When Robert Mueller completed his investigation into the Russia scandal a few years ago, the special counsel’s findings had two parts. The first examined Russia’s efforts to target U.S. elections in the hopes of putting Donald Trump in power, while the second documented the many instances in which the then-Republican president took alleged steps to obstruct the investigation.
All of this, of course, was submitted to the then-attorney general, Bill Barr, whom Trump had tapped for the job, and who had played a direct role in politicizing the Justice Department on the White House’s behalf.
According to Barr, when he saw the second part of the Mueller report, he reviewed the evidence, consulted with Justice Department attorneys, and decided that Trump had not committed any crimes. As we’ve discussed, 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, after a careful analysis, agreed that the then-president’s actions didn’t run afoul of the law.
There was even a Justice Department memo about this on March 24, 2019, specifically on the matter of whether Trump obstructed justice.
“The [Justice] Department’s submissions, the court explained, indicated that the memorandum conveyed advice about whether to charge the President with a crime. But the court’s in camera review of the memorandum revealed that the [Justice] Department in fact never considered bringing a charge.”
In other words, the judiciary was able to review the Justice Department memo from March 24, 2019, and it knows that Barr’s claims about its contents weren’t true. The Republican said the DOJ attorneys considered whether to charge Trump with obstruction, and concluded that the facts didn’t warrant it, when in reality they “never considered” the possibility.
What I find especially amazing about this is the number of times Barr has received legal rebukes for his deceptions.
Circling back to our earlier coverage, let’s not forget that when Barr first received Mueller’s report, the then-attorney general 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 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. In 2020, 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.
Last year, it happened again when Judge Amy Berman Jackson concluded that Barr was also “disingenuous“ with her on the question of why 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.
Indeed, in those proceedings, the judge wanted to know exactly what guidance Barr received from Justice Department attorneys. Barr said that legal advice constituted internal deliberations over a prosecutorial decision, and therefore couldn’t be shared.
Jackson, unsatisfied, came to the opposite conclusion, ruling 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.
Late last week, a three-judge panel on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with Jackson.
All of this matters in the interest of accountability — there’s still some debate over the details of the Russia scandal and Mueller’s findings, so Barr’s public deceptions remain relevant — and also in terms of upcoming disclosures. In fact, in light of Friday’s ruling, we’re now more likely to actually see the hidden memo from March 24, 2019.
That said, the Justice Department, in pursuit of institutional interests, may yet appeal the ruling. Watch this space.