WASHINGTON – A federal judge blasted the Trump Justice Department for misleading the court about the nature of its internal deliberations before concluding that then-President Donald Trump had not obstructed former special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson ordered the release of a 2019 legal memorandum to a government accountability group, ruling the document prepared for then-Attorney General William Barr as he considered his decision did not qualify as protected attorney-client communications.
In the ruling, Jackson characterized the memo as a “strategic” document, asserting that Justice Department officials had come to a predetermined conclusion that Trump would not be charged with obstruction of justice.
“In other words, the review of the document reveals that the Attorney General was not then engaged in making a decision about whether the President should be charged with obstruction of justice; the fact that he would not be prosecuted was a given,” Jackson ruled.
The memo had been requested by the group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington under the Freedom of Information Act.
Mueller report:Investigation found no evidence Trump conspired with Russia, leaves obstruction question open
Jackson, who presided over Mueller prosecutions involving former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort and political adviser Roger Stone, also aimed scathing criticism at Barr for his handling of the Mueller report, citing the attorney general’s decision to issue a brief summary of its findings only days after receiving the voluminous 448-page report.
“The Attorney General’s characterization of what he’d hardly had time to skim, much less, study closely, prompted an immediate reaction, as politicians and pundits took to their microphones and Twitter feeds to decry what they feared was an attempt to hide the ball,” the judge wrote in an exceedingly rare admonishment of an attorney general and the Justice Department.
“Even the customarily taciturn Special Counsel was moved to pen an extraordinary public rebuke on March 27,” the judge wrote, referring to a 2019 letter Mueller wrote to Barr.
In the letter, Mueller said Barr’s summary “did not fully capture the context, nature, and substance of this Office’s work and conclusions.”
“There is now public confusion about critical aspects of the results of our investigation,” Mueller wrote then. “This threatens to undermine the central purpose for which the Department appointed the Special Counsel: to assure full public confidence in the outcome of the investigations.”
The decision by Barr and senior Justice Department leaders to clear the former president of obstruction prompted Trump to declare that he had been vindicated even though Mueller had not made such a declaration.
What the FOIA requested
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington filed a public records request seeking communications about the obstruction decision after Barr said that he and other senior officials had reached that conclusion in consultation with the Office of Legal Counsel, which provides legal opinions to executive branch agencies.
Jackson ruled that one of the documents requested by the group, described by a Justice Department official as an “untitled, undated draft legal analysis” that was submitted to the attorney general as part of his decision-making, was properly withheld from the group.
But she ordered the release of the memo, which concluded that the evidence assembled by Mueller’s team would not support an obstruction prosecution of Trump.
A spokesperson for Barr did not immediately respond to an inquiry.
The Justice Department has until May 17 to challenge the ruling.