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DOJ investigating John Bolton book disclosures; subpoenas issued

Kevin Johnson USA TODAY

Published 5:34 PM EDT Sep 15, 2020

Federal prosecutors have issued a grand jury subpoena to John Bolton’s publisher as part of a criminal investigation into whether the former national security adviser unlawfully disclosed classified information in a recent book critical of President Donald Trump, a person with knowledge of the matter said Tuesday.

The Justice Department’s demand for records from Simon & Schuster comes after the Trump administration failed in its effort earlier this year to halt publication of the book, “The Room Where It Happened,” and threats from president that his former aide could face prosecution.

Justice officials declined comment. 

Charles Cooper, Bolton’s attorney, said they are aware of “reports” that the subpoenas have been issued but denied any wrongdoing.

“Ambassador Bolton emphatically rejects any claim that he acted improperly, let alone criminally, in connection with the publication of his book, and he will cooperate fully, as he has throughout, with any official inquiry into his conduct.”

The investigation was first disclosed by the New York Times.

In June, a federal judge cleared the way for the book’s publication, ruling that with numerous copies already distributed, it would be futile to stop it.

“With hundreds of thousands of copies around the globe – many in newsrooms – the damage is done,” wrote U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth. “There is no restoring the status quo.”

But the judge also sharply rebuked Bolton for not following the government’s pre-publication clearance protocols regarding potentially classified material and suggested he could lose his $2 million advance for the book. 

“Bolton has gambled with the national security of the United States,” the judge wrote. “He has exposed his country to harm and himself to civil (and potentially criminal) liability. But these facts do not control the motion before the court. The government has failed to establish that an injunction will prevent irreparable harm.”

Following the judge’s ruling Trump quickly weighed in on Twitter, suggesting that Bolton would have a “really big price to pay.”

“He likes dropping bombs on people, and killing them,” the president wrote. “Now he will have bombs dropped on him!”

Legal analysts said the Justice Department’s action, and its history of intervention in other cases on the side of Trump allies, smacked of retaliation. 

“Given the way the administration gamed the review system to prevent the book from being published and then Trump repeatedly called on Bolton to be prosecuted, it’s hard to see this as anything other than direct retaliation,” Matt Miller, a former Justice spokesman in the Obama administration, tweeted Tuesday.

Miller referred to the government’s pre-publication review process used to screen books and other publications for classified information that officials access in their former government roles. Bolton has asserted that the administration abused the process, effectively delaying the book.   

James Melendres, a former Justice official involved in the prosecution of former CIA Director David Petraeus who ultimately pleaded guilty to mishandling classified information, said the department’s “track record” in other high-profile cases cannot be ignored.

Melendres, now a partner at the firm of Snell & Wilmer referred to the Trump Justice Department’s intervention in the prosecutions of the president’s first national security adviser Michael Flynn and political adviser Roger Stone – both cases brought by former Russia special counsel Robert Mueller.

Justice abruptly abandoned the Flynn case in May, after the retired Army general pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts a Russian ambassador. The trial judge continues to challenge the department’s action. In the Stone case, Justice officials recommended a lighter sentence for the political operative over the objections of prosecutors following Stone’s conviction for lying to Congress and obstruction. Trump ultimately granted his friend clemency, saving Stone from a prison sentence of slightly more than three years.

“It (Bolton investigation) looks like retaliation or vindictiveness are involved, both in the legal sense and in common sense,” Melendres said.

Mark Zaid, who specializes in national security law and whistleblower defense, said the Justice action could be taken both as retaliation and legitimate legal scrutiny.

“From the legal perspective, there is nothing inappropriate based on existing law for the administration to pursue its current course of action,” Zaid said. “But from a policy standpoint, this is highly and historically unusual. Prior administrations have many examples of hard-line approaches about certain topics, but the Trump administration, in particular, goes out of its way to punish its perceived enemies and critics. It is no stretch of the imagination to believe that President Trump personally wants John Bolton punished in every imaginable way, but demonstrating selective prosecution is one of the hardest defenses to assert.”

Published 5:34 PM EDT Sep 15, 2020

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