The Post reported Wednesday that, based on Mr. Bolton’s account, Mr. Trump pleaded with Chinese President Xi Jinping to help him win the 2020 U.S. election, telling Mr. Xi during a summit dinner last year that increased agricultural purchases by Beijing from U.S. farmers would aid Mr. Trump’s electoral prospects. Mr. Bolton’s manuscript laments that he was unable to relate Mr. Trump’s precise words because the administration demanded them struck during a prepublication review.
Indeed, Mr. Bolton worked painstakingly with the National Security Council’s chief classification official to scrub the book, a process that consumed four months. While this review proceeded, Mr. Trump insisted that the book must not be published before the November election, and, nonsensically, that all of his conversations with Mr. Bolton were classified. Unsurprisingly, after Mr. Bolton’s manuscript was scrubbed, another Trump official swooped in to insist that further review was necessary. Reasonably concluding that the administration was using the process as pretext to silence him, Mr. Bolton decided to publish.
The long delay has already hurt the public debate. It would have been helpful if Mr. Bolton’s book had emerged, or Mr. Bolton had testified, when Congress was considering Mr. Trump’s impeachment. The Xi revelations suggest that Mr. Trump sought to manipulate U.S. foreign policy with China, as with Ukraine, for his own personal gain. In fact, writes Mr. Bolton, “I am hard pressed to identify any significant Trump decision during my tenure that wasn’t driven by reelection calculations.”
At this point, no self-respecting judge would order Mr. Bolton to halt publication. The government seeks a “prior restraint” of speech on matters of critical public interest. Nothing in the First Amendment or the Supreme Court’s interpretation of it, in tougher cases than this one, suggests the government has any right to expect such a result, particularly when Mr. Bolton worked to scrub the book in good faith.
The lawsuit could simply be a feeble attempt to mollify Mr. Trump, who only likes freedom of speech when the message praises him, and who routinely pressures the Justice Department to help his friends and punish his enemies. But even a long-shot bid to silence a Trump critic may intimidate other disillusioned former officials from revealing disturbing things they saw during their time in the administration, lest the Justice Department sic taxpayer-funded lawyers on them, too.
U.S. District Court Judge Royce Lamberth, who is hearing the case, should move quickly and rule decisively against the Justice Department so that the opposite message is sent: Former government employees need not fear telling the truth.