(CNN)A federal judge’s ruling this week ordering the release of a redacted Justice Department memo recommending that former President Donald Trump should not be charged with obstruction of justice could place new scrutiny on then-Attorney General William Barr’s handling of the Mueller investigation.
The memo, if released, would likely provide fodder to Barr’s critics who charge that the attorney general actively distorted the findings of the former special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation in an effort to protect Trump, or even fuel accusations that he lied to Congress.
The Justice Department has until May 17 to decide whether it will appeal or release the memo.
In the 35-page opinion, Judge Amy Berman Jackson of the DC District Court revisited how Barr orchestrated his rollout of Mueller’s findings and called him “disingenuous,” saying that he wasn’t using the legal advice supposedly contained in the memo because he had already decided not to prosecute Trump.
Jackson wrote that the contents of the redacted memo show the decision not to prosecute Trump had already been made when Barr received the recommendation from the Office of Legal Counsel. But Barr told Congress that the decision not to indict Trump on obstruction of Justice was made in consultation with OLC.
The memo Jackson ordered released could reveal more about the “strategy” Barr and his team thought through as Barr wrote the four-page summary to Congress about what Mueller found two days after his investigation ended. The judge’s opinion, at this point, still redacts significant pieces of her findings and what is written in the memo.
Jackson rejected the Justice Department’s arguments to keep secret the heavily redacted March 2019 memo to Barr about charging Trump with obstruction, arguing that the document was partly strategic planning instead of legal reasoning.
Jackson concluded that the redacted memo showed that it was drafted even though the decision not to prosecute Trump had already been settled, suggesting Barr misled lawmakers and the public about the decision not to charge Trump with obstruction of justice. The opinion included emails showing that Justice Department officials were drafting the memo on obstruction at the same time as the four-page letter Barr sent to Congress summarizing Mueller’s findings.
“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,” Jackson wrote.
The significance of the memo
The Mueller probe thoroughly investigated multiple episodes where Trump tried to impede or end the special counsel’s inquiry into his campaign’s ties to Russia. But Mueller did not make a decision about whether to prosecute Trump, leaving that decision to Barr and his top political appointees.
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