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Federal judge slams former AG Bill Barr over 'disingenuous' claims

Barr made specific claims in 2019 about whether Trump could be prosecuted for obstruction. According to a new court ruling, Barr's claims weren't true.

When it comes to the revelations from investigations into Donald Trump's Russia scandal, there are several key elements that have been substantiated. There's broad, bipartisan agreement, for example, on the fact that Trump's political operation in 2016 sought Russian assistance, embraced Russian assistance, capitalized on Russian assistance, and lied about Russian assistance.

But just as notable is a related fact, documented in detail by former Special Counsel Robert Mueller's probe: Trump's political operation also took steps to obstruct the investigation into Russian assistance.

Keep that in mind when reading this NBC News report from this morning:

A federal judge has ruled that former Attorney General William Barr was "disingenuous" about the process behind his decision to issue a memo clearing then-President Trump on obstruction of justice charges.

There's a lot to this one -- I hope you watched last night's A block -- so let's take a couple of minutes to unpack the significance of what happened yesterday.

When Mueller first prepared a report of his findings, then-Attorney General Bill Barr initially thought it'd be a good idea to release his own brief summary of the investigation's conclusions, rather than share the materials with the public directly. The Republican lawyer similarly believed the smart thing to do would be to a hold a press conference, putting a political spin on the special counsel's conclusions, before anyone could verify whether he was telling the truth or not.

As it turns out, he wasn't. Last year, in early March, Judge Reggie Walton -- a conservative jurist chosen for the bench by George W. Bush -- slammed the then-attorney general for his "lack of candor," while also calling out Barr's "distorted" and "misleading" account of Mueller's findings.

Yesterday, a second, related shoe fell when Judge Amy Berman Jackson concluded that Barr was also "disingenuous" with her on the question of why Donald Trump didn't face criminal charges -- specifically on the matter of obstruction of justice -- based on the evidence collected as part of the Mueller probe.

Remember, the special counsel's findings had two parts: The first examined Russia's efforts to target U.S. elections in the hopes of putting Trump in power, while the second documented several instances in which the then-Republican president took alleged steps to obstruct the investigation.

According to Barr, when he saw the second part of the Mueller report, he consulted with Justice Department attorneys and decided that Trump did not commit any crimes. It was an important declaration: the then-attorney general didn't say that Trump was in the clear because sitting presidents can't be indicted; Barr instead told the public that Trump wouldn't be charged anyway because he and the Justice Department lawyers agreed that the then-president's actions didn't run afoul of the law.

And this became a sticking point for a reason: exactly what guidance did Barr get from the attorneys at the Justice Department? Barr said that legal advice was a secret that couldn't be shared.

Yesterday, a dissatisfied federal judge said largely the opposite. Jackson ruled that the legal advice Barr pointed to wasn't real: what apparently happened was that the then-attorney general decided to give Trump a pass, and he then had the DOJ cook up an after-the-fact rationalization of the decision Barr had already made.

And attorneys general -- especially those caught in a lie -- can't hide made-up documents as if they constituted real, privileged legal guidance.

So what happens now? At issue is a memo from March 24, 2019, specifically on the matter of whether Trump obstructed justice. The judge in the case yesterday agreed that Barr not only took steps to "obfuscate the true purpose" of the memo, she also concluded that it's time to release the document to the public.

In theory, the under-new-management Justice Department can appeal yesterday's ruling -- perhaps as some kind of institutional matter -- but it also has the option of simply complying with the district court and releasing the memo about which was Barr was deceptive.

Watch this space.