Less than a week passed last September between John Bolton’s unceremonious exit from the White House and the first report on his plans to write a book about his time as national security adviser. Nine months later, The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir, which goes on sale June 23, is No. 1 on Amazon’s best-seller list. But if the Trump administration has its way, those presales will be preempted. Here’s what we know about Bolton’s highly anticipated tell-all and Trump’s attempts to stop it from seeing the light of day.
The book’s most scandalous allegations
On June 17, the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal published several details from the book that, if verified, would shake a normal administration to its foundations. According to the Post: “President Trump asked Chinese President Xi Jinping to help him win the 2020 U.S. election, telling Xi during a summit dinner last year that increased agricultural purchases by Beijing from American farmers would aid his electoral prospects.” The alleged conversation took place in June, a month before Trump pressured Ukraine to interfere in the 2020 election.
Trump’s private conversations with President Xi that month were also cause for alarm, according to the Wall Street Journal’s account: “Xi had explained to Trump why he was basically building concentration camps in Xinjiang. According to our interpreter, Trump said that Xi should go ahead with building the camps, which Trump thought was exactly the right thing to do.” As the two agreed to restart trade talks in the midst of the summer’s disastrous trade war, Trump told Xi, “You’re the greatest Chinese leader in 300 years!”
The details from the book appear to confirm the president’s “erratic” and “stunningly uninformed” understanding of foreign policy, according to Bolton. Trump allegedly said that invading Venezuela would be “cool” and that the country was “really part of the United States.” He also became obsessed with giving Kim Jong-Un an autographed CD of Elton John’s Rocket Man, which he considered a term of affection for the North Korean dictator.
Trump’s willingness to be influenced by authoritarian leaders also comes across in The Room Where It Happened. According to the Post account, Vladimir Putin — in an attempt to build support for Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro — compared opposition leader Juan Guaidó to Hillary Clinton in an effort that “largely persuaded Trump.” Bolton also claims that in May 2018, Turkish President Recep Erdogan gave Trump a memo describing the innocence of a Turkish firm under investigation by the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York. According to the book: “Trump then told Erdogan he would take care of things, explaining that the Southern District prosecutors were not his people, but were Obama people, a problem that would be fixed when they were replaced by his people.”
The details from the book would also confirm his public attitude toward journalists. “These people should be executed,” Trump told Bolton, in a meeting where he said that reporters should be jailed in order to find out their sources. “They are scumbags.”
Earlier revelations from the book
The first concrete report about the contents of Bolton’s book came from the New York Times in late January, amid Trump’s Senate impeachment trial. The most important nugget was Bolton’s claim that Trump told him in August of last year that security assistance to Ukraine should remain on hold until the country agreed to investigate Joe Biden’s son. The claim contradicted Trump’s central impeachment defense — that holding up the aid and his interest in investigating the Bidens were unrelated. The Times also reported that the book — which was just a manuscript at the time — included Bolton’s concerns that Trump was granting personal favors to Chinese president Xi Jinping and Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Early reports included other, less explosive details, including Bolton’s worries about Rudy Giuliani’s freelancing in Ukraine, and his claim that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Mark Esper joined him in pushing Trump to release the military aid to Ukraine.
By mid-February, Trump had been acquitted, and Bolton wanted people to know that there was more to his tell-all than what had already been revealed. In North Carolina, he told a crowd that the Ukraine portions are “like the sprinkles on the ice-cream sundae in terms of what’s in the book.” But he was frustratingly coy about everything else, merely implying that there were juicy sections involving Trump’s North Korea policy and his 2018 meeting with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki.
How Trump feels about it
He’s not a fan. When the Times reported on Bolton’s Ukraine claim in January, Trump tweeted that he “NEVER told John Bolton that the aid to Ukraine was tied to investigations into Democrats.” His former NSA was just trying to “sell” books,” Trump claimed. He also called Bolton’s book “nasty & untrue.”
On Monday, with publication imminent, Trump told reporters that he considers “every conversation with me as president highly classified. So that would mean that, if he wrote a book and if the book gets out, he’s broken the law and I would think that he would have criminal problems.”
Following the publication of several major details from the book on Wednesday, in a sprawling interview on Fox News President Trump called Bolton a “washed up guy” — the latest entry in Trump’s habit of hiring someone, then deeming them incompetent. He then elaborated on Twitter:
How the Trump administration is trying to stop it
Trump administration efforts to gum up the works began in January, when White House lawyers claimed Bolton’s book contains classified information. But they said weren’t trying to squash Bolton’s book entirely. “We will do our best to work with you to ensure your client’s ability to tell his story in a manner that protects U.S. national security,” a letter to Bolton’s lawyer read.
Trump had changed his tune by February. The Washington Post reported that he told aides Bolton was a “traitor” and that everything he ever said to him was classified. He also insisted that the book “should not see the light of day before the November election.”
“We’re going to try and block the publication of the book,” Trump reportedly told TV news anchors at an off-the-record lunch in February. “After I leave office, he can do this. But not in the White House.”
While the administration hasn’t been able to block the book’s publication, it has successfully delayed it. The first delay arrived in early March, when it became clear that the White House’s ongoing review of the manuscript would not be finished in time to meet the planned March 17 release date. In May, the release date was pushed back yet again to June 23 as the review continued.
On Tuesday, the Justice Department entered the fray with a lawsuit accusing Bolton of violating a nondisclosure agreement and asking a judge to “instruct” him to stop publication. The suit also asks for the court to order Bolton “to take any and all available steps to retrieve and dispose of any copies of The Room Where It Happened that may be in the possession of any third party in a manner acceptable to the United States.” On Wednesday, the Justice Department went even further, asking a district court judge to order Bolton and Simon & Schuster to stop the distribution of the book. In response, the publisher called the DOJ effort “a frivolous, politically motivated exercise in futility. Hundreds of thousands of copies of the book have already been distributed around the country and the world.”
Late Thursday, Bolton’s lawyers moved to dismiss the DOJ lawsuit, arguing in a court filing that it violates his First Amendment rights and asks Bolton to do something he can’t. “The Government is asking the Court to order Ambassador Bolton to do something he is powerless to do,” the filing says. “The practical reality is that neither Ambassador Bolton nor his publisher, Simon & Schuster, has any ability to stop copies from being sold to the general public on June 23.” A federal judge will hold a hearing in the lawsuit at 1 p.m. Friday.
What Bolton’s saying
The former national security adviser has long claimed that the book doesn’t contain any classified material. His lawyer, Charles Cooper, says that Bolton has spent months working with the National Security Council to ensure that and that many edits have been made to the book at the White House’s request. Cooper also said the National Security Council completed its review of the book in April, but didn’t formally clear it for publication. The White House claims that while one reviewer at the NSC cleared the book in April, a more senior official still found problems with classified material.
As for Trump, Bolton said in an interview with ABC News to promote the book, the President is “stunningly uninformed,” lacking the “competence to carry out the job,” and not “fit for office.”
“There really isn’t any guiding principle that I was able to discern other than what’s good for Donald Trump’s reelection,” Bolton said in the interview. “He was so focused on the reelection that longer-term considerations fell by the wayside.”
So, when will the book be released?
As of now, it’s June 23. Despite the White House’s lawsuit asking him to, Bolton says he has no power the stop the book’s publication. His publisher, Simon & Schuster, said in a letter Tuesday that the lawsuit “is nothing more than the latest in a long running series of efforts by the Administration to quash publication of a book it deems unflattering to the President.” Undoubtedly, all the attention the Trump administration is paying to the book is only helping its popularity.
But while the White House lawsuit may not be able to stop publication, it could conceivably prevent Bolton from profiting off of any sales. The suit asks the court to set up a trust to direct any profits from the book to the U.S. Treasury. Attorney Mark Zaid told The Wall Street Journal while the book’s publication won’t likely be delayed, Bolton “is probably going to have to take his checkbook out and write a very sizable check to the U.S. government.” And national security lawyer Bradley P. Moss is even more confident. “Bolton is still almost certain to lose the lawsuit DOJ just filed against him and he’ll forfeit all proceeds from his book,” Moss tweeted.