The Trump administration sued the former national security adviser John R. Bolton on Tuesday to try to delay publication of his highly anticipated memoir about his time in the White House, saying the book contained classified information that would compromise national security if it became public.
The book, “The Room Where It Happened,” is set for release on June 23. Administration officials have repeatedly warned Mr. Bolton against publishing it.
Mr. Bolton made clear in a statement this week that his book contained explosive details about his time at the White House. He and Mr. Trump clashed on significant policy issues like Iran, North Korea and Afghanistan, and in his book, Mr. Bolton also confirmed accusations at the heart of the Democratic impeachment case over the president’s dealings with Ukraine, according to details from his manuscript previously reported by The New York Times.
The Justice Department accused him of short-circuiting a government review that he had agreed to participate in for any eventual manuscript before even accepting the post in 2018.
Mr. Bolton is breaking that agreement, “unilaterally deciding that the prepublication review process is complete and deciding for himself whether classified information should be made public,” department lawyers wrote in a breach of contract lawsuit against Mr. Bolton filed in federal court in Washington.
The book’s publisher, Simon & Schuster, has already printed and distributed copies, and the lawsuit did not name it as a party, in an apparent nod to the constitutional and practical impediments to trying to stop it. Instead, the Justice Department asked a judge to seize Mr. Bolton’s proceeds from the book deal and to order him to try to persuade Simon & Schuster to pull back the book and dispose of copies until the review is completed.
Mr. Bolton’s lawyer, Charles J. Cooper, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. He has said that his client acted in good faith and that the Trump administration is abusing a standard review process to prevent Mr. Bolton from revealing information that is merely embarrassing to President Trump, but not a threat to national security.
A spokesman for Simon & Schuster called the lawsuit “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.”
While insider books vex many administrations, it is rare for one to sue to delay them before publication. Several former White House lawyers from Democratic and Republican administrations said they could not recall a similar legal effort to stop a book by a former White House official.
Mr. Bolton grew convinced that the prepublication review was no longer on the level, if it ever was, after he agreed to make the changes he was asked to make but the White House still gave him no written confirmation that the review was complete. The White House has now taken longer to review the book than Mr. Bolton did to write it after he resigned in September.
On Monday, Mr. Trump accused Mr. Bolton of violating policies on classified information by moving ahead with the book. The president also threatened Mr. Bolton with criminal charges for moving ahead, though there is no indication that federal prosecutors plan to pursue any.
The Justice Department did accuse Mr. Bolton in the lawsuit of leaking the manuscript, which contained classified information, without approval. Disclosing classified information is a federal crime.
But in a further sign that the Justice Department is not mounting a serious bid to try to block the book’s imminent release, the complaint does not seek a temporary restraining order — a legal step to freeze an action so the court can evaluate disputes — to block any further distribution of copies, Richard Hasen, a law professor at the University of California, Irvine, said on Twitter.
Mr. Trump also faces the prospect of unfavorable revelations from a forthcoming book on another front. A niece of his, Mary Trump, plans to divulge damaging information about him in a book to be published next month, also by Simon & Schuster, the publisher said this week.
Mr. Bolton submitted the manuscript to the administration for review in January. At the time, the impeachment trial was underway into whether Mr. Trump’s dealings with Ukraine constituted an abuse of power.
Democrats asked Mr. Bolton to testify voluntarily in the House impeachment inquiry, but he declined, and they never sought a subpoena, fearing a protracted court fight. Mr. Bolton did offer to testify in the Senate trial if subpoenaed, only to have Republicans block such a request by Democrats, and ultimately the president was acquitted.
Mr. Trump has been enraged about Mr. Bolton’s pending book for months, and has told his advisers he wanted to try to stop it. On Monday, Attorney General William P. Barr criticized Mr. Bolton for publishing a book while the president he served under was still in office, erroneously calling it unprecedented. Other officials, including Robert M. Gates, a former defense secretary and C.I.A. director under presidents of both parties, have published books while the administration they worked in was still in power.
The government’s system for reviewing books and other material by former officials was created to ensure that classified and other sensitive information remained secret. Officials must agree to submit any works to the review process in order to obtain a security clearance.
Mr. Bolton submitted his materials to the National Security Council, which found “significant quantities of classified information,” the Justice Department said in its complaint.
According to the complaint, a security council official reviewing it told Mr. Bolton in April that it did not contain classified information. But she also told Mr. Bolton that the review was still underway. A second review began in May.
In a letter this month to Mr. Cooper, John A. Eisenberg, a deputy White House counsel, informed him that the manuscript still contained classified information, that Mr. Bolton “himself classified and designated for declassification only after the lapse of 25 years” and that the book could not be published and distributed, the complaint said.
Mr. Cooper replied in a letter that “the book has now been printed, bound and shipped to distributors across the country,” the lawsuit said.
Rather than wait for the government to complete the review, the Justice Department said, Mr. Bolton “decided to take matters into his own hands” and decide with his publisher to disclose last week that the book would be published this month, without giving notice to the National Security Council.
The government’s 27-page civil complaint was bolstered by 19 exhibits, including the security agreement that he signed, a White House memo that detailed Mr. Bolton’s postemployment obligations and letters between Mr. Bolton, his lawyer and the government sent in January, February and March that discuss the fact that the manuscript contains classified materials.
The government can try to take several types of action when a former official is about to publish what it says is classified information.
The first type, so-called prior restraint, is to seek to block publication of the material. Courts have repeatedly taken a dim view of such attempts in light of the First Amendment’s protections for a free press, including in a famous case in 1971 striking down the Nixon administration’s attempt to stop The Times from publishing the Pentagon Papers.
Separately, the government can try to seize the proceeds from books on the grounds that the writers breached the agreements they signed as a condition of receiving access to classified information.
The lawsuit filed on Tuesday gestured at blocking publication, but it seemed more squarely focused on seizing Mr. Bolton’s profits.
Filed against Mr. Bolton — not Simon & Schuster — it asked for the court to take control of the money he made from the book, and to order that he “instruct or request his publisher, insofar as he has the authority to do so,” to retrieve and dispose of current copies of the book and further delay its release “until completion of the prepublication review process.”
A group of former national security officials said last year in a lawsuit that the review process for books and articles unjustifiably restricted their rights to free speech and due process.
They claimed that the review system, which is governed by several ambiguous policies, gives reviewing officials too much discretionary power over what is published and allows them to quickly clear reviews for former officials who write positively about the government.
The head of the Justice Department’s Civil Division, Joseph R. Hunt, who signed the lawsuit, told staff members on Tuesday that he planned to resign after nearly two years in the post, according to an email obtained by The Times, making him the third top department official to step down in the past week.
Charlie Savage and Peter Baker contributed reporting.