Federal appeals judges ruled on Friday that Attorney General William Barr’s Justice Department improperly withheld information from the internal memorandum he used to announce that President Trump did not obstruct justice in the Russia investigation.
The department claimed that the 2019 memo contained confidential discussions among its lawyers prior to the formalization of any decision and was, therefore, exempt from disclosure. In the past, a federal judge disagreed and ordered the Justice Department to provide it to a government transparency group that had sued for it, prompting an appeal by the Biden administration to a higher court in 2016.
When asked for comment on the ruling, attorneys from the Justice Department did not immediately respond to an email from former Attorney General William Barr (MICHAEL REYNOLDS/). The agency may seek review of the decision by the full court.
There is a dispute over a memorandum from the head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) and another senior department official dated March 24, 2019, which was prepared for Barr to assess whether evidence from special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation could support an obstruction of justice prosecution of the president.
Barr has said he relied on that assessment in reaching his conclusion that Trump did not illegally obstruct the Russia investigation.
In response to Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington’s lawsuit, the Justice Department released other documents but withheld the memo. In their legal brief, government attorneys claimed they were within their rights to withhold the memo under public records law because it reflected discussions among lawyers before a final decision was made based on Mueller’s evidence.
On July 24, 2019, the House Judiciary Committee heard testimony from former special counsel Robert Mueller at a hearing on his report on Russian interference in the 2018 midterm elections. Author: (Susan Walsh/)
In a ruling from last year, U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson called these claims “disingenuous” because the memo was written for Barr around the same time that a separate Justice Department letter informed Congress and the public that Barr and other senior department leaders concluded that Trump had not obstructed justice.
If the Justice Department had already decided there would be no obstruction case, the memo, she argued, could not have been “predecisional” in nature.
Since Justice Department legal opinions state that a sitting president cannot be indicted, the government said it had already concluded there would be no obstruction prosecution. However, the memo addressed a different issue, namely whether or not the evidence gathered by Mueller was sufficient to conclude that Trump had obstructed justice.
As seen in this undated file photo from the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan, President Donald Trump (right) and Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) shake hands. Author: (Susan Walsh/)
In its ruling on Friday, the appellate panel stated that the court’s decision may have been different if Justice Department officials had made it clear that the memo related to Barr’s decision on making a public statement about the report.
The unsigned ruling came from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit and stated, “because the Department did not tie the memorandum to deliberations about the relevant decision, the Department failed to justify its reliance on the deliberative-process privilege.”
Barr and other high-ranking officials came to the conclusion that Trump’s actions did not constitute obstruction, which the attorney general promptly relayed to Congress. The investigation team led by Mueller did not decide whether or not Trump obstructed justice.
To further emphasize the “narrow” scope of their decision, the appellate court emphasized that their decision does not “call into question any of our precedents permitting agencies to withhold draft documents related to public messaging.”
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