A federal judge in Washington accused the Justice Department under Attorney General William P. Barr of misleading her and Congress about advice he had received from top officials on whether President Donald J. related memo was released.
Judge Amy Berman Jackson of the United States District Court in Washington said in a statement It emerged late Monday that the Justice Department embezzlement appeared to be part of a pattern in which top officials such as Mr. Barr were unfair to Congress and the public about the investigation.
The department had argued that the memo was exempt from public record laws because it consisted of private advice from attorneys Mr. Barr relied on to make the call to prosecute Mr. Trump. But Judge Jackson, appointed by President Barack Obama in 2011, ruled that the memo contained strategic advice and that Mr. Barr and his aides already understood what his decision would be.
"The fact that he would not be prosecuted was a given," Judge Jackson wrote of Mr. Trump.
She mentioned Mr. Barr also distorted the investigation's findings in a letter summarizing the 448-page report before it was released, leading Mr. Trump could claim he had been acquitted.
The attorney general's characterization of what he had barely had time to shine, let alone study closely, provoked an immediate response as politicians and pundits used their microphones and Twitter feeds to denounce what they feared an attempt to hide the ball, disapproved. ”Wrote Judge Jackson.
Her reprimand shed new light on Mr. Barr's decision not to prosecute Mr. Trump. She also wrote that although the department portrayed the advisory memo as a legal document protected by attorney and client privilege, it was done in accordance with Mr. Barr's publicly released summary, & # 39; written by the same people at same time & # 39 ;.
A spokeswoman for Mr. Barr did not return an email asking for comment. A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment.
Judge Jackson said the government had until May 17 to decide whether it intended to appeal its ruling, a decision to be made by a Justice Department headed by Biden appointees.
The ruling came in a lawsuit brought by a government watchdog group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, which asked that the Justice Department be ordered to hand in a series of documents regarding how top law enforcement officials acquitted Trump of wrongdoing.
It's about how Mr. Barr handled the end of the Mueller investigation and the publication of his findings to the public. In March 2019, the office of the special counsel overseeing the investigation, Robert S. Mueller III, delivered his report to the Department of Justice. In a highly unusual decision, Mr. Mueller declined to make a decision as to whether Mr. Trump had unlawfully obstructed justice.
That opened the door for Mr. Barr to take over the investigation. Two days after receiving the report, Mr. Barr sent a four-page letter to Congress saying that Mr. Trump would not be charged with obstructing justice and that he summarized the report. Mr. Mueller's team believed that Mr. Barr's characterization of the document was misleading and personally urged him to release more of their findings, but Mr. Barr declined.
About a month later, around the time the report was made public, Mr. Barr testified before Congress that he had made the decision not to impeach Mr. Trump "in consultation with the Office of Legal Counsel and other division attorneys." and that the decision to release the president from misconduct was left to Mr. Barr because Mr. Mueller had not decided whether Mr. Trump was breaking the law.
Judge Jackson said in the ruling that Mr. Barr had been unfair in those allegations, adding that it was not up to him to make the decision about the prosecution.
She also said that in the lawsuit between the government and Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, the Justice Department under Mr. Barr had claimed that the memo, written by his top officials, was about legal advice he had relied on for the decision and should be shielded from the public.
Under federal law, the Department of Justice can argue that such advice should be foreclosed on the grounds that it is 'deliberative' and the ability to release it could deter advisers from giving their unvarnished counsel, fearing it could one day become public. will be.
But instead, Judge Jackson wrote, Mr. Barr and his aides had already decided not to press charges against Mr. Trump. She chided the department for portraying the memo as part of deliberations on whether or not to prosecute the president. She noted that she should have read the entire memo before making any decision, despite objections from the Justice Department, and that it showed that “ cut-out sections contradict the idea that it should be given to the Attorney General ''. was to make a prosecution decision or whether such a decision was on the table at any time. "
The department "has been unfair to this court regarding the existence of a decision-making process that must be shielded by the privilege of deliberative trial," Judge Jackson wrote.
She oversaw the trial of longtime adviser Roger J. Stone Jr. of Mr Trump and one of the cases against Paul Manafort, Mr Trump's former campaign chairman. While Mr Trump has publicly assaulted Judge Jackson, legal experts say she acted as an unbiased referee during the Russia investigation.
In late March, the judge similarly challenged the credibility of the Trump-era administration's description of documents in a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by The New York Times for certain emails from the White. House on the budget office in connection with Mr Trump's freezing of military aid. to Ukraine, which led to his first impeachment.
The Justice Department argued that the emails were exempt from disclosure and made affidavits of their content by Office of Management and Budget attorneys during the Trump administration. But Judge Jackson insisted on reading the emails himself, writing that "the court found that there were marked differences between the affiliates' description of the nature and subject matter of the documents and the documents themselves."
Charlie Savage contributed reporting.