A Washington federal judge accused Attorney General William P. Barr’s Justice Department of deceiving her and Congress over advice he received from senior department officials on whether the President Donald J. Trump should have been accused of obstructing the Russia investigation and ordered that a related memo be released.
Judge Amy Berman Jackson of the United States District Court in Washington said in a ruling Monday night that the Justice Department’s obfuscation appeared to be part of a pattern in which senior officials such as Mr Barr were lying to Congress and the public about the investigation.
The department had argued that the memo was exempt from public records laws because it consisted of private advice from lawyers that Barr had relied on to call for prosecution of Mr. Trump. But Judge Jackson ruled that it contained strategic advice and that Barr and his aides already understood what his decision would be.
“It was obvious that he would not be prosecuted,” Judge Jackson wrote of Mr. Trump.
She also singled out Mr Barr for how he disseminated the findings of the investigation in a letter summarizing the 448-page report before it was released, which allowed Mr Trump to claim he had been exonerated.
“The Attorney General’s description of what he had barely had time to go through, let alone study closely, elicited an immediate reaction, as politicians and pundits used their microphones and of their Twitter feeds to expose what they feared was an attempt to hide the bullet, ”Judge Jackson wrote.
His reprimand shed new light on Mr. Barr’s decision not to prosecute Mr. Trump. She also wrote that although the department described the memo as a legal document protected by solicitor-client privilege, it was drafted in conjunction with Mr. Barr’s publicly released summary, “written by the same people. people at the same time ”.
A spokesperson for Mr Barr did not return an email seeking comment, nor did a spokesperson for the Department of Justice.
Judge Jackson said the government has until May 17 to decide whether it will consider appealing its decision, a decision to be made by a Justice Department led by people named by Biden.
The move came amid a lawsuit brought by a government watchdog, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, asking that the Justice Department be ordered to turn over a series of documents relating to how senior law enforcement officials have cleared Mr. Trump of wrongdoing.
The question is how Mr. Barr handled the end of the Mueller investigation and the disclosure of his findings to the public. In March 2019, the office of the special investigating counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, submitted its report to the Department of Justice. In a highly unusual decision, Mr. Mueller declined to determine whether Mr. Trump had unlawfully obstructed justice.
This allowed Mr. Barr to take control of the investigation. Two days after receiving the report, Barr sent a four-page letter to Congress saying Mr. Trump would not be charged with obstructing justice and summarizing the report. Mr Mueller’s team felt that Mr Barr’s characterization of the document was misleading and privately urged him to disclose more of their findings, but Mr Barr refused.
About a month later, around the time the report was released, Mr Barr told Congress he made the decision and not Mr Trump’s charge “in consultation with the adviser’s office. legal and other lawyers in the department ”. and that the decision to clear the president of wrongdoing was left to Mr. Barr because Mr. Mueller had not determined whether Mr. Trump had violated the law.
Judge Jackson said in the ruling that Mr Barr had been dishonest in making those claims, adding that he was not left to make the decision on the prosecution.
She also said that in the government-citizen accountability and ethics dispute in Washington, Mr Barr’s Justice Department claimed that the note, written by his senior officials, was about legal advice. on which he had relied to make the decision and should be shielded from the public.
Under federal law, the Justice Department can argue that such opinions should be protected because they are “deliberative” and the possibility of releasing them could prevent advisers from giving their advice bluntly because they fear that it never becomes public one day.
But instead, Judge Jackson wrote, Mr. Barr and his aides had already decided not to lay charges against Mr. Trump. She berated the department for presenting the memo as part of the deliberations on whether to sue the president. She noted that she was allowed to read the entire note before making her decision, despite objections from the Justice Department, and that she revealed that “the excised parties deny the idea that he It was up to the Attorney General to make a prosecution decision or that such a decision was on the table at all times.
The department “has not shown sincerity to this court with respect to the existence of a decision-making process that should be protected by the privilege of the deliberative process,” wrote Justice Jackson.
She oversaw the trial of Mr. Trump’s longtime adviser Roger J. Stone Jr. and one of the cases against Mr. Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort. Although Mr. Trump has publicly attacked Judge Jackson, legal experts say she acted as an impartial arbiter during the Russia investigation.
At the end of March, the judge also questioned the credibility of the Trump-era government’s description of the documents in a lawsuit against the Freedom of Information Act brought by New York. Times for some emails from the White House Budget Office related to Mr. Trump’s military aid freeze. in Ukraine, which led to his first arraignment.
The Justice Department argued that the emails were exempt from disclosure and filed affidavits under oath of their content by attorneys in the Office of Management and Budget during the Trump administration. But Judge Jackson insisted on reading the emails for herself and wrote that “the court found there were obvious differences between the deponents’ description of the nature and subject of the documents, and the documents themselves. themselves ”.
Charlie savage contribution to reports.