U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson had harsh words for former Attorney General William Barr on Monday, saying the Justice Department should not have withheld a note from a watchdog group.
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) requested a March 24, 2019 memo prepared for Barr via the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), but the request was denied. At the time, the DOJ said the memo was protected from disclosure because it was legal advice.
However, Jackson ruled that the memo actually contained “strategic advice, as opposed to legal advice.” Additionally, she said the memo’s writers already knew President Donald Trump would not be prosecuted.
“In other words, examination of the document reveals that the Attorney General was not then engaged in decision-making on whether the president should be charged with obstruction of justice; the fact that he would not be prosecuted was obvious, ”she said. .
Jackson also criticized Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s summary of Barr’s report, noting that in March 2020, U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton said Barr apparently made a “calculated attempt” to make the report look favorable. to Trump.
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A federal judge ordered the release of a legal memorandum that the then-Trump Justice Department prepared for then-Attorney General Barr before announcing his finding that Trump had not obstructed justice during the investigation into Russia.
The justice ministry had refused to hand over the memorandum of March 24, 2019 to a government transparency group that requested it under the Freedom of Information Act, claiming that the document represented the private counsels of lawyers and had been produced before a formal decision was taken and was therefore exempt from disclosure under the Public Archives Act.
But Jackson, in a stern rebuke from Barr, said the Justice Department obscured “the true purpose of the memorandum” when it withheld the document.
She said the note from the Justice Department’s legal counsel’s office contained “strategic advice, as opposed to legal advice” and that editors and recipients already understood that Trump would not be prosecuted. While government agencies can refuse to disclose documents that reflect internal deliberations before a decision is made, that protection does not apply in this case since a conclusion has already been drawn, the judge wrote.
In other words, examination of the document reveals that the Attorney General was not then engaged in making the decision as to whether the President should be charged with obstructing justice; the fact that he was not would not be prosecuted was a no-brainer, ”Jackson said. in an order dated Monday.
The decision by Barr and senior Justice Department officials to clear Trump from obstruction, even though Mueller and his team did not come to that conclusion, was an important moment for the president whom he presented as a vindication .
Barr published a summary of Mueller’s report a full month before the release of the entire 448-page document, helping to shape public perception of the investigation’s findings in a Trump-friendly way. Mueller later complained to Barr that his summary did not fully reflect the findings of the investigation and caused “public confusion”.
In his order this week, Jackson rebuked Barr for his general handling of the Mueller Report, saying his “characterization of what he had barely had time to go through, let alone study closely, elicited a immediate reaction, as politicians and pundits took to their microphones and their Twitter feeds to decry what they feared was an attempt to hide the bullet. “
She also noted that another judge had berated Barr last year because what he said were misleading public statements that distorted Mueller’s conclusions in favor of the president.
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington filed a public record request for communications about the obstruction decision after Barr said he and other senior officials reached that conclusion in consultation with the adviser’s office legal, which provides legal advice to executive agencies.
At issue in a pending trial before the judge, there were two particular documents that the group wanted.
Jackson ruled that one of the documents, described by a Justice Department official as an “untitled and undated draft legal analysis” that had been submitted to the Attorney General as part of his decision making, had been properly retained from the group.
But she ordered the release of the other memo, which concludes that the evidence gathered by Mueller’s team would not support a filibuster lawsuit against Trump.
In his order, Jackson noted that the legal note prepared for Barr, and Barr’s letter to Congress that describes the special adviser’s report, were “written by the same people at the same time.”
“The emails show not only that the authors and recipients of the memorandum are working hand in hand to craft the advice that is supposed to be provided by the OLC, but that the letter to Congress is the priority and that it is completed first. “. the judge wrote.
The judge said the Justice Department has until May 17 to file a motion to stay the order.