WASHINGTON — The Justice Department has opened a criminal investigation into whether President Trump’s former national security adviser John R. Bolton unlawfully disclosed classified information in a memoir this summer, an inquiry that the department began after it failed to stop the book’s publication, according to three people familiar with the matter.
The department has convened a grand jury, which issued a subpoena for communications records from Simon & Schuster, the publisher of Mr. Bolton’s memoir, “The Room Where It Happened.” The Javelin Agency, which represents Mr. Bolton, also received a subpoena, according to a person familiar with the investigation.
The inquiry is a significant escalation of the turmoil over the publication of the book, whose highly unflattering account of Mr. Bolton’s 17 months in the White House prompted Mr. Trump to attack him and call for his prosecution even as the Justice Department sued earlier to try to stop its release.
The disclosures about the criminal investigation into Mr. Bolton’s memoir also come amid a flurry of other new books by onetime Trump advisers, former law enforcement officials, journalists and others that are critical of Mr. Trump and reveal harsh new details about his 2016 campaign and his first term as he seeks re-election.
After a judge rejected the department’s allegations that Mr. Bolton moved forward with publication without final notice that a review to scrub out classified information was complete, the director of national intelligence referred the matter last month to the Justice Department, two of the people said. John Demers, the head of the department’s national security division, then opened the criminal investigation.
Mr. Bolton denied that he published classified information. “Ambassador Bolton emphatically rejects any claim that he acted improperly, let alone criminally, in connection with the publication of his book, and he will cooperate fully, as he has throughout, with any official inquiry into his conduct,” his lawyer Charles J. Cooper said in a statement.
Representatives for the Justice Department, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the National Security Council declined to comment, as did Simon & Schuster. Javelin did not return calls and emails for comment.
Mr. Bolton’s account of his time working for Mr. Trump and his efforts to get the book published set off a furor. He confirmed elements of the Ukraine scheme that prompted impeachment, wrote that the president was willing to intervene in criminal investigations to curry favor with foreign dictators and said he sought China’s help in winning re-election.
Mr. Cooper has accused the administration of slow-walking the review process to keep Mr. Bolton from revealing embarrassing information about Mr. Trump. Administration officials have said they uncovered legitimate instances of unauthorized disclosures of classified information.
Mr. Trump has made clear that he wants his former aide prosecuted. He has said on Twitter that Mr. Bolton “broke the law” and “should be in jail, money seized, for disseminating, for profit, highly Classified information.” He has also called Mr. Bolton “a dope,” “incompetent” and the book “a compilation of lies and made up stories, all intended to make me look bad.”
Lawyers for the National Security Council and the Justice Department expressed reservations about opening a criminal case, in part because Mr. Trump’s public statements made it seem like an overtly political act, according to two officials briefed on the discussions. But others noted that the federal judge in the lawsuit this summer said Mr. Bolton may have broken the law, and that the case had merit.
The president hired Mr. Bolton, a combative, hard-line adviser, in 2018 to tackle mounting challenges from Iran, North Korea and other adversaries. As has been the case with Mr. Trump and other aides, their relationship eventually soured as Mr. Bolton tried to keep the president from making what he viewed as unsound deals with American enemies and Mr. Trump chafed at the approach.
Mr. Bolton, the ambassador to the United Nations under President George W. Bush, left the White House a year ago and signed a deal last fall with Simon & Schuster to write a memoir of his time there.
Mr. Bolton had submitted a copy of his manuscript in December to the National Security Council’s top official for prepublication review, Ellen J. Knight. When Mr. Bolton became national security adviser, he had signed a standard nondisclosure agreement that bound any book he might eventually write to a mandatory review to ensure that it contained no classified information.
Such an agreement is routine for national security officials as a condition of gaining a security clearance and access to classified information.
Ms. Knight told Mr. Bolton in April that he had satisfied her requests for edits to the manuscript, according to court documents. But when asked when he could expect a letter confirming that the review was complete, Ms. Knight gave no clear answer.
Eventually, Mr. Bolton told Simon & Schuster to publish the book based on Ms. Knight’s April statement that she was finished.
But without notifying Mr. Bolton, the White House had initiated another review in May, overseen by Michael Ellis, a political appointee who had never conducted a prepublication review. Mr. Ellis said in an affidavit that he found multiple instances of classified information in the manuscript.
The government also suggested to the court that since 2017, Mr. Ellis had had “original classification authority,” a designation that would allow him to make decisions to classify material. But the administration later recanted, saying in a filing that Mr. Ellis did not receive that authority until June, after he had reviewed the book.
Weeks before the book was to go on sale, the National Security Council told Mr. Bolton in June that his manuscript still contained classified information and would need further edits. Mr. Cooper declared that the Trump administration was trying to suppress the book and its critical portrayal of the president and said it was already printed, bound and shipped to booksellers nationwide.
The administration escalated the battle, suing Mr. Bolton that month to stop distribution. Department lawyers accused Mr. Bolton of giving Simon & Schuster permission to publish his book before he had official signoff that the review was complete and insisted that the book still contained classified information whose disclosure could damage American interests.
Gen. Paul M. Nakasone, the director of the National Security Agency, said in an affidavit that he had “identified classified information” in the portion of the manuscript that he had read.
General Nakasone did not detail the passages but warned that “compromise of this information” could cause the government to lose an unspecified source of electronic intelligence and “cause irreparable damage” to its ability to gather such intelligence.
But the lawsuit was filed only a week before Mr. Bolton’s memoir was set to go on sale and as detailed accounts of it appeared in the news media. The judge in the case, Royce C. Lamberth of the Federal District Court of the District of Columbia, determined that it was too late to keep the book from readers.
“With hundreds of thousands of copies around the globe — many in newsrooms — the damage is done,” he wrote in rejecting the Justice Department’s argument.
But Judge Lamberth also all but predicted the criminal inquiry, writing in his opinion that he was “persuaded that defendant Bolton likely jeopardized national security by disclosing classified information in violation of his nondisclosure agreement obligations.”
Separate from the criminal investigation, Mr. Bolton still faces civil litigation that could force him to forfeit the proceeds from his book to the government as punishment for breaching his prepublication review agreement.
Judge Lamberth, who is overseeing that proceeding, wrote in June that Mr. Bolton could have sued the government instead of unilaterally publishing if he was unhappy with the delay.
“This was Bolton’s bet: If he is right and the book does not contain classified information, he keeps the upside mentioned above; but if he is wrong, he stands to lose his profits from the book deal, exposes himself to criminal liability, and imperils national security,” he wrote. “Bolton was wrong.”
Julian E. Barnes and Michael S. Schmidt contributed reporting.