Federal judge rebukes William Barr for 'misleading the public'

Attorney General William Barr made a "calculated attempt" to influence public opinion regarding the Mueller report, said U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton Thursday, and ordered an un-redacted version of the report to be released.

Susan Walsh/AP
Attorney General William Barr's handling of the Mueller report was bluntly criticized by a federal judge on Thursday. Above, Mr. Barr speaks at the National Sheriffs' Association Winter Legislative and Technology Conference in Washington on Feb. 10, 2020.

A federal judge on Thursday sharply rebuked Attorney General William Barr's handling of the special counsel's Russia report, saying Mr. Barr had made "misleading public statements" to spin the investigation's findings in favor of President Donald Trump and had shown a "lack of candor."

U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton, an appointee of President George W. Bush, delivered the criticism in a 23-page order in which he directed the Justice Department to provide him with an unredacted version of the report so that he could decide if any additional information from the document could be publicly disclosed.

The scolding was unusually blunt, with Mr. Walton saying Mr. Barr had appeared to make a "calculated attempt" to influence public opinion about the report in ways favorable to Mr. Trump. The rebuke tapped into lingering criticism of Mr. Barr, from Democrats in Congress and special counsel Robert Mueller himself, that he had misrepresented some of the investigation's most damaging findings.

The Justice Department released a 448-page redacted version of Mr. Mueller's report in April, which examined ties between Russia and the 2016 presidential campaign and potential obstruction of justice by the president. BuzzFeed News and the Electronic Privacy Information Center later sued under the Freedom of Information Act for access to the entire document.

In his ruling, Mr. Walton said he needed to review the entire document itself because he could not trust that the Justice Department's redactions of the report were made properly and in good faith. The judge said it would be "disingenuous" to presume the redactions were "not tainted by Attorney General Barr's actions and representations" throughout the process.

The New York Times reported

“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 Walton wrote.

The actions cited by the judge include Mr. Barr's release last March of a four-page summary of Mr. Mueller's findings. The letter said that Mr. Mueller had found insufficient evidence to establish a criminal conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia to tip the 2016 election, and that Mr. Mueller had not reached a determination on the question of whether the president had obstructed justice.

Mr. Mueller complained to Mr. Barr in a private letter and phone call that he had not adequately captured the seriousness of his report's conclusions. Mr. Mueller stressed in his report, and in later public statements, that he did not exonerate the president and that it was not an option to charge Mr. Trump because of longstanding Justice Department policy that sitting presidents cannot be indicted.

Mr. Barr has defended his handling of the report, calling Mr. Mueller's letter to him "a bit snitty." He said it was his prerogative as attorney general to produce a quick summary of the report, which he referred to as "my baby," while his staff spent weeks on redactions.

In his opinion on Thursday, the judge said he struggled to reconcile Mr. Barr's public characterizations of the report – which included his statement that Mr. Mueller found "no collusion" between the Trump campaign and Russia – with what the document actually said.

Those inconsistencies, Mr. Walton wrote, "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."

This story was reported by The Associated Press with additional information provided by The New York Times. 

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