Russia investigative memo wrongly withheld under Barr, court rules

The Justice Department under Attorney General William Barr improperly withheld portions of an internal memo cited by Barr to announce that then-President Donald Trump did not obstruct justice in the Russia Survey, a federal appeals panel said Friday.

The department had argued that the 2019 memo represented the private deliberations of its lawyers before any decision was formalized, and was therefore exempt from disclosure. A federal judge previously disagreed, ordering the Ministry of Justice to provide it to a government transparency group that had sued for it.

The matter at issue in the case is a March 24, 2019 memorandum from the head of the Justice Department’s office of legal counsel and another senior departmental official that was prepared for Barr to assess whether the evidence in the Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation could bolster charges against the president. for obstruction of justice.

Barr said he relied on that opinion in concluding that Trump did not unlawfully obstruct the Russia investigation, which was aimed at determining whether his campaign colluded with Russia to swing the US election. 2016.

A year later, a federal judge sharply reprimanded Barr’s handling of Mueller’s report, saying Barr made ‘misleading public statements’ to spin the findings of the investigation in Trump’s favor and had shown a “lack of candor”.

Friday’s appeals court ruling said the Justice Department’s internal memo noted that “Mueller declined to charge President Trump with obstructing justice, but also declined to exonerate him.” The internal memo said the report’s “failure to take a definitive position could be construed to imply an accusation against President Trump” if made public, the court wrote.

The Justice Department gave other documents to Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington as part of the group’s lawsuit, but refused to give it the memo. Government lawyers said they had the right under the Public Records Act to withhold the memo because it reflected internal deliberations before a formal decision was made on it. Mueller’s evidence showed.

Sitting presidents are generally protected from criminal prosecution on the grounds that it would compromise their ability to perform the constitutional duties of office. The Justice Department, like Mueller, “took it for granted that the Constitution would bar the prosecution of a sitting president,” the appeals court wrote, meaning the decision that Trump not be indicted had already been taken and could not be taken. from public disclosure.

Had Justice Department officials made it clear in court that the memo tied to Barr’s decision to make a public statement about the report, the appeals panel wrote, the decisions in the case might have been different.

“Because the Department did not tie the memorandum to the relevant decision deliberations, the Department failed to justify its reliance on deliberative process privilege,” the US Court of Appeals panel of judges wrote. United for the District of Columbia circuit.

The appeals judges also noted that their decision was “narrow”, saying it should not be interpreted as “challenging any of our precedents allowing agencies to withhold draft documents related to public messaging “.

Attorneys for the Justice Department did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment. The department can appeal the decision to the full court of appeal.

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Meg Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP.

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Associated Press writer Eric Tucker contributed to this report.

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