Bolton Case: It’s Censorship

Terry H. Schwadron

Feb. 23, 2020

The remarkable thing about Donald Trump using the machinery of White House censorship to quash John Bolton’s pending book exceeds calling Bolton a “traitor” for promising to disclosing Trump’s actual thinking about pressuring Ukraine to find dirt on Joe Biden.

The really outstanding part of the story is that Trump believes — and is asserting legally — that any disclosure of conversations with Trump or any conclusions about the Trump Oval Office are classified.

Trump plays with “classified” labels to use information only when it helps himself, and to deny access when it doesn’t.

Now, it is true that the president can declare particular documents or pieces of intelligence classified (or de-classified), but there has never been that kind of censorship blanket thrown over all conversations in the White House.

As a result, Trump has put the White House directly in the path of blocking publication of the Bolton book.

I have no love of Bolton, but I do have strong feelings about censorship.

Just for orientation here, Bolton got a $2 million advance from Simon & Schuster for an insider book, then let it be known that the book covers conversations with Trump that include the exact periods that were subject of the recent impeachment proceedings. The National Security Council warned Bolton last month that his draft “appears to contain significant amounts of classified information,” some of it top secret, but pledged to help him revise the manuscript and “move forward as expeditiously as possible.”

Now, The Washington Post has told us, Trump has put his foot down — right on top of the national security review, insisting to White House aides that Bolton’s account should not be published before the November election, in the name of national security.


This is known as pre-publication censorship, and the practice has a checkered history.

More than 40 years ago, The Washington Post and The New York Times bucked the White House to publish The Pentagon Papers, disclosing the inside story of Vietnam decisions. The Supreme Court finally allowed it, but that decision came after the publication had begun.

In 2012, Mark Bissonette, a former Navy SEAL wrote a book about his role in the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, triggering a Justice Department criminal investigation into allegations he published classified details of his work and training as a special operator. The case was settled in 2016 with Bissonette, who wrote under the pen name Mark Owen, agreeing to surrender all profits and royalties to the government. In exchange, the Justice Department dismissed claims and dropped plans to prosecute him for the release of classified information.

Should Bolton and his publishers move ahead without White House approval would undoubtedly bring about another such legal challenge. Bolton can challenge undue delay or purely capricious exercises of the government’s authority, but it would take months to get to court.

Of course, Bolton simply could have testified at the impeachment trial, if enough senators had voted to subpoena him. Without a subpoena, of course, Bolton can go on television or do news interviews to discuss the information, but he has resisted all of it. That refusal has brought criticism for caring more about his book profits than about, say, living up to his responsibilities as a citizen to tell what he knows.


Trump has told news anchors that the book was “highly classified” and called him a traitor.” One participant at that meeting reported that Trump said, “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.” Trump also said that Bolton was “just making things up.”

Bolton has insisted that his testimony would not have changed the Senate’s acquittal vote. But it would have provided — or eventually may provide — first-person details about Trump abusing his office by conditioning the release of military aid to Ukraine on whether its government would help investigate former vice president Biden and his son, Hunter.

Those details aside, what is most concerning here to me is that Donald Trump is once again stretching the authority of his office to decide — with no rules or legal underpinning — that he alone can decide what information is in the public interest.

For someone like Trump, who only sees the office as an extension of his personal advancement, this position is dangerous and wrong. Essentially, the White House is saying that broad categories of topics are classified, without clearly identifying or articulating the reasons for that level of protection.

It is not just the Bolton book, of course. The Trump administration won’t release information about government spending on Trump properties, or about whether the national intelligence is finding evidence that Russians are interfering in favor of Trump (and Bernie Sanders), about any of the oversight matters from Congress for which the Trump White House has simply refused any access.

This is only Making Trump Great, not America.


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