Federal District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson yesterday issued a 35-page opinion (exclusive of attachments) rejecting the claims of the Department of Justice that it can withhold a memorandum behind then-Attorney General Barr’s attempt to whitewash the Mueller Report. Citizens For Responsibility and Ethics in Washington v. U.S. Department Of Justice, Civil Action No. 19-1552 (DC DC May3, 2021). [Note: bolding of text is mine]
You may recall that, as brilliantly reported by Judge Jackson, and at the risk of giving away the conclusion,
On Friday, March 22, 2019, Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller, III delivered his Report of the Investigation into Russian Interference in the 2016 Presidential Election to the then-Attorney General of the United States, William P. Barr.
But the Attorney General did not share it with anyone else.
Instead, before the weekend was over, he sent a letter to congressional leaders purporting to “summarize the principal conclusions” set out in the Report, compressing the approximately 200 highly detailed and painstakingly footnoted pages of Volume I – which discusses the Russian government’s interference in the election and any links or coordination with the Trump campaign – and the almost 200 equally detailed pages of Volume II – which concerns acts taken by then- President Trump in connection with the investigation – into less than four pages. The letter asserted that the Special Counsel “did not draw a conclusion – one way or the other – as to whether the examined conduct constituted obstruction,” and it went on to announce the Attorney General’s own opinion that “the evidence developed during the Special Counsel’s investigation is not sufficient to establish that the President committed an obstruction-of-justice offense.”
The President then declared himself to have been fully 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.
When, almost a month later, Barr presented the Mueller Report to Congress, “He asserted that he and the Deputy Attorney General reached the conclusion he had announced in the March 24 letter “in consultation with the Office of Legal Counsel and other Department lawyers.” CREW immediately filed Freedom of Information Act requests for any documents related to those consultations. Predictably, DOJ resisted, citing exemptions from disclosure based on “deliberative process” and “attorney-client privilege.”
At issue then before the Court were two memoranda to the Attorney General. The DOJ justification for withholding the first one, the Judge noted, was poor, but the Judge conducted an in camera [private, in chambers] review of the document and gave DOJ a helping hand:
there was a particular, immediate decision under review to which the document pertained, that it also addressed another specific issue that was likely to arise as a consequence of the determination made with respect to the first, and that the entire memorandum was deliberative with respect to those decisions.
Judge Berman therefore held that document need not be disclosed to CREW.
The other document, however, was another cup of joe entirely. It was dated just two days after Mueller gave Barr the report and “specifically addresses the subject matter of the letter transmitted to Congress.” Most of the document is redacted in the Judge’s opinion but she also conducted, over DOJ’s strenuous objections, an in camerareview of that document.
Noting first CREW’s objections to the timeline represented by DOJ attorneys:
DOJ’s . . . arguments rest on the demonstrably false proposition that the memo was submitted to the Attorney General to assist him in making a legitimate decision on whether to initiate or decline prosecution of the President for obstructing justice . . . . [H]owever, the Special Counsel already had made final prosecutorial judgments and the time for the Attorney General to challenge those judgments had passed. Whatever the contents of the March 24, 2019 OLC memo, it was not part of a deliberation about whether or not to prosecute the President….
The absence of a pending decision for the Attorney General to make necessarily means the memo did not make a recommendation or express an opinion on a legitimate legal or policy matter. Instead, it was part of a larger campaign initiated by Attorney General Barr to undermine the Special Counsel’s report and rehabilitate the President . . . .”
The Judge concluded:
the redacted portions of Section I reveal that both the authors and the recipient of the memorandum had a shared understanding concerning whether prosecuting the President was a matter to be considered at all. In other words, the review of the document reveals that the Attorney General was not then engaged in making a decision about whether the President should be charged with obstruction of justice; the fact that he would not be prosecuted was a given.
In a footnote, most of which is redacted, the Judge noted, “DOJ made a strategic decision to pretend as if the first portion of the memorandum was not there.” Ooof.
Similarly, Judge Jackson later observed,
the in camera review of the document, which DOJ strongly resisted …. raises serious questions about how the Department of Justice could make this series of representations to a court in support of its 2020 motion for summary judgment
summary judgment may be granted on the basis of agency affidavits in FOIA cases, when “they are not called into question by contradictory evidence in the record or by evidence of agency bad faith.” … But here, we have both.
Noting a previous court opinion (the EPIC case) that found,
The speed by which Attorney General Barr released to the public the summary of Special Counsel Mueller’s principal conclusions, coupled with the fact that Attorney General Barr failed to provide a thorough representation of the findings set forth in the Mueller Report, causes the Court to question whether Attorney General Barr’s intent was to create a one-sided narrative about the Mueller Report – a narrative that is clearly in some respects substantively at odds with the redacted version of the Mueller Report.
Judge Jackson found,
the [DOJ] affidavits are so inconsistent with evidence in the record, they are not worthy of credence.
the suspicions voiced by the judge in EPIC and the plaintiff here were well-founded, and that not only was the Attorney General being disingenuous then, but DOJ 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. The agency’s redactions and incomplete explanations obfuscate the true purpose of the memorandum, and the excised portions belie the notion that it fell to the Attorney General to make a prosecution decision or that any such decision was on the table at any time.
A close review of the communications reveals that the March 24 letter to Congress describing the Special Counsel’s report, which assesses the strength of an obstruction-of-justice case, and the “predecisional” March 24 memorandum advising the Attorney General that [redacted text] the evidence does not support a prosecution, are being written by the very same people at the very same time.
As to the claim of attorney-client privilege, Judge Jackson was equally incisive and for similar reasons:
… since the memorandum was being written at the same time and by the same people who were drafting the Attorney General’s letter to Congress setting forth his views on the basis for a prosecution, and the record reflects that the priority was to get the letter completed first … one simply cannot credit the declarant’s statement that the Attorney General made the “decision” he announced based on the advice the memo contains.
The Court emphasizes that its decision turns upon the application of well-settled legal principles to a unique set of circumstances that include the misleading and incomplete explanations offered by the agency, the contemporaneous materials in the record, and the variance between the Special Counsel’s report and the Attorney General’s summary.
These devastating (for the DOJ attorneys) findings confirm the suspicions that I and many other expressed at the time that the fix was in at the Barr Justice Department and that Barr was acting more as personal counsel to Trump than doing his job as Attorney General of the United States.
Judge Jackson gave DOJ until May 17 to move for a stay pending appeal, but it is unlikely that AG Merrick Garland is going to do anything to resist the force of Judge Jackson’s definitive analysis. Stay tuned. The release of an unredacted version of the Judge’s opinion will be an explosive eye-opener about the extent of corruption in the Trump-Barr Justice Department.