U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth told lawyers during arguments Friday that "the horse seems to be out of the barn" and wondered aloud what he could do to retrieve books already sent out "all over the country."
A lawyer for Bolton agreed with the judge and said the Justice Department's request to halt the publication of the book and to retrieve copies was both surreal and impractical. More than 200,000 copies have already been printed and distributed to booksellers throughout the country, and the book has received substantial publicity from major news media organizations who have reviewed it ahead of its scheduled release next week.
But the Justice Department bristled at the idea that nothing could be done, with Justice Department lawyer David Morrell saying that Bolton had created a "'mess" by publishing his book without receiving what he said was formal authorization that the manuscript was free of classified information. He said Bolton should not be permitted to profit from a problem he created by flouting his contractual obligation to not disclose classified material he was exposed to while on the job.
"He has flung the barnyard doors open. He has let the horses out, and now he looks at us collectively and says, 'What are you going to do about it?'" Morrell said.
U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth did not immediately rule, saying he wants to further weigh the government's classification arguments in a court case that raises core First Amendment and national security concerns.
The book is due out on Tuesday, and Lamberth is expected to make a ruling before then.
The Justice Department sued earlier in the week to halt the release of "The Room Where it Happened," insisting that the book contained classified information that could damage national security and that Bolton had failed to complete a prepublication review process.
Lamberth appeared to find compelling the Justice Department's assertion that Bolton had prematurely bailed on the review process.
"He can't just walk away, and he didn't tell the government he was walking away," Lamberth told Bolton's attorney Chuck Cooper.
The Justice Department similarly argued that it wanted the judge to send a message that government employees who become "disgruntled" during the manuscript review process don't simply give up and publish classified information without approval.
"Deterrence matters because there's a massive government interest in ensuring that these agreements aren't breached by a disgruntled author," Morrell said.
But the judge also repeatedly pressed the Justice Department on how the White House came to reach the conclusion that Bolton's manuscript contained classified information, especially since Bolton had been assured on April 27 by the career official responsible for overseeing the National Security Council's prepublication review process, Ellen Knight, that edits on the manuscript were done and that there was no classified material.
Bolton's lawyers argued that he had labored painstakingly for months with Knight, including on a line-by-line edit. But another White House official, Michael Ellis, soon after embarked on an additional review and identified material that he said was classified, prompting the administration to warn Bolton against publication.
That late-stage, end-round around Knight's judgment by a political appointee was troubling, Cooper said.
"The question becomes, Is she an authorized official? Well, there's no doubt that she is. Did she confirm that the information is unclassified? There's no dispute by the government that she did," he added.
Bolton's lawyers have argued that the White House assertions of classified material are a pretext to censor him over a book the administration simply finds unflattering.
"If the First Amendment stands for anything, it is that the Government does not have the power to clasp its hand over the mouth of a citizen attempting to speak on a matter of great public import," they wrote in a court filing.
The book, due out Tuesday, depicts a president whose foreign policy objectives were inexorably linked to his own political gain. It recounts how Trump "pleaded" with China's Xi Jinping during a 2019 summit to help his reelection prospects, and how he linked the supply of military assistance to Ukraine to the country's willingness to conduct politically charged investigations into Biden - allegations that were at the heart of an impeachment trial that ended with the president's acquittal in February.
Trump on Thursday called the book a "compilation of lies and made up stories" intended to make him look bad. He tweeted that Bolton was just trying to get even for being fired "like the sick puppy he is!"
Other administration officials who figure prominently in the book, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, denied comments or actions that were attributed to them and joined the president in condemning the book.
Even Democrats who seized on some of Bolton's anecdotes to portray the president as unfit for office nonetheless expressed frustration that he had saved his damaging accounts for his book instead of sharing them in the impeachment case.
You can watch Martha Raddatz's exclusive interview with Bolton in a one-hour special Sunday, June 21, at 9|8 c on ABC.