A US judge has warned that it could be too late to stop the publication of a book about the Trump administration written by the president’s former national security adviser.
More than 200,000 copies of John Bolton’s book – The Room Where It Happened – have been printed and distributed and its contents have been the subject of numerous press reports.
But the US Department of Justice has gone to court to prevent the publication of the book and to retrieve copies already in circulation.
US district judge Royce Lamberth told the department’s lawyers that “the horse seems to be out of the barn”, wondering what he could do to pull back books already sent out “all over the country”.
The book includes claims that Donald Trump had been unaware that Britain was a nuclear power, that the president had asked if Finland was part of Russia, and that he had sought help from Chinese President Xi Jinping to win November’s presidential election in the US.
Mr Bolton was fired by Mr Trump in September after 17 months in the White House job and Mr Trump told Fox News earlier this week that his former adviser “broke the law” in publishing the book.
He also tweeted that Mr Bolton was just trying to get even for being fired “like the sick puppy he is!”.
In court, justice department lawyer David Morrell said Mr Bolton had created a “mess” by publishing the book without what he described as formal authorisation that the manuscript was free of classified information.
Mr Morrell said: “He has flung the barnyard doors open. He has let the horses out, and now he looks at us collectively and says, ‘What are you going to do about it?’
“Deterrence matters because there’s a massive government interest in ensuring that these agreements aren’t breached by a disgruntled author.”
Mr Bolton should not be allowed to profit from flouting his contractual obligation to not disclose classified material he had access to while working at the White House, Mr Morrell added.
Mr Bolton’s lawyers say the allegations are another way for the White House to censor his unflattering claims about the Trump administration.
In court papers, they wrote: “If the First Amendment stands for anything, it is that the government does not have the power to clasp its hand over the mouth of a citizen attempting to speak on a matter of great public import.”
Judge Lamberth said he will consider the arguments further ahead of a ruling, expected to be given before the book’s official launch on Tuesday.
Commenting on claims that Mr Bolton had ended a pre-publication review process early, the judge said: “He can’t just walk away, and he didn’t tell the government he was walking away.”
But the judge also pressed the justice department on the White House’s conclusion that the manuscript contained classified information.
The court heard that Mr Bolton had been told on 27 April by the official responsible for overseeing the National Security Council’s pre-publication process that no classified material had been found in the manuscript. Another White House official had done an additional review, however, and disagreed.