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Judge cites Barr’s ‘misleading’ statements in ordering review of Mueller report redactions

U.S. Attorney General William P. Barr speaks last month at the National Sheriffs’ Association Winter Legislative and Technology Conference in Washington. (Susan Walsh/AP)

A federal judge in Washington sharply criticized Attorney General William P. Barr on Thursday for a “lack of candor,” questioning the truthfulness of the nation’s top law enforcement official in his handling of last year’s report by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.

U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton, overseeing a lawsuit brought by EPIC, a watchdog group, and BuzzFeed News, said he saw serious discrepancies between Barr’s public statements about Mueller’s findings and the public, partially redacted version of that report detailing the special counsel’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Read Judge Reggie B. Walton’s opinion on the Justice Department’s handling of the Mueller report

Because of those discrepancies, Walton ruled, the judge would conduct an independent review of Mueller’s full report to see whether the Justice Department’s redactions were appropriate.

“In the Court’s view, Attorney General Barr’s representation that the Mueller Report would be ‘subject only to those redactions required by law or by compelling law enforcement, national security, or personal privacy interests’ cannot be credited without the Court’s independent verification in light of Attorney General Barr’s conduct and misleading public statements about the findings in the Mueller Report,” Walton wrote.

A spokeswoman for Barr declined to comment on the ruling.

It is highly unusual for a federal judge to publicly question the honesty of the attorney general, but Walton’s opinion comes amid growing rancor between the judicial branch of the government and the executive and legislative branches. Earlier on Thursday, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said he regretted comments he had made about two conservative Supreme Court justices — comments that drew a rare rebuke from Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. after many Republicans called them threatening. President Trump, meanwhile, has repeatedly attacked federal judges, drawing condemnation from Democrats.

Read the Mueller Report

Mueller’s lengthy two-part report detailed the findings of his investigation into whether anyone on the Trump campaign conspired with Russia to interfere in the 2016 election and whether Trump attempted to obstruct that investigation.

In March 2019, Barr issued a four-page letter describing what he called the principal conclusions of Mueller’s investigation, including that Mueller had decided not to make a “traditional prosecutorial judgment” about whether the president tried to obstruct justice. Barr said he examined the evidence and determined that Trump had not broken the law.

That letter frustrated Mueller, who complained to Barr that the attorney general’s description “did not fully capture the context, nature, and substance” of his team’s work and conclusions. At the time, Democrats accused Barr of soft-pedaling Mueller’s findings to discourage Congress from taking up a possible impeachment case against Trump for obstruction.

Mueller complained Barr’s letter did not fully capture his findings

In his 23-page opinion, Walton said he had “grave concerns about the objectivity of the process” that led up to the public release of the Mueller report. “The Court cannot reconcile certain public representations made by Attorney General Barr with the findings in the Mueller Report,” he wrote. “These circumstances generally, and Attorney General Barr’s lack of candor specifically, call into question Attorney General Barr’s credibility.”

The judge said he would not take Justice Department lawyers at their word that redactions in the report were all done for appropriate reasons.

EPIC announced the judge’s decision in a news release and on social media, joined by BuzzFeed reporter Jason Leopold, who tweeted, “This is what we hoped for!”

Walton’s decision is the latest indication of growing concern among federal judges in Washington about politicization at the Justice Department.

Last month, another federal judge in the same courthouse, Amy Berman Jackson, sentenced Trump’s longtime friend Roger Stone to more than three years in prison, following an internal fight among Barr, his deputies and career prosecutors over what sentence to recommend in that case.

Thursday’s opinion was not the first time Walton, appointed a U.S. district judge in 2001 by President George W. Bush, has criticized Barr and the Justice Department’s leadership under his tenure.

At a court hearing in the same case in April, Walton said Barr “has created an environment that has caused a significant part of the public … to be concerned about whether or not there is full transparency.”

Separately, in October, Walton called on U.S. prosecutors either to charge former acting FBI director Andrew McCabe or to drop their long-running investigation into whether he lied to investigators about a media disclosure, saying their indecision was undermining the credibility of the Justice Department by creating the appearance that it was hounding one of Trump’s enemies.

At a hearing Feb. 14, Walton noted that Trump’s repeated personal attacks on McCabe raised concerns about the motives behind the investigation of the former FBI official. “I just think it’s a banana republic when we go down that road and we have those type of statements being made that are conceivably, even if not, influencing the ultimate decision. I think there are a lot of people on the outside who perceive that there is undue inappropriate pressure being brought to bear,” Walton, said.

He added later, “I think as a government and as a society we’re going to pay a price at some point for this.”