I leave office, he can do this. But not in the White House.”
It’s easy to see why Trump wanted Bolton muzzled as long as Trump was in office. “The Room Where it Happened” paints Trump as a “stunningly uninformed,” craven and mendacious chief executive, and one who repeatedly signaled his willingness to sell out the nation’s security interests if it meant advancing his own interests.
One of the key takeaways from the book is that it supports the heart of impeachment charges filed against Trump alleging that the president withheld U.S. foreign aid to Ukraine to coerce the U.S. ally into helping Trump’s reelection campaign as Kyiv battled a war with Russia-supported insurgents. Bolton did not testify before the House impeachment inquiry but said he would testify at the Senate trial if ordered by a court. Before voting to acquit Trump, Senate Republicans blocked Democratic efforts to call him as a witness.
“Trump commingled the personal and the national not just on trade questions but across the whole field of national security,” Bolton wrote in an excerpt of the memoir published by The Wall Street Journal. “I am hard-pressed to identify any significant Trump decision during my White House tenure that wasn’t driven by reelection calculations.”
In another damning chapter, Bolton describes watching Trump in 2019 ask Chinese leader Xi Jinping to help Trump get reelected by agreeing to purchase agricultural products from American farmers. In the published version of the book, Bolton writes that NSC reviewers made him remove Trump’s exact words to Xi during the meeting from his final draft.
President Donald Trump meets with China’s President Xi Jinping at the start of their bilateral meeting at the G20 leaders summit in Osaka, Japan, June 29, 2019.
Kevin Lemarque | Reuters
But Vanity Fair’s Gabe Sherman reported Thursday that he had seen an unredacted copy of that section of the book, and that Trump allegedly said to Xi, “Make sure I win.”
Trump continued: “I will probably win anyway, so don’t hurt my farms. Buy a lot of soybeans and wheat and make sure we win.”
CNBC has not seen the unredacted pages, but Bolton’s legal motion Thursday cited Sherman’s previous reporting on the book, suggesting that Bolton sees him as a credible source.
Bolton also uses the book to settle scores with his former colleagues. He accuses former Defense Secretary James Mattis of being obstructionist, claims Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin is “basically a Democrat” and says Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and advisor, was constantly out of his depth.
A murky argument
The administration lawsuit against Bolton is only one piece of a ferocious pushback it has mounted against “The Room Where it Happened.”
The book’s imminent release has sent the West Wing into a spiral of damage control and defense in recent days, led by the president himself.
Ever since reports emerged about the book’s contents, Trump has alternated between calling Bolton a liar on one hand, and insisting that Bolton illegally revealed classified information on the other.
“He broke the law, very simple, I mean, as much as it’s going to be broken. This is highly classified,” Trump said of Bolton’s book during a Wednesday interview with Fox News’ Sean Hannity. “It’s highly classified information. And he did not have approval. That’s come out now very loud and very strong.”
Twelve hours later, Trump said the book was nothing but lies.
“Bolton’s book, which is getting terrible reviews, is a compilation of lies and made up stories, all intended to make me look bad,” Trump tweeted Thursday morning. “Many of the ridiculous statements he attributes to me were never made, pure fiction. Just trying to get even for firing him like the sick puppy he is!”
Legal scholars say Trump’s dual claim that the material in Bolton’s book is classified, but is also false, is a very tricky one to make.
“One interesting wrinkle for the government is that in order to claim elements of Bolton’s book are classified, the government must admit the information in question is true,” Susan Hennessey, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, tweeted Wednesday. “There’s no such thing as a classified lie.”
So far, neither Trump nor his top White House aides have detailed exactly what they believe to be false in Bolton’s book. Instead, they have attacked Bolton’s motives for writing it, his patriotism and his sincerity.
On Thursday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo carefully avoided directly challenging any of Bolton’s specific recollections in a statement he released about the book.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo attends a news conference at the State Department in Washington, DC, June 10, 2020.
Andrew Harnik | Pool via Reuters
Among the details that went unchallenged was Bolton’s account of Pompeo passing him a note during a 2019 negotiations with North Korea. “He is so full of s—,” read the note, which Bolton understood to be in reference to Trump.
Instead of challenging Bolton on the specifics, Pompeo accused him of “spreading a number of lies, fully-spun half-truths, and outright falsehoods,” but he did not say what any of those were.
“It is both sad and dangerous,” said Pompeo’s statement, “that John Bolton’s final public role is that of a traitor who damaged America by violating his sacred trust with its people.”
Like Trump, Pompeo seems to be arguing that the book is full of lies, and at the same time, that it is full of damaging state secrets.
Mnuchin and trade advisor Peter Navarro also lashed out at Bolton on Thursday, as did several of Trump’s allies on Capitol Hill.
This task was made easier by talking points provided by the White House reportedly asking allies to claim that Bolton broke the law by publishing the book.
“Mere months after he left the White House, Bolton negotiated a $2 million deal and drafted a 500 plus page manuscript rife with classified information,” say the talking points, according to The Washington Post.
Despite all the White House firepower pointed in his direction, Bolton’s response to Trump’s public fury has been relatively muted this week, consisting mainly of clips from an upcoming ABC special on the book.
“I don’t think [Trump’s] fit for office. I don’t think he has the competence to carry out the job,” Bolton says in one of the clips. “There really isn’t any guiding principle that I was able to discern other than what’s good for Donald Trump’s reelection.”
For Trump’s reelection, however, this book could hardly have come at a worse time.
Battered by the twin crises of the coronavirus pandemic and the nationwide protests over police killings of Black Americans, Trump is now trailing his Democratic rival, former Vice President Joe Biden, in polls five months from Election Day.
For Republicans focused on winning in November, Bolton’s book is an unnecessary distraction from the bigger issues facing the Trump presidency.
“This is a time when Trump needs to be on offense for the country and for his reelection campaign, and this book means that all these people in the West Wing are focused on defense,” said Dan Eberhart, a longtime Republican political donor and CEO of Canary LLC, one of the nation’s largest privately owned oil services firms.
“This is the most credible book attacking the Trump administration that’s come out so far, and I think the administration made a tactical mistake by not letting the book be published in February,” when Bolton had initially hoped to release it, Eberhart said in an interview Thursday.
Now that Trump is in a one-on-one battle with Biden, a former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, “The contrast couldn’t be any sharper between the Trump that Bolton describes in the book, who has no real foreign policy at all, and Biden, who effectively has endless foreign policy experience,” said Eberhart.
On Thursday, Trump’s preferred network, Fox News, released a new monthly poll that showed the president trailing Biden by 12 points in a general election matchup, 50% to 38%. It’s a startling shift from just two months ago, when the same poll showed Biden and Trump tied at 42%. Biden also has leads, albeit generally narrower, in key swing states such as Michigan, Pennsylvania, Arizona and Wisconsin.
“Trump needs to expand beyond traditional Republican groups and cut Biden’s support among independents,” said Daron Shaw, a Republican pollster who conducted the Fox News poll along with Democrat Chris Anderson.
“The best news in the poll for the Trump campaign is a significant percentage of independents saying they haven’t decided or are considering a third-party option,” Shaw said.
But according to Eberhart, that’s precisely the danger that a book like Bolton’s memoir poses to Trump’s reelection prospects.
“These persuadable Republican and independent voters, who say they like the economy but not Trump’s style, they would be the ones most likely to be influenced by this book,” he said.
“Trump’s base is steadfast, and one more book will make no difference to them. But his base isn’t growing anymore, either,” he added. “If he wants another term, Trump will need to win over some voters who are still on the fence. And books like Bolton’s make that harder for him to do.”