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 department officials on whether President Donald J. Trump should have been charged with obstructing the Russia investigation and ordered that a related memo be released.
Judge Amy Berman Jackson of the United States District Court in Washington said in a ruling late Monday that the Justice Department’s obfuscation appeared to be part of a pattern in which top officials like Mr. Barr were untruthful to Congress and the public about the investigation….
“The fact that he would not be prosecuted was a given,” Judge Jackson wrote of Mr. Trump.
She also singled out Mr. Barr for how he had spun the investigation’s findings in a letter summarizing the 448-page report before it was released, which allowed Mr. Trump to claim he had been exonerated.
“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,” Judge Jackson wrote.…
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 Mr. Barr’s publicly released summary, “written by the very same people at the very same time.”…
A spokeswoman for Mr. Barr did not return an email seeking comment. A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment.
Judge 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….
At issue is how Mr. 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 S. Mueller III, delivered its report to the Justice Department. In a highly unusual decision, Mr. Mueller declined to make a determination about whether Mr. Trump had illegally obstructed justice.
That opened the door for Mr. Barr to take control of 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 summarizing the report. Mr. Mueller’s team believed that Mr. Barr’s characterization of the document was misleading and privately urged him to release more of their findings, but Mr. Barr refused.
About a month later, around the time that the report was released to the public, Mr. Barr testified to Congress that he had made the decision not to charge Mr. 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 Mr. Barr because Mr. Mueller had made no determination about whether Mr. Trump broke the law.
Judge Jackson said in the ruling that Mr. Barr had been disingenuous in those assertions, adding that it had not been left to him to make the decision about the prosecution.
The department “has been disingenuous to this court with respect to the existence of a decision-making process that should be shielded by the deliberative process privilege,” Judge Jackson wrote.