WASHINGTON (CN) — A federal judge in Washington on Thursday ordered the Justice Department to provide him an unredacted copy of former Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report, citing Attorney General William Barr’s “lack of candor” in public descriptions of the document before it was released.
“The inconsistencies between Attorney General Barr’s statements, made at a time when the public did not have access to the redacted version of the Mueller report to assess the veracity of his statements, and portions of the redacted version of the Mueller report that conflict with those statements, cause the court to seriously question whether Attorney General Barr made a calculated attempt to influence public discourse about the Mueller report in favor of President Trump despite certain findings in the redacted version of the Mueller report to the contrary,” U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton wrote in a 23-page opinion Thursday.
Walton issued the ruling in a public records fight led by the Electronic Privacy Information Center and BuzzFeed journalist Jason Leopold that seeks to have the Justice Department publicly release a full, unredacted version of Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and allegations of coordination with the Trump campaign.
The George W. Bush appointee will not immediately release the report to the public. Instead, he will review the document behind closed doors to determine if the Justice Department improperly redacted any information under public records law.
Walton centered his opinion on Barr’s public statements leading up to the Mueller report’s much-anticipated release on April 18, 2019, and particularly on a March 24 letter summarizing the report’s findings Barr sent to the chairs and top Democrats on the House and Senate Judiciary committees.
Barr wrote in that letter that Mueller’s probe did not turn up evidence “the Trump campaign or anyone associated with it conspired or coordinated with Russia in its efforts to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election.”
In explaining Mueller’s decision not to make a traditional prosecutorial recommendation in the obstruction of justice portion of the report, Barr said in part that the evidence Mueller gathered “does not establish that the president was involved in an underlying crime related to Russian election interference.”
Walton said both statements were misleading at best, as the Mueller report did turn up evidence of contacts between people associated with the Trump campaign and Russia, even if not of a conspiracy as defined under federal criminal law. He also said Barr’s summary of the obstruction portion downplayed Mueller’s findings.
The special counsel said his team reached the decision on obstruction in part due to thorny constitutional questions surrounding the indictment of a sitting president and stated if the investigation had clearly shown Trump did not obstruct justice, he “would so state.”
Walton also took issue with a press conference Barr held immediately before the Justice Department released the Mueller report to the public that similarly downplayed the report’s findings and sought to explain away the obstruction section as Trump being “frustrated and angered by a sincere belief that the investigation was undermining his presidency, propelled by his political opponents and fueled by illegal leaks.”
Taken together, Walton said the apparent effort by Barr to soften the impact of the Mueller report raise questions about whether the Justice Department has properly claimed the redacted portions of the document are exempt from release under the Freedom of Information Act.
“Here, although it is with great consternation, true to the oath that the undersigned took upon becoming a federal judge, and the need for the American public to have faith in the judicial process, considering the record in this case, the court must conclude that the actions of Attorney General Barr and his representations about the Mueller report preclude the court’s acceptance of the validity of the department’s redactions without its independent verification,” Walton wrote.
Marc Rotenberg, president and executive director of EPIC, hailed the victory in a statement Thursday, citing the potential Russia tries to interfere in the looming 2020 election.
“EPIC will continue to seek the release of the complete, unredacted Mueller report particularly as much of the material withheld concerns Russian interference in the U.S. presidential elections,” Rotenberg said. “The intelligence community has made clear that will once again be an issue in the upcoming election.”
The Justice Department did not immediately return a request for comment on the ruling.