A federal judge has ruled that former Attorney General William Barr was “disingenuous” about the process behind his decision to issue a memo clearing then-President Trump on obstruction of justice charges.
At issue is a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit seeking, among other things, a Justice Department memo that Barr said helped guide his decision to declare that the evidence described in special counsel Robert Mueller's report on his investigation into Trump did not support a charge of obstruction, even leaving aside the policy against indicting a sitting president.
The DOJ had refused to give the March 24, 2019, memorandum to a government transparency group, saying the document represented the private advice of lawyers — before any formal decision had been made — and was therefore exempt from disclosure.
In a ruling issued this week, U.S. District for the District of Columbia Judge Amy Berman Jackson said the memo should be released because it did not fit the exemption for “deliberative” documents under the law.
In so doing, she called Barr’s credibility into question, and criticized the process under which he quickly issued a summary of the Mueller report that plaintiffs said appeared designed to “create a narrative to counter the special counsel’s findings and cast the President in the most positive light possible.”
Barr could not immediately be reached for comment.
Jackson, a Democratic appointee who presided over criminal trials of Trump associates Roger Stone and Paul Manafort, described a process under which Barr and other top Justice Deptartment officials quickly decided what conclusions they wanted to reach about the report Mueller, which was given to them before it was released to the public.
Simultaneously, she said, they drafted a legal memo justifying the decision.
The memorandum, she noted, “was being written at the same time and by the same people who were drafting the Attorney General’s letter to Congress setting forth his views on the basis for a prosecution.”
Therefore, she said, “one simply cannot credit the declarant’s statement that the Attorney General made the ‘decision’ he announced based on the advice the memo contains.”
Barr’s four-page memo was the first public glimpse of what the Mueller report said, and it shaped the narrative in the four weeks before the full report was made public.
Jackson appeared to join critics, including Mueller himself, who have said that Barr’s letter was not a fair and accurate summary.
“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,” Jackson wrote.
The lawsuit was brought by an activist group known as Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. Jackson said the DOJ has until May 17 to file a motion
The judge said the Justice Department has until May 17 to file a motion to stay the order to release the memo.