Washington: A US federal judge has accused the Justice Department under former attorney-general William Barr of misleading her and Congress about advice he had received on whether former president Donald Trump should have been charged with obstructing the Russia investigation.
Judge Amy Berman Jackson of the US District Court in Washington said in a ruling late on Monday (Tuesday AEST) that the department’s obfuscation appeared to be part of a pattern in which top officials like Barr were untruthful to Congress and the public about the investigation.
Then attorney-general William Barr, left, used the power of the Justice Department to support Donald Trump.Credit:AP
She ordered that a related advice document be released. The department had argued the memo was exempt from public records laws because it consisted of private advice from lawyers whom Barr had relied on to make the call on prosecuting Trump. But Jackson, who was appointed by president Barack Obama in 2011, ruled the memo contained strategic advice, and that Barr and his aides already understood what his decision would be.
“The fact that he would not be prosecuted was a given,” Jackson wrote of Trump.
She also singled out Barr for how he had spun the investigation’s findings in a letter summarising the 448-page report before it was released, which allowed Trump to claim he had been exonerated.
“The attorney-general’s characterisation 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.
A US federal judge has sharply rebuked Attorney-General William Barr’s handling of Robert Mueller’s Russia report.Credit:AP
Her rebuke shed new light on Barr’s decision not to prosecute Trump. She also wrote that although the department portrayed the advice memo as a legal document protected by attorney-client privilege, it was done in concert with Barr’s publicly released summary, “written by the very same people at the very same time.”
A spokesperson for Barr did not return an email seeking comment. A Justice Department spokesperson declined to comment.
Jackson said that the government had until May 17 to decide whether it planned to appeal her ruling, a decision that will be made by a Justice Department run by Biden appointees.
The ruling came in a lawsuit by a government watchdog group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, asking that the Justice Department be ordered to turn over a range of documents related to how top law enforcement officials cleared Trump of wrongdoing.
At issue is how Barr handled the end of the Mueller investigation and the release of its findings to the public. In March 2019, the office of the special counsel overseeing the inquiry, Robert Mueller, delivered its report to the Justice Department. In a highly unusual decision, Mueller declined to make a determination about whether Trump had illegally obstructed justice.
That opened the door for Barr to take control of the investigation. Two days after receiving the report, Barr sent a four-page letter to Congress saying that Trump would not be charged with obstructing justice and summarising the report. Mueller’s team believed that Barr’s characterisation of the document was misleading and privately urged him to release more of their findings, but Barr refused.
About a month later, around the time that the report was released to the public, Barr testified to Congress that he had made the decision not to charge Trump “in consultation with the Office of Legal Counsel and other department lawyers,” and that the decision to clear the president of wrongdoing had been left to Barr because Mueller had made no determination about whether Trump broke the law.
Jackson said in the ruling that Barr had been disingenuous in those assertions, adding that it had not been left to him to make the decision about the prosecution.
The New York Times
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