As Judge Royce C Lamberth noted, hundreds of thousands of copies of The Room Where It Happened have been shipped and excerpts have been published widely. The book is due to be released on Tuesday.
But the judge did have harsh words for Bolton, who he said failed to complete a national security review and “likely published classified materials”. Bolton, the judge said, had “gambled with the national security of the United States” and “exposed … himself to civil (and potentially criminal) liability”.
On Twitter, Trump said Bolton “must pay a very big price for this, as others have before him”. The president also praised the judge, contrived to claim “a big court win” and wrote of his former aide, a foreign policy hawk: “He likes dropping bombs on people, and killing them. Now he will have bombs dropped on him!”
A pending civil suit against Bolton would give the government the right to all profits from the book. Leaving the White House for a rally in Oklahoma, Trump told reporters “the country will get the money – any money he makes. So I hope a lot of books – uh, well, I probably shouldn’t hope that, but whatever he makes, he’s going to be giving back.”
Trump has sought to crack down on national security leakers and repeatedly advocated jail sentences for reporters who use such material. In an email to the Guardian, Carl Tobias, a University of Richmond law professor, said: “The government could criminally prosecute Bolton for violating the [non-disclosure agreement] and jeopardising national security.”
Bolton’s lawyers said he had not violated federal law.
An ambassador to the United Nations under George W Bush, Bolton was national security adviser between April 2018 and September 2019, when he resigned. Trump claimed to have fired him.
Excerpts from his book have proved highly embarrassing to Trump, revelations including what Bolton says is impeachable conduct in seeking re-election help from foreign countries, China among them, and an ignorance of basic geopolitical realities.
Critics of Bolton have pointed to his refusal to comply with a House subpoena in impeachment proceedings, which concerned Trump’s attempts to have Ukraine find dirt on political rivals which Bolton now discusses in his book.
Bolton said he would be willing to testify in Trump’s Senate trial but Republicans there did not call witnesses before acquitting the president.
Lamberth, a US district court judge in Washington, wrote that though Bolton’s “unilateral conduct raises grave national security concerns, the government has not established that an injunction is an appropriate remedy”.
He added: “As noted at the hearing, a CBS News reporter clutched a copy of the book while questioning the White House press secretary. By the looks of it, the horse is not just out of the barn – it is out of the country.”
Lamberth rejected the argument that “an injunction today would at least prevent any further spread of the book, such as limiting its audiobook release”.
“In taking it upon himself to publish his book without securing final approval from national intelligence authorities,” he wrote, “Bolton may indeed have caused the country irreparable harm.
“But in the internet age, even a handful of copies in circulation could irrevocably destroy confidentiality. A single dedicated individual with a book in hand could publish its contents far and wide from his local coffee shop. With hundreds of thousands of copies around the globe – many in newsrooms – the damage is done.”
On Twitter, Trump cited Steve Schmidt, a Republican critic, who he said “called Wacko John Bolton ‘a despicable man who failed in his duty to protect America’.
“…Plain and simple, John Bolton, who was all washed up until I brought him back and gave him a chance, broke the law by releasing classified information (in massive amounts). He must pay a very big price for this, as others have before him. This should never happen again!!!”
Schmidt responded: “He failed in his duty to protect America from you. The most failed president in American history. You are incompetent and inept. You are amoral and indecent. You are losing this election. You will be defeated and repudiated. Your legacy is death, weakness and economic collapse.”
Few observers expected Trump to succeed in blocking Bolton’s book, a reality the president seemed to admit.
“Obviously,” Trump tweeted, “with the book already given out and leaked to many people and the media, nothing the highly respected Judge could have done about stopping it.”
Those who predicted failure cited first amendment rights and prior cases including that in which Richard Nixon failed to stop the publication of the Pentagon Papers, leaked material about the conduct of the Vietnam war.
Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers, faced trial under the 1917 Espionage Act. All charges were dropped. More recently, Barack Obama’s use of the Espionage Act to go after leakers and whistleblowers attracted considerable scrutiny.
In January 2018, Trump responded to the publication by the Guardian of excerpts from Fire and Fury by Michael Wolff, the first Trump tell-all, by threatening to sue its publisher. Henry Holt & Co simply rushed the book to sale.
Bolton’s publisher, Simon & Schuster, may clash with the president again. On 28 July it is set to release Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man, a book by Trump’s niece.
The publisher says Mary L Trump, a clinical psychologist, will describe “a nightmare of traumas, destructive relationships, and a tragic combination of neglect and abuse”.
According to the Daily Beast, nearly 20 years ago Mary Trump signed an NDA regarding litigation over a will and her relationship with her uncle and his siblings. Trump has reportedly mused about suing to stop the book.